On 23 September the popular Al Jazeera program Beyond the Borders featured the interview, available here in Arabic, "Accusations the Coptic Church Is Aggressively Encroaching Against Egypt and its Laws." Because I believe the interview represents a threat against the Copts, I am translating it rather than merely presenting a summary (which has already been done here). The translation is abridged only to avoid repetition and statements not germane to the main topic. It is quite long and will be divided into two parts, with part two available here.
My own comments will follow the interview, which was held between host Ahmed Mansour and Muslim scholar Muhammad Salim Awah.
Ahmad: Greetings from Cairo. Egypt is experiencing a period of unprecedented religious polarization with the Copts demanding their right to evangelize Muslims, build churches freely, and occupy high positions in the government while at the same time motivating international organizations and Western governments to take action against the Egyptian government. The government says it is giving more to the Copts every day, especially following Pope Shenouda's announcement last year that the Church supports the transfer of power from President Mubarak to his son Gamal. Some observers have gone so far as to say that the government's acquiescence to Coptic demands could threaten national stability. Others fear it will result in Egypt's Muslim majority having to seek their own rights in their own country. In a response to these Coptic demands in 2007, the Minister of Manpower announced that the Copts, who form only 6 percent of Egypt's population, possess one-third of the country's wealth and own Egypt's largest automobile, communications, and construction companies. She pointed out that a recent edition of Forbes magazine noted that 3 Copts were on the list of the Middle East's top billionaires, whereas not a single Egyptian Muslim was on the list. The Copts also occupy many important positions in the Egyptian government, including two Ministries, and are 25% of the members in the pharmaceutical and medical unions. According to some reports, Copts hold 40% of the capital in Egyptian banks.
The situation reached a new level when the Copts began demanding their right to proselytize Muslims and protect new converts, especially women. This raises an entire new set of questions for the Pope related to the freedom of religious choice, compliance to the laws of Egypt, and the strong relationship that has linked Copts and Muslims in Egypt for 14 centuries. Our guest for this interview is one who has closely followed this subject, scholar and legal professor Dr. Muhammad Salim Al Awah. Greetings.
Muhammad: Greetings to you.
Ahmad: In a 2009 interview Pope Shenouda described Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt as abnormal. What brought this relationship, which was strong for 14 centuries except for isolated incidents of unrest, to this low level?
Muhammad: Let me begin by saying that the Coptic-Muslim relationship in Egypt is a brotherly, long lasting, humanitarian one that cannot be broken or divided. It cannot be broken in the sense that it has existed throughout history. It cannot be divided in the sense that anyone who imagines the Copts leaving the fabric of Egyptian society to establish their own state, or anyone who fancies forcing the Copts out to form a new country is deceiving himself. This long-standing relationship can be damaged by corruption, neglect, and mistakes made on both sides, but it will endure.
If the Pope were speaking today, his words would be even more pessimistic. Coptic-Muslim relations have been deteriorating since 2003 when Wafa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic Priest, was forcibly returned to the church by the state following her conversion to Islam. Following counseling sessions that were unsuccessful in convincing her to leave Islam, she was taken to a monastery that we always suspected was the Father Maqar Monastery. The second-highest official in the Coptic Church, Father Bishoy, recently confirmed she is indeed there working as a translator, and that anyone is free to visit her. The first part is true, but the second part is a bald-faced lie. No one can visit her!
Ahmad: But Father Bishoy added that the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) knows where she is, and that she has retained her Christianity.
Muhammad: Again, the first part is correct. the MOI knows where she is and how she spends every second of her day. They monitor the activities of the monasteries. But his statement that she is still a Christian is a complete lie. Wafa converted to Islam and she remained a Muslim after she was turned over to the church by the state in spite of the immense pressure put on her.
Ahmad: The government prohibited her freedom of choice when it turned her over to the church. Why is the government powerless in front of the church?
Muhammad: The government is weak because it is a dictatorship of tyranny, oppression, and corruption. When it is weak, it is subject to pressure. One of our political figures has said that because the government was weak, it concedes to the church in turning over converts to Islam. Where is our constitution that exists to protect freedom of chose? Those women who chose Islam and are now imprisoned have been denied their right to choose.
Ahmad: Even while preparing this program I noticed a daily escalation in the Coptic-Muslim polemic. Some Copts say the Pope and the church represent a red line that cannot be criticized, but even President Mubarak is criticized by the Egyptian press. Does the constitution allow anything in Egypt to be above criticism?
Muhammad: No one is above criticism, and everyone is accountable to the constitution.
Ahmad: But the church as a whole is above and beyond the limits of the constitution!
Muhammad: The church and some Copts want that, including the Father Bishoy you referred to earlier. He wants the church to be above the law and the constitution. That would be a tragic mistake which would put part of the state above the state itself, and cause the whole state to collapse. Their demand that the Pope not be accountable to the constitution is an impossible situation no one will accept.
Ahmad: I read several articles recently, including some written by Copts, that accuse the Pope of isolating the Copts. Who is really to blame? If the Coptic-Muslim relationship lasted 14 centuries, why is the reign of Pope Shenouda III bringing it to the brink of disintegration?
Muhammad: Ever since Pope Shenouda was exiled by President Sadat to the Monastery of Saint Bishoy in 1981 and only allowed to return to Cairo 5 years later, the church has increasingly confronted Muslim organizations to the point it insists Muslim medical and educational programs cease. From time to time it demands Islamic education be lessened in the schools. Ever since the Pope's return, church officials have been making irresponsible unfounded statements that inflame the Arab street. This reached a zenith with the Wafa Constantine frenzy in 2003, and since then Muslims have been unable to relax. How can they, when a convert to Islam can be turned over by the government to an institution that is above the law and can be imprisoned by that institution in an unknown location? From 2003 until just a few days ago no one even knew where Wafa Constantine was being held. That is more than seven years!
