Muslims and Copts have been coexisting harmoniously in Egypt for 14 centuries. And that’s not just the official line; the majority of people, be they Muslim or Copt, will likely agree that for the most part we are tolerant of each other’s faiths. But a recent spate of violence over the past few years has lifted a taboo on media coverage and public debate over the state of relations between Muslims and the minority Coptic community, estimated at 10 percent of the population.
In 2005 Alexandria witnessed huge riots as 5,000 Muslims demonstrated in front of St. George’s Church protesting a play the church held reportedly mocking Islam. Four people died in the riots and about 100 were hurt. A year later, again in Alexandria, a Muslim man, who later turned out to be mentally ill, went on a rampage, stabbing and killing one man and injuring five others. Earlier in 2007 in Cairo, a clash between Copts and Muslims erupted after a group of 60 Muslims set fire to a church, claiming the Copts didn’t have permission to build it.
The events of 2005 triggered a flood of media coverage of the tensions, real or imagined, between Egypt’s two major religions, ending most recently with the case of Mohamed Ahmed Hegazy. Hegazy has gone down in history as the first Muslim to convert to Christianity and file a suit against the government demanding his then-unborn child be legally recognized as a Christian.
But amidst the commotion whipped up by local and international media about the tensions, one essential question has been tossed aside: What is the Coptic community in Egypt really concerned about?
Throughout the many conversations with Copts, reports, interviews, blogs and websites, the key issues dominating Coptic discourse are not ones of interfaith relationships. Rather, the issues Copts themselves care about are of a more introspective nature: the church’s elections, internal affairs and representation in parliament, and Pope Benedict’s recent inflammatory document about the different Christian ‘faiths,’ among other things.
In an exclusive interview with Egypt Today, Bishop Picenti, Bishop of the Holy Diocese of Helwan, Maasara, Torbeen and 15th of May City and former secretary to Pope Shenouda, discusses the issues of concern to his community. Edited excerpts below.
The Pope’s Word
Egypt’s Coptic community was up in arms last summer after Pope Benedict, the Pope of the Catholic Church, approved a document on June 29 declaring the Coptic Church flawed and that other Christian faiths, specifically Protestants and Anglicans, are not churches, but rather communities. The document re-stated the position set out by the Pope in his previous role as prefect of the congregation, in a 2000 document titled Dominus Iesus. The Orthodox and Catholic churches have minor differences in their historical beliefs, and have had a peaceful relationship of mutual recognition and independence for centuries. The document showed cracks in this relationship. The Pope refused to apologize and firmly believes he is not mistaken: According to Catholic belief, the Pope of Rome is infallible, and the issue itself stems from a centuries-old division of the eastern and western churches.
What is the church’s reaction to Pope Benedict’s recent document?
A year ago he also said things that offended Islam, and we refused this because we have been living in companionship, brotherhood and affection with our Muslim brothers for 14 centuries. But he [made a statement] that offended Christians; he offended us, Orthodox, saying that we are a defective church because we are lacking the blessing of the Pope of Rome’s apostolic chair.
 At the same time he forgot historical facts, the first of which is in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples asked him who is the greatest amongst us and he replied that only nations and countries should think like that, as he who wants to be great should be everyone’s servant and he who wants to be first should be last. Jesus himself, on the Holy Thursday, washed his disciples’ feet and told them, “Do to each other as I did to you.”
They also said that Saint Peter is the one who preached in Rome, knowing that there is a verse in the Bible named From Saint Paul to the People of Rome, so it was Saint Paul who preached and not Saint Peter.
So Pope Benedict said that the Orthodox churches are defective because we didn’t take the Roman Pope’s blessing, but the blessing is one. It is the Bible and faith’s blessing and this way of thinking is rejected in Christianity from the beginning, and this is the reason of division between the East and the West in the fifth century.
 I want to say that Egypt has a huge spiritual and faith history that is well known, but they’ve forgotten all this, so they took a fallacious argument and based the division upon it, considering our faith incorrect. Knowing that in the past and modern world, if you speak in theological terms, and not because I am Egyptian or Copt but because this is a fact and history is there, the priesthood came from Egypt in the first place.
People now want to unite, not to separate, especially believers, both Christians and Muslims. People’s belief in God has decreased and atheism is propagating widely. The lack of faith won’t cost people anything — it makes them lazy — but faith makes people pray, fast and follow God. I want to say that we should unite and this is not the time to say such things; [Pope Benedict] lost the faith of Muslims when he spoke against Islam, and now he is losing Christians too. But we wish him success and that he becomes an element of unity and not separation between all God’s religions: Christians, Muslims and Jews.
