Last November, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt chose its new Patriarch. An altar boy chose one of the three boxes containing the names of as many candidates and BishopTawadros, formerly a monk in the Saint Bishoy monastery (Wadi Natrun) and then bishop in Beheira, was called to take over from Shenouda III, who died on 17 March 2012. In the first interviews,given to Egyptian broadcasting companies and magazines, Tawadros insisted on peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. In a TV interview before the election he had said: “We have lived with Muslims for centuries, we must focus on what we have in common”. In another interview, given to the Al-Ahram magazine, he warned the Christians not to insist on the thesis that Muslims in Egypt are ‘immigrants’ because they arrived in the country later on. He exhorted them to try and coexist with Muslims, as they had for the last 14 centuries. Tawadros then added: “The existence of minarets and belfries shows that Egypt has been a place of differences and coexistence. Muslims and Christians have a common history that we always need to bear in mind”.
Shortly after his election, the Patriarch received a phone call from Ahmed al-Tayeb, dean of the al- Azhar University (one of the main centres of religious learning in Sunni Islam) to congratulate him. Tawadros, on his part, expressed his appreciation for good relationships between the Coptic Church and al-Azhar.
The new Coptic ‘Pope’ is faced with three great challenges. The first one is sectarian tensions. In fact, many churches were attacked by Islamic extremists after January 2011 revolution. These attacks went along with the authorities’ persistence in denying construction licences for new religious buildings. The second challenge – relationships between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian State – is part of this very context. Shenouda was a politically pragmatic cleric. He supported the Hosni Mubarak regime thinking it could protect the Coptic Church. For this reason in every election he supported – overtly or behind the scenes – Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Diversely, Tawadros has stated for a long time that the Church has a spiritual role. In an interview released to the Mideast Christian News Agency he said: “political questions are the laymen’s business. If the State seeks a dialogue with the leading figures of the Church because it sees in the Church the unifying element of the leanings of the Church itself, it means that the laity has to be reorganized so that it can represent the sole voice of the Copts in Egypt”. He then added: “Young Copts must be engaged in the political parties; and the Church, despite not involving itself in politics, will support its sons in this effort”.
The third challenge is linked to ecumenical dialogue: will the 118th Coptic ‘Pope’ manage to bring the different Christian confessions close again? Father Rafic Greish, spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Egypt, says that the relationship must go beyond the ‘personal’ dimension (i.e. good relationships among single figures) to become ‘institutional’. This is the only way to make a step further to a true dialogue among the Churches. “The relationship between our Church and other Christian communities – the new patriarch said – must look to the fondness linking us, not to the problems. The relationships with other Christian Churches must go on”.
Awad Basseet, Egyptian journalist