Egypt: A Christian minority where Islam is the state religion
An interview with Patriarch Antonius Naguib the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt.
Egypt has a population of over 77 million with 90% of the population belonging to the Muslim faith, but the country also has one of the largest and oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. It traces its history back to St. Mark who first evangelized in Egypt in the 1st century. In fact, the Church is often referred to as the Church of St. Mark. There are three main Christian communities in Egypt: The Coptic Orthodox, the Coptic Catholics and the Coptic Evangelicals or Protestant communities. Patriarch Antonius Naguib is Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt.
Q) You were born in Minya, in Egypt in 1935. Did you come from a deeply religious family?
A) Yes, indeed. We were in a city called Beni Suef, related to Minya and the family was very near to the Church and very close to the church and I was used to attending Mass and celebrations since my infancy, with my parents, brothers and sisters.
Q) What were the deepest or most important values instilled in you by your parents as a child?
A) They were honesty, prayer and to do our own duty towards God, to one another and to love one another and to be open towards the others. At that time the relationship between neighbours, between Christians and Muslims and the other Christians from the other Churches were very close.
Q) You were ordained a priest at the age of 25, which means that you must have entered the Seminary at a rather tender age?
A) Yes, I entered the minor Seminary at the age of nine and then I continued until the time I had to decide whether I would enter the university or the senior Seminary to study philosophy and Theology. My parents, at this stage, left me completely free to decide.
Q) They didn’t persuade or dissuade in any way?
A) My parents always told me: If you want to go to the university, we will pay your studies, but it is up to you. It is up to you standing before God.
Q) As the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church many Catholics in Egypt would almost see you as the Pope - if we could make that comparison. How do you see your role?
A) Yes and no. Yes, from the point of point of view that the Patriarch of each Oriental Church is the head of that Church, but in the Catholic Oriental Church, we are united with Rome and this means that we are not the main authority and we follow the hierarchy of the Pope of Rome. We belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, you could say that we are a “Pope” or the head of our Churches; but we are not the main authority.
Q) How do you see your role in Egypt?
A) The Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt has three roles. First of all, he is the head of the Coptic Catholic Church and the seven dioceses. He also has the role of coordinating and animating the Church. He also has the role of speaking on behalf of the Church together with the other bishops because the Oriental Church is a synodal Church, which means that the bishops work together with the Patriarch. Secondly, the Patriarch is the Bishop of the Patriarchal Diocese of Alexandria, which has three areas: Cairo, Delta, and Alexandria. Thirdly, he is the president of the Catholic Hierarchy of the Patriarchs and the Bishops in Egypt.
Q) Many Coptic Catholics have a small tattoo inscribed on the inside of the wrist. What is the meaning of the symbolism of the small tattoo?
A) It means belonging to Christianity. The tattoo is not just for the Coptic Catholics but all Christians. The tattoo is found mostly on the Orthodox and many Catholics. It is a sign of being a Christian and a way to declare their Christian identity and a way to recognize one another.
Q) You don’t have one?
A) I personally don’t have one and is usually a family tradition and in my family the tradition was being an active member of the Church rather than this sign.
Q) The Coptic Catholic community is very much a minority church within the country. What is the daily life of the Coptic or Catholic Christians in Egypt?
A) From a religious point of view, each church has its own members who are free to worship and partake in the activities without restrictions, problems and conflicts. All the Christians are very much integrated into society. There are no special areas for Christians. There are very few villages where the Christians are a majority. Most of the Christians are very much integrated within society of which conflicts do occur from time to time but this even happens among neighbours everywhere. When you are a minority there are difficulties that do surface in dealing with the majority. We live in harmony and from the Muslim side we find the same openness and the same attitude and, as it happens everywhere, some groups are a bit aggressive.
Q) Although generally the situation for the Christians in Egypt is not an easy one. The constitution recognizes religious liberty, however Egypt is an Islamic state and, if I understand correctly, the Sharia is the source of all legislation, which means that, in many regards, Christians encounter many obstacles in living their faith. What kind of challenges do Christians face in Egypt particularly in this environment?
Q) As I said it all depends on the personal behaviour and mentality of the person. When we meet a person who is open minded and has the heart of openness towards the others, the relationshiip is easy and good. Sometimes we meet others who have the opposite disposition and the relationship can be difficult. This can also occur in government regarding administrative issues but often issues are easily resolved because our Oriental culture, and not just Egyptian, in general always depends on personal relationships and you will always find someone with whom you have a very personal friendship who will help you resolve your problem.
Q) Nonetheless there are some obstacles for example; it’s difficult if not impossible to build new churches?
A) Yes it is difficult. This stems from a very old law.
Q) Can you tell us a little bit about this law?