A Select Few
With Pope Shenouda’s recent illness, the issue of succession has been one topic that has raised some debate within the community. Voices have been raised discussing the possibility of changes to the system used by the church to elect the Pope. Currently only the Holy Senate, a gathering of archbishops and bishops, has the right to elect the pope, with no one else allowed to vote on the matter, a system similar to that of the Catholic Church. The system has been questioned by many who believe that the election base should be widened to allow more democratic participation, an option completely rejected by the Coptic Church.
What is the church’s stand on people calling to change the election system?
This is an internal Christian matter that should be discussed by the church’s leadership, and the number of members isn’t small. We are more than 100 archbishops and bishops in the Holy Senate  Those who gave their opinions said the election base should be widened, [but] the church believes that widening this base will do no good. We don’t think about the Pope’s successor, we only pray to God to give him a long and healthy life as he has now turned 83 years old last August. Growing the base will make it hard to keep control over the elections. The second point is that leading a group of people with a certain cultural and intellectual standard isn’t like if you go to the base. If you go to the base, then you will find many who can be easily manipulated. It is like political elections; the public is often fooled by fake promises and blindly follow false hopes. If this is the case on the political arena, imagine what it would be like in religious matters?
So the Holy Senate agrees that the current system is good and the matter doesn’t need to be discussed, and if it needs something it has to come from us, the people who are in authority, but not from people who are Christians, even if they had studied law and so on. They don’t have experience the atmosphere we are living in.
Our brothers the Catholics, when Pope John Paul II passed away, what they did is that all the cardinals gathered in a room and locked themselves in for two or three days, they prayed throughout these days and fasted and so on until they agreed on an opinion of who is to follow the pope If they opened the door to the billion Catholics in the world, the matter would never have been resolved. We are not a small number either, the number is now large, so this is a religious Coptic internal matter that is to be discussed in the Holy Senate.
And what of splinter churches, which people like Maximus have started up?
Those are almost 0.001 percent, it isn’t mentionable and the church doesn’t act against them. It just explains to them that if they want to serve the church they should remain inside the church and that church matters should be dealt with from the inside not the outside.
But why do they separate from the church in the first place?
Because they want to play an effective role in the church. But for someone to have a role in the church, his activity should be inside, not outside of it. Let’s take an example of Georgette Kallini [Coptic member of the governing National Democratic Party and a presidential appointee to the People’s Assembly]. I’m mentioning her by name, and her general activity that benefits the country — both Muslims and Christians [even though she is not part of the Holy Senate], the church has opened its doors for her. You serve the nation, both Muslims and Christians, the church will be comfortable in opening its doors to you.
Thou shall not convert, NOT in Egypt
Controversy broke out locally and internationally as Mohamed Ahmed Hegazy rekindled the debate over religious freedom in Egypt. Hegazy started up legal proceedings against the government, demanding that his official papers be changed to show his conversion from Islam to Christianity, a religion that he adopted in secrecy nine years ago. Hegazy attracted media attention worldwide and stirred up a whirlwind of international public opinion condemning the lack of religious freedom in Egypt. Hegazy’s request came as his then-pregnant wife, who also converted to Christianity, joined her husband’s campaign demanding the child be raised as a Christian. His case sparked other similar cases, including that of two Christian children whose father converted to Islam, while the children and their mothers refused to convert. Despite their refusal, the children were converted against their will, as they are minors and by law must follow their father’s religion. The two boys refused to take their Islamic religion test in school [all students must take an obligatory test in religion, whether Christian or Muslim, to pass on the next grade], simply signing the answer sheet with the words, ‘We are Christians.’ Although Al-Azhar has made it permissible for a Christian who converts to Islam to go back to Christianity, it has released a fatwa prohibiting a person born Muslim from converting to another religion. However, Grand Mufti of Egypt Aly Gomaa raised a few eyebrows when he declared that conversion from Islam is in fact permissible and that as it is about a person’s relationship with God, to be judged in the afterlife. As such a convert is not to be punished in this life, but the next.
How does the church react to conversion cases? Does the church provide support for Muslims who want to convert to Christianity?
Frankly, I don’t think the country needs any more Muslims or Christians. So what if someone is convinced of a religion and wants to convert? The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, and Islam states that there is no coercion in religion. But I will tell you something that Dr. Mostafa El Fiky said when he was the president’s information secretary, and I was the holy Pope’s secretary. He found out that someone came to Egypt and was trying to preach Christianity amongst Muslims, and he wasn’t Orthodox. So El Fiky went to his holiness the Pope, and I was there, and told him if someone wants to convert to Christianity, let him, but outside Egypt, because Egypt can’t tolerate that a Muslim becomes a Christian. I add to this that Egypt can’t tolerate that a Christian becomes a Muslim. You have to put the two together; it is the principle of a nation and total equality.
