“First of all, I am an Egyptian citizen, and afterwards a Christian”: The Coptic Church in Egypt between religion and politics, as reflected on social media

Michael Barak reviews the public discourse among the Coptic community on Egyptian social networking sites, which concerns the involvement of the church and its leader Patriarch Theodore II in political issues.

Post from the Egypt civil state Facebook page
Patriarch Theodore II, from Facebook

The increasingly close relationship between the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Egyptian regime, since 2013 headed by Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, has long been greeted with mixed feelings by members of the Coptic community in Egypt. This trend resurfaced in the beginning of December 2018, with the announcement of Patriarch Theodore II’s support for an amendment to the Egyptian constitution that would allow extending the term of the current president. The online discourse sparked by this statement exposes the dissatisfaction of Coptic users with the church’s involvement in politics, their suspicion of the regime’s willingness to actively promote Copts’ rights in the country, and the ongoing erosion of the power of the Coptic Church, partly because young Copts are unwilling to accept the Church as their sole representative in Egyptian politics.

There are about 10 million Coptic Christians living in Egypt today. The spiritual leader of their community is Patriarch Theodore II, who in 2012 was appointed head of the Coptic Church in Alexandria. Under the leadership of Theodore, and since the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, leaders of the Coptic Church have increased their political involvement in affairs of state.  This trend became especially salient following al-Sisi’s 2014 rise to power and has been motivated primarily out of a desire to protect church institutions and strengthen the Church’s hold on its adherents.

Theodore II’s declaration led many Coptic users to emphasize that he does not represent them, but that he is only expressing his personal opinion, and also that the patriarch and Coptic Church should refrain from dealing with political issues, and instead focus solely on matters of ritual. [1]

For example, one Copt asked why in 2011 the church called on young people to refrain from protests against President Mubarak, but now publicly speaks out on political issues. [2]Alaa al-Aswani, a well-known Egyptian writer and secular oppositionist (whose Twitter account has 3 million followers), accused Theodore of exploiting his “spiritual status in order to spur the Copts [to take] a political position.”  He asked “has the church become a political party?”, and argued that, if so, it was “an erroneous position that will hurt everyone.” In addition, al-Aswani stressed, “if we want democracy, there is no escaping the exclusion of clerics from politics.”[3] There were those who defended the constitution, and stressed that it should not be altered in favor of al-Sisi or anyone else, because any change could potentially impair its value. One user noted that neither Theodore nor the Copts have the ability to change the constitution, because the regime had predetermined the extension of al-Sisi’s term and were using Theodore to legitimize and promote an existing plan. On the margins of this discourse, another debate arose as to whether al-Sisi deserved another term. There were those who noted that in the absence of another worthy candidate to lead Egypt, al-Sisi was the right person for the job, while others opposed extending his term on the grounds that Egypt’s problems were being exacerbated by the increasing cost of living, education, health, etc.[4] Therefore, it would be better if Theodore had not supported the constitutional change, because of the danger that he would thereby abet the rise of a new Pharaoh in Egypt since the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952.[5]

Another expression of many Copts’ dissatisfaction with Theodore’s policy was evident on December 14,  after an Egyptian policeman, assigned to protect a Coptic church, murdered two members of the community in the Minya Governorate.[6] The subsequent online discourse accused the patriarch of being unwilling to take a firm stand against the regime with regard to the personal safety of the Copts, and claimed that he preferred to serve the interests of the regime rather than those of the Coptic community. In the context of such criticism, Coptic users demanded that he hold Christmas services in the Minya Governorate to protest the lack of security. One surfer remarked that Theodore had erred when he traveled to the United States in September 2018 to endorse al-Sisi at a time that the homes of Egyptian Copts were being torched. For many Copts, the Egyptian regime needs to prove its intention to protect their lives, before asking them for support for its policies.[7]

In addition to criticizing Theodore’s political involvement, recent online discourse reveals a lack of trust in the Egyptian police. From the perspective of several Coptic users, it would be better for the community to arm itself for self-defense and for revenge, rather than to rely on the Egyptian police to provide security.[8] In this vein, Nashaat Nasr al-Din, an Egyptian Coptic poet, published a poem on his Facebook timeline which described the personal security of the Copts in Egypt as “broken,” and which called for protests against the neglect of their personal security, using the hashtag “Say something before you speak in Heaven” (#‏تكلموا_قبل_أن_تتكلم_السماء). [9] One Copt writing from outside Egypt harshly criticized the Copts for not mounting mass demonstrations in the streets that would denounce the security chaos and the disregard of the community’s safety on the part of Egyptian security forces. In response, Muslim users intervened in the network discourse, and tried to calm the situation by claiming that terrorism was directed not only against Christians but also against Muslims, for example as is happening in the Sinai Peninsula.[10]

On December 18, Coptic users criticized Theodore for an interview he gave to Egyptian television, in which he said that “First of all, I am an Egyptian citizen, and afterwards a Christian, who takes into account the interests of the homeland.”[11] According to many of them, this statement would be proper only if the Egyptian law granted equality to all citizens of Egypt, Muslims and Christians, alike. From their perspective, Theodore’s words represented a politicization of religion, and marginalized the Christian identity of many Copts. Others thought that the remarks were made out of fear for the lives of the Christians in Egypt, in the wake of the hostilities and terrorist attacks against them, and in order to win the sympathy of the Muslims.[12]

The discourse concerning the nature of relations between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian regime reveals a growing dissatisfaction among Copts with respect to the church and its leader. Many Copts believe that the role of the Church should be limited to ritual matters alone, and should be distanced from matters of politics and state. From the perspective of some participants in the discourse, it would be preferable  for the Patriarch Theodore II to defend the interests of the Coptic community than for him to defend those of a regime that does not display genuine determination to fight intolerance and acts of violence against the Coptic community. Moreover, it appears that the Coptic Church’s involvement in political matters detracts from its status in the eyes of many Copts, and is increasingly eroding its power within this community.

[1] @694641294043122. Facebook.com, 12 December 2018.  Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[2] @ra2y3aam. Facebook.com, 7 December 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[3] @AlaaAswany. Twitter.com, 6 December 2018.  Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[4] @ ra2y3aam. Facebook.com, 7 December 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018; @nagah.boulis Facebook.com, 14 December 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[5] @AlaaAswany. Twitter.com 7 December 2018.  Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[6] Nader Shukry, "Killer of two Minya Copts charged with premeditated murder", Watani, December 17 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018

[7] #‏عايزين_البابا_يصلي_قداس_العيد_في_المنيا

[8] @taranemcom. Facebook.com, 13 December 2018.  Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[9]  ‫#‏تكلموا_قبل_أن_تتكلم_السماء

[10] @Nashaat.Nasr . Facebook.com,14-19 December 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018; ‫#‏عايزين_البابا_يصلي_قداس_العيد_في_المنيا

[11] @dmc. Youtube.com,17 December 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018.

[12] @coptstoday. Facebook.com, 18 December 2018. Last accessed 19 December 2018.