THE COPTIC POPE VISITS JERUSALEM.
By Paul Merkley.
On November 28, 2015, Tawadros II, the 118th Coptic Pope, the leader of the worldwide body of Egyptian Orthodox Christians, travelled with a delegation of other Coptic clerics from Cairo to Jerusalem in order to preside over the funeral for Anba Abraham, the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Near East since 1992.
This was the first time since the end of the Six Day War in June, 1967, that the head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has set foot in Jerusalem. Spokesmen for the Coptic Orthodox Church insisted that this was “an exceptional situation” and was not significant of any coming change of the church’s stance on Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause.
Friends of Israel have being trying hard to turn this event into a “gesture” suggestive of a new chapter of reconciliation between the Coptic Church and the State of Israel – perhaps, ultimately, between the people of Egypt and the people of Israel. However, more than pinch of skepticism is needed here.
***Who Are the Copts?
The word “Copt” is a corruption of the Greek egyptos: it refers to native Egyptian people who claim, with some plausibility, to trace to a missionary journey of St. Mark that took place during the reign of Emperor Nero (54 to 68 AD.) The language in which the Copts worship is the ancient language of the Pharaohs, while the world around them speaks Arabic, the language of the 7th century conquerors.
There is no reason to belittle their leader’s title of Pope – that is, the Father of the church community – which is every bit as venerable as the claim to the same title by the Bishop of Rome.
It is generally reckoned that about 10% of Egyptians are Christian. The World Council of Churches calculates that the actual Coptic population living in Israel and the Palestine Authority is about 2,500.
Following the Council of Chalcedon (451), called to resolve differences over the nature of the relation between and among the Three Persons of the Trinity, the Copts turned their backs on the upstart theological princes of Rome and Constantinople and stayed with the Pre-Chalcedonian Camp, where we find the other main churches indigenous to the Arab world. The unexpectedly rapid conquest of the Christian world by the Muslims in the 7th and 8th centuries was made possible by these divisions among the Christian kingdoms of the time.
In our own time, Copts have experienced growing persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority of Egypt, who, with the co-operation of ill-disposed academics and poorly-informed journalists in our part of the world, have given currency to the myth that Christianity is a Western religion, imposed on the indigenous Muslims of the Middle East.
***Christian Communities and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t.
We can no longer pretend that the answer to the problems of the Middle East is democracy. We have already seen the fruits of democracy in Muslim nations like Iraq, where, since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Christians have been brutally persecuted to the point that perhaps one-third of them have fled their homeland; and in Afghanistan, where a decade after the West overthrew the Taliban, committing billions of dollars and thousands of lives, the last public church has been destroyed, even as Christians suffer under blasphemy and apostasy laws enforced by the government installed and maintained by the West.
For nearly a half-century prior to this moment, November 28, 2015, Coptic Popes had banned visits to Jerusalem by members of the Coptic flock– as a gesture of solidarity with the side that lost the Six Day war, and with it, custody of the Holy City. Apart from this larger issue, there are bad feelings between the Coptic leaders and the Israeli government on account of the latter’s recognition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s title to a monastery of its own which was built many centuries ago on the roof of the Holy Sepulcher and which today is surrounded by a virtual village of transplanted Ethiopian people looking to be found by the Lord in the End of Times as closed as possible to the site of His Resurrection – as close, that is, as is possible given the possession of the Sepulchre itself by the syndicate of Roman Catholic Greek Orthodox and Armenians who have custody of the Sepulchre itself.
The Coptic Pope’s ban has been far from airtight, however: during Easter celebrations last year, some 5,000 Copts made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem; most of these, however, are residents of countries other than Egypt. It is the dream of every Copt to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem before one’s death, and for centuries the Copts did.
The painful truth is that most Christians of the Arab world have no desire to break ranks with Muslims against the Jews. For these Christians, contempt for Jews is founded in theology. For two millennia, these churches have taught that God’s rejection of the Jews follows from their collective act of “deicide.” The evident consequences of this evil act include the destruction of their Second Temple, the end of their communities in the Holy Land and the Diaspora.