It is true, Egypt suffers and shakes if a Muslim becomes a Christian or a Christian becomes Muslim, so by the same token and parallel to El Fiky’s opinion, if a Christian wants to convert to Islam, he should go to an Arab country that encourages Islam and continue the rest of his life outside Egypt, and if a Muslim wants to convert to Christianity then he should go to a European country and continue the rest of his life in a European country.
Egypt has enough problems as it is and we do not need to create more. The church would interfere if a Christian converts to Islam and then wants to go back to Christianity, and it would permit it. I won’t forget a word that his eminence Sheikh of Al-Azhar said when a Christian girl wanted to convert to Islam. Al-Imam said we don’t mind if someone comes to convince her to return to Christianity. One of the officials asked him what if [she is won over], and Al-Imam said, she is their daughter and they should take her if she is convinced and she should leave — which is a wise response that goes with the concept that there is no forcing in religion.
The voice shall be heard
In 2005’s parliamentary elections, President Mubarak appointed five Copts while the National Democratic Party nominated only two Copts for an available 444 positions. The recent constitutional amendments guaranteed the principle of secular nationalism. Parliament consists of 454 members, all voted in except for 10 appointed by the president to ensure balance of power and minority representation. Of elected positions, 400 are elected using proportional representation in two member constituencies and 44 in single-seat constituencies.
What about discrimination against Copts in Egypt?
This is among our internal problems, and we discuss it. We just attended a conference on secular nationalism and we were arguing that churches should be built as easily as mosques are for instance, or that no civil positions be eliminated on the basis of religion, except of course positions specialized in religion that require a Muslim for the Islamic religion and a Christian for Christianity. But otherwise, all positions should be open to all, Muslims as well as Christians. But this needs some time and some work.
Has the percentage of Copts in the parliament changed recently? As in has their representation increased?
No, it hasn’t increased. My opinion is that due to the lack of nationalistic feelings we should resort to elections by lists and Copts should be put on the list in positions that ensure that if a party takes two, then a Copt is one of the two; they shouldn’t put him number ten, for instance, and say we only want two of this party and so they don’t take the Copt.
What do you think of the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent statement that the president can’t be a Copt?
It is expected that the president won’t be a Copt because the majority of the country is Muslim. But this shouldn’t be mentioned, it should be left out and not discussed, and if a Copt wants to run for the presidential position, there shouldn’t be something preventing him from it. But it is only usual that the president of Egypt is Muslim.
What God has united no man shall separate
Divorce remains unrecognized by the Coptic Church, with the exception of the case of proven adultery, conversion from Christianity or forced marriage. While the state would acknowledge a divorce, the church will not approve it, leaving Coptic couples separated, but still married, and therefore unable to remarry or move on with their lives.
Why does the church refuse to reconsider this policy?
When God created the universe, he created a male and a female. If God wanted divorce he would have created many Eves and many Adams; if Adam didn’t like Eve 1, then he divorces her and marries Eve 2, and if he doesn’t like either then he would take Eve 3. God created only one Eve for only one man; then there is no polygamy and no divorce except in adultery because God created Eve from Adam and we all believe in this; so as soon as Adam woke up and found Eve in front of him he said this is flesh from my flesh and bones from my bones. This is why a man leaves his parents and sticks to his wife and they both become one, and what God has united no man shall separate.
So what about the issues they face after marriage?
These should be solved by proper preparation for marriage. When you take a bachelor’s degree you spend four years studying and taking examinations. So we should prepare youth for marriage. It is not enough that they love each other; do they agree easily or fight several times before they agree on something? Does each of them accept the other and his opinion easily or each insist that he is right? This is why his holiness Pope Shenouda said that the engagement is a studying period and not just a feelings period.
[Veteran TV presenter] Sanaa Mansour said a terrific thing: “If they separate for a while and each returns to himself and to God and thinks why he has chosen this specific person over everyone else, then souls would definitely clear up.”
I suggest that before the court gives permission for divorce, they should ask where the children will go. They would either be criminals and go to juvenile prisons or they would be street children.
But if someone was forcefully wed then we give an annulment to the marriage because for a marriage to be valid there has to be consent from both parties. This case is found a lot in the countryside.  Under the Orthodox Church’s laws, if an annulment occurs and they want to remarry then the church has to approve; a church’s court studies the case and gives approval to a new marriage.
We now see a lot more Muslims becoming extreme in their beliefs; is the same trend evident amongst the Coptic community here?
No, inside Egypt there is no such thing as religious extremism for Copts: It isn’t understood and is nonexistent. What we have is simply Copts demanding rights that they haven’t yet taken due to their lack of demanding, but that is it. The word extremism isn’t in our dictionary.
What would you say has changed in the Coptic community over the past 10 years?
They are now more demanding of their rights, especially after the first clause in the constitution, that the equality in secular nationalism be the base and principle for all. TVOO