On the 18th November the new Coptic Pope was enthroned in Egypt. Pope Tawadros II had been selected by the Coptic Church in Egypt as the successor to Pope Shenouda III who died in March, 2012. The new Pope has inherited responsibility over a community who are currently facing a crisis over the future of their culture and religion in a nation which is becoming increasingly Islamic.
The Copts are a Christian community in Egypt whose origins date back to before the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, all the way back to the start of Christianity when St Mark arrived in Egypt preaching the gospel. The religion spread quickly and when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, Coptic Christians found themselves in a position of power in Egypt, with the Pope (one of the World’s four Popes) as a spiritual leader.
However they have always been a persecuted community and unable to function truly free within the country. Even when Christianity was the leading religion in Egypt the Coptic community came under attack from the Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire, the ruling political power, who followed a different theological tradition. The Copts were seen as heretics due to their belief that Jesus Christ has one nature, that is both human and divine at the same time, whereas those in the Byzantine elite believed in two separate natures of Jesus Christ, one that is human and another that is divine.
This theological division had caused many problems for the Copts in the 4th and 5th centuries, however the Coptic Church remained the dominant power in Egyptian society. It was only with the Arab invasion that the tide changed against the Copts of Egypt, who by the 12th century had been assimilated into a wider framework of Arab identity, with the Coptic language only used for liturgical purposes and their religion as the only characteristic that separated them from their Islamic neighbours.
In recent times the Coptic community has struggled to find its own identity and society within Egypt. Under the military strongmen of Egyptian politics the Papacy has been exiled, brought back into the political sphere and even provided with guarantees of political representation within the Egyptian government, however violence against the Coptic people has continued regardless of the Pope’s political position.
During the Arab Spring the position of the Coptic Church appears to have got worse. Originally Copts stood side-by-side their Muslim neighbours in Tahrir Square calling for the overthrow of a leader who was widely seen as both corrupt and unjust. However as the revolution progressed and it was becoming clear that the people who would take over would not be secular Egyptians, but rather Islamists looking to reform the country, support from the Coptic Church has been far more limited.
When the elections took place it was the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Islamist party, who emerged the dominant political party and they established a political agenda that had distinct Islamic influences, despite apparent efforts on the part of President Mursi to establish a more inclusive government. If a more Islamic Egypt does emerge, it could be difficult for the Coptic community, which number between 10 and 14 million in Egypt, as they struggle to reconcile their religion and the culture that has developed around this, with a wider Islamic-influenced Egyptian identity.
Pope Tawadros II is seen as a very different Pope to his predecessor, Shenouda III. Shenouda was always very political leader, falling out dramatically with President Sadat, but also establishing close links to President Mubarak. However many in the Coptic community see Tawadros as playing a less political role. Although it is vital he represents Copts at the highest levels of government, ensuring political representation and fighting against plans to introduce Sharia law, his role may be more focused on developing the Coptic community socially.
Like many Egyptians, for the Copts, the Revolution has brought about great economic hardships and the Pope’s focus is likely to be on improving the lives of Egyptian Christians and maintaining the ancient traditions of this church against the threat of an ever increasing Islamic power in Egypt.
The Coptic Church has survived since Egypt’s independence due to the secular nature of the military leaders, however now that Egypt’s government has become overtly religious the Copts may see a society in which their culture is once again marginalised and supressed by the Islamic ruling elite. What Tawadros II is expected to do is bolster a community, who since the dramatic overhaul of the Egyptian political system and the death of Pope Shenouda III, have often been lost in Egyptian society.
By Peter Banham
Cover Image: Daily News Egypt, Hassan Ibrahim, 04/11/12