It should be noted that this paradigm of lethal hatred of Christians by Jews is promoted without any attention being given to the fact that Israel is today the only state in the region where Christian numbers are increasing, and where the Christian portion of the whole population has held steadily for half a century.
***“First, the Saturday People, Then the Sunday People.”
Just as surely as the extirpation of the Jews was prepared and then accomplished after 1949 by all the Arab regimes that had been humiliated by Israel’s survival, so today extirpation of all Christians from the region remains the declared goal of all branches of Muslim opinion. The spirit of this campaign has found expression over recent years in a motto, “First, the Saturday People, then the Sunday People” (which, being translated means, Kill the Jews first, then the Christians) which appears on walls everywhere in the Middle East, and is even found in the Arab quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem. (See my essay, “After Saturday Comes Sunday, Bayview Review, December 21, 2011.)
Given this threat of liquidation closing in on both Jews and Christians living in the Middle East, solidarity of Christians with Jews everywhere ought to be advancing. Instead, ever since the early days of the Arab Spring, the principal spokesmen for all the local churches have been competing with one another to prove which is the most hostile to Zionism.
Particularly difficult for Christian friends of Israel to stomach has been the fact that as Muslim mobs were descending upon the dwindling Coptic Christian minority of Egypt, burning churches and despoiling church-goers, official spokesmen for that church were trying to persuade us that this was all the work of the Masons and the Jews. The Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, denounced Western churches for following the guidance of Nostra Aetate and seeking “reconciliation” with the irredeemable Jews. He reminded his countrymen that the Jews were “Christ-killers … because the New Testament says they are.”
The incumbent Pope’s visit to Jerusalem has been denounced by both secular and Christian Egyptians for weakening the resistance front against normalization with Israel. One senior Coptic voice, speaking in Arabic to Russia Today, suggests that, in light of the close relationship between the late Archbishop Abraham and Pope Tawadros II, the visit is an ” ordinary” matter.
This does not indicate a change in the church’s stance on the Palestinian cause and which represents the majority of Egyptian Christians. In fact, this visit supports the Palestinian cause and several Palestinian officials actually keep inviting Arabs to visit Jerusalem.
No doubt, Islamists will use the visit to further incite animus and hatred against the Copts wherever they can be reached – including here in Canada; and Egypt’s deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli political class are already condemning the Pope’s visit. But there is every reason to believe that in time for the Easter season of 2016 Copts everywhere will be assuming that they have now a green light for what has previously, in principle, been impermissible.
***The New Political Situation of the Copts in Egypt.
But perhaps the most important factor at work here is the new political situation in Egypt. During the brief tenure of President Mohamed Morsi (June 2012-July 2013), the Islamists declared open season upon the infidel Copts; entire villages of Christians were laid low and throughout the land their homes, businesses and churches were torched and violated. Subsequently, Egypt’s Christians conspicuously supported Morsi’s ouster.
Since becoming President, Sisi has made repeated calls for greater religious tolerance and reform in Islamic discourse. “We talk a lot about the importance of reforming religious discourse,” said President Sisi in a televised speech to Islamic scholars in December 2015, but “In our schools, institutes and universities, do we teach and practice respect for the other?….God did not create the world for the ‘ummah’ [nation of Islam] to be alone. [He didn’t create it] for one community, but for communities. [He didn’t create it] for one religion, but for religions.
This last thought is, of course, ultimate blasphemy in Muslim eyes.
President Sis has shown great boldness in declaring solidarity with the Copts against what he regards as the enemies of Egypt’s peace. Most recently, together with Muslim cabinet members, prominent media personalities and public figures, President Sisi attended the Christmas services at Cairo’s St. Mark Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church — something absolutely unprecedented in the history of the Egyptian Republic. There and then he offered a public apology for what the Copts have suffered in the months before he overthrew President Morsi. “We have been late in restoring and fixing what has been burned, “ he proclaimed. “ Everything will be fixed. … Please accept our apologies for what happened.”
Now there is ein mensch.