Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope says Islamist-backed constitution discriminatory

Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope says Islamist-backed constitution discriminatory

AP interview

[This story originally appeared on the Washington Post website.]

AL-MUHARRAQ MONASTERY, Egypt — Egypt’s Coptic Christian pope sharply criticized the country’s Islamist leadership in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, saying the new constitution is discriminatory and Christians should not be treated as a minority.

The comments by Pope Tawadros II reflected the unusually vocal political activist stance he has taken since being enthroned in November as the spiritual leader of the Copts, the main community of Egypt’s Christians. His papacy comes as Christians are increasingly worried over the power of Islamists in the country and the rule of President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tawadros dismissed a national dialogue that Morsi has been holding, ostensibly as a way to broaden decision-making amid criticism that his government concentrates power in the Brotherhood. Most opposition parties have refused to join the dialogue, as has the Coptic Church, calling it mere window dressing

“We must and will actively take part in any national dialogue in which we see a benefit for the nation,” Tawadros told The AP. “But when we find that a dialogue ends before it starts and none of its results are implemented then we realize that it is not in the interest of the nation.”

The 60-year-old pope took issue with references to Christians as a minority, underlining that the community — which makes up about 10 percent of the country’s 85 million people — must be seen as having an equal voice with the Muslim majority.

“We are a part of the soil of this nation and an extension of the pharaohs and their age before Christ. Yes, we are a minority in the numerical sense, but we are not a minority when it comes to value, history, interaction and love for our nation,” he said, speaking during a visit to the historic al-Muharraq Monastery, a 4th century site 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of Cairo in Assiut, which has one of the largest Christian communities in any of Egypt’s 27 provinces.

The patriarch also criticized the constitution, which Morsi’s Islamist allies rammed through to approval in December, angering opponents who said the move reflected the determination of the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies to impose their way without building consensus.

Provisions in the document allow for a far stricter implementation of Islamic Shariah law than in the past, raising opponents’ fears that it could bring restrictions on many civil liberties and the rights of women and Christians.

“The only common bond between all Egyptians is that they are all citizens … the constitution, the base for all laws, must be under the umbrella of citizenship and not a religious one,” he said. “Subsequently, some clauses were distorted by a religious slant and that in itself is discrimination because the constitution is supposed to unite and not divide.”

Tawadros’ active public stance on politics reflects a new attitude among Christian activists, who say the community must become more vocal in demanding equal status with Muslims. In the past, activists say, Christians relied too much on the church to represent them behind the scenes with the country’s power-brokers, a strategy they argue consigned Christians to second-class status.

Tawadros’ predecessor, the late Shenouda III, was cautious about public criticism of Egypt’s leadership, working instead in backroom arrangements. He was close to former President Hosni Mubarak, who until his ouster in February 2011 was seen by many Christians as the community’s protector against Islamists.

Nevertheless, under Mubarak’s rule, Christians complained of widespread official discrimination and said police failed to move against those accused in attacks on Christians or on churches. Egypt has seen a string of such attacks, before and after Mubarak’s fall — sometimes the result of local feuds that take on a sectarian nature, sometimes outright sectarian attacks. In the past two years, hardline Islamists have also become more open in anti-Christian rhetoric.

Tawadros suggested that Morsi’s government must take greater action to prevent attacks on Christians and that he, as head of the community, would not engage in media events to project false harmony harmony between the leaderships of the Muslim and Christian communities.

“Realistically, we want actions not words. We don’t want a show. Egypt has changed, we live in a new Egypt now.”