A) Yes. This law was during the end of the 18th century and during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. There are different interpretations to this law. Some say that its main aim was to protect Christians against any aggression. Others say that it was to make it difficult for Christians to have their own place of worship. You can choose one way or the other and we often argue with the authorities who always claim that it is for our own protection, that they make it difficult for us. We, in this area, face difficulties and it requires a long time but in the end we always are able to resolve this issue.
Q) How about the political life? Christians cannot be president. There are only two Christians within the government. Christians are not allowed to be mayors of cities or villages. How do Christians fair in their representation?
A) I would say that it is like this due to different factors. First of all in the political scene; when there are elections for instance, when you consider for every 10 Egyptians one is Christian do you think that the Christian will have enough influence to be elected as a member of the assembly? This is the reason why the president always nominates between four to seven Christians to be members of the assembly in order for them to have a voice in the assembly. In the government administrative sector the personnel are not elected, they are nominated and therefore Christians too are given positions though symbolic. In the local administrations like sheriffs, chiefs or governors of villages usually there are no Christians; it is usually by tradition.
Q) The Church is not fighting for greater political representation?
A) The truth is the Christian papers are writing about this and there are some intellectual Muslims who write and are vocal for better representation for the Christians. The human right groups in Egypt are also voicing their concerns about this. So there is a voice and there is an appeal for this. There is also the social – religious pressure to do so.
Q) In Egypt one is obliged to carry an identity card on which one’s religious affiliation is indicated. Can one say that this is also a tool for discrimination, for example, if a Christian applies for employment and it is obligatory to show one's identity card?
A) This issue is also publicly discussed. In the last years there were many articles in the local papers both by Christians and Muslims regarding this issue. This can be interpreted or seen in two ways. One claims that this is discriminatory, while the other claims that this is necessary within the social milieu and they give an example with the tribunals that deals with families matters such as marriage and divorce etc; they say that if one's religious affiliation is not indicated, how could the judge give a fair sentence according to the law that bounds the individual? He would then pass judgment based on the Islamic laws alone. The Egyptian law allows each individual to be judged according to the laws binding that individual based on religious affiliation of that individual. So they say, in this way the law is fair, for instance, divorce will not be allowed to Catholics because their religious law does not allow it. The Orthodox have very specific rules regarding divorce and as such the judge who often is a Muslim, base judgment on these laws [Orthodox Church laws]. Many, however claim that it is better to base one's identity on citizenship alone and all maters regarding families, and marriages be left to the various religious communities.
Q) There is an allegation or suggestion that some conversions from Christianity to Islam are based on economic reasons or interest. We spoke about this earlier that Christians have difficulty sometimes to secure employment because their cards indicate their religious affiliation. The high unemployment in Egypt hovers around 10%; is it beneficial for a Christian to convert to Islam just for the sake of employment opportunities? Is this the case?
Q) There are some cases but I would not agree to say that this is the primary reason. There are, I think, two principal reasons. One is based on marriage. The easiest way to get out of a marriage, for a Christian whether its the man or the woman, is to become Muslim - for them it is easy to divorce and have the benefit of full rights against the other partner or spouse and full custody of the children. The second reason is the weakness in one's faith. This is due to the lack of good formation in one's faith. There are some regions, villages and in some quarters of the city where there is not enough pastoral care. The Islamic appeal and the secular media greatly influences and easily contributes to this failure in one's steadfastness towards one's faith because of the lack of a solid faith foundation.
Q) One area where the Catholic Church is working particularly well is in the area of schooling. How do you see the importance of education for the future of Christianity in Egypt?
A) We have 186 Catholic Schools in the country with more than 150,000 students of which at least, about 50 % are Muslim. So you can understand the importance of education. Firstly, it gives the security to our people, to have a good and a solid religious, moral formation and a very high standard of education. Secondly, it allows the opportunity for both Christians and Muslims from early childhood to socialize together. They grow together, develop friendships and the parents become familiar and appreciate the Catholic Church and Christianity in general. These students, both boys and girls, who have grown up together in our Catholic schools will then become responsible future members of society and those not of our faith are able to be open and have a better understanding of us - not just our faith but us as individuals and they are able to help us when we face problems.
Q) So Catholic education, one could say, is key to moderation of the political landscape in the future?
A) Moderation and also inter-religious dialogue; very important.
Q) Your Beatitude, what would be your appeal now with the international community?
A) To the international community I would say that we appreciate, very much, what is done to improve, everywhere, democracy, liberty and to help improve the economic conditions of all countries and Egypt in particular. In the religious aspect, we are very grateful for the prayers from the spiritual communities and their interest and the sharing in our difficulties and for the help they have extended to our Churches and to our institutions in order for us to do and accomplish our mission, not just for the Christians but for everybody. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Aid to the Church in Need and other Catholic organization for their support and help.
This interview was conducted by Mark Reidemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
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