Ahmad: What would cause the Republic of Egypt to concede its authority and give equal power to what some have called the Republic of Pope Shenouda?
Muhammad: The church is more than a republic, it's an empire! A republic has laws and a constitution that provides rights and responsibilities to its citizens. But what happens inside the church is subject to the power of the church, and no one can do anything about it.
Ahmad: Father Bishoy confirmed that today, when he said that what happens inside the church concerns only the church, and all others are guests. Are Muslims only guests?
Muhammad: Can you imagine that more than 14 centuries after Islam entered Egypt a senior Coptic official like Father Bishoy, who is in charge of church discipline, could say something like that?
Ahmad: He was quoted as saying, "Do you Muslims want to govern us in our own churches?"
Muhammad: No, we do not want to govern the churches, but the legal system in Egypt governs all of Egypt's institutions including the Coptic church. Can you believe what he said? This Father Bishoy is saying, We welcome Muslims as guests - the Muslims who represent 94% of Egypt's population - but now they want to govern our churches! If you read the entire interview, you will see that these comments had nothing to do with the questions that were being asked him. Why would he go beyond the subject to say things like that? It is because there are hostilities suppressed in his mind, buried in his subconscious.
Ahmad: They want to do whatever they want with no accountability.
Muhammad: You are correct. This shows there is a deeply buried antagonism in the church that wants to create sectarian strife in this country and set it on fire. By God, any Muslim who would accept...
Ahmad: Father Bishoy is the second most powerful man in the church, and he can say things like this and no one takes him to task. But there is much more. Last year Pope Shenouda announced on the TV station owned by Coptic billionaire Naguib Suwaris that he favored Gamal Mubarak assuming the Presidency after his father, and that the Copts would follow suit. He said that the alternative to Gamal Mubarak was ignorance. Is there a tacit agreement between the government and the church about this?
Muhammad: This is not the first time the Pope made that announcement. It was first stated in 2005 at an international Coptic conference in Egypt with attendees from all over the world. They came together to determine only one matter, which was Coptic support for President Mubarak and his son. Of course anyone has the right to support Gamal Mubarak, but if the church votes as a bloc it will destroy the country.
From the time of Muslim reformer Saad Zaghloul until now, people have struggled to make Egypt a non-sectarian country. The main objection to the Muslim Brotherhood has always been their desire to have a religious state. If the Copts join the ruling party as a religious bloc, they will be able to elect candidates of their choice. Father Bishoy said in his interview that President Mubarak has been the best thing for the Copts. So why are they complaining?
Ahmad: He also said Gamal Mubarak loves the Copts.
Muhammad: Exactly. So why are they flooding the world with their demonstrations and complaints of persecution and discrimination? They want to create social unrest that will destroy everything. This dissension is being led by the church.
Ahmad: The church leaders aren't being blamed for anything and do whatever they want with impunity. If it is true that they have an agreement with the government, and can do whatever they want...
Muhammad: And if the country is set on fire as a result of this agreement?
Ahmad: Who said it will be set on fire?
Muhammad: It will be if things keep going the way they are.
Ahmad: They say they are oppressed and are demanding more rights. They want the right to build churches. They have established an organization to proselytize Muslims led by a woman who converted from Islam, and claim this is their right. Father Bishoy said in a previous interview they are even granting certificates to Christians who convert from Islam.
Muhammad: Muslim scholar Dr. Nabil Luka Bibawi just published a book about Muslims who become Christians, and vice versa. He said that efforts to convert Muslims are shrouded in complete secrecy with no government control, whereas dawah to Islam takes place in the open with full knowledge of the government and conversions publicly registered at Al Azhar University. These secret attempts to convert Muslims are serious and dangerous, but that is not the subject of our conversation today. We are now talking about their claim that we Muslims are their "guests", that only they have the right to govern inside their churches, and the statement of Pope Shenouda that no legal charge can be brought against them for anything they do that is in accordance with church doctrine. My God!
Ahmad: According to Christian tradition, the church does not get involved in politics. The election of Egypt's president, whether it be Gamal Mubarak or anyone else, is a political and not a religious issue. But all these Coptic statements are political statements.
Muhammad: They are clear political issues that have nothing to do with Christian teaching, which is to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. If you bring this up to Father Bishoy he replies, "This is our country. Do you want us to not speak about the politics of our country? And the Muslims are our guests!" This kind of talk will have repercussions and is very, very dangerous. God knows the fire that will be lit as a result of these statements. I call upon Pope Shenouda to renounce them rather than start a fire.
Ahmad: Are you calling on him to make a recorded statement?
Muhammad: Yes, and to renounce what Father Bishoy said. If these statements are not condemned, they will set the whole country on fire.
Ahmad: Matters are much more serious than that. Last month the Egyptian Security Forces interdicted a cargo ship coming from Israel with explosives hidden in its holds intended for Egypt. They arrested the owner of the ship, Joseph Gabalwi, who is son of the Deputy Bishop of Port Said, Boutros Gablawi. The public prosecutor wants to search the churches in Port Said, and there are many reports that the monasteries there are stockpiled with weapons. According to the Copts, however, their monasteries and churches are beyond state control and cannot be searched. Meanwhile Muslims are arrested daily on weapons and extremism charges.
Muhammad: That is correct.
Ahmad: No one can deny this information, which is public knowledge. There are many reports of weapons stored in monasteries, and these things coming from Israel.
Muhammad: First of all, I am extremely sorry that this involves Deputy Bishop Boutros Gabalwi. His father was the pastor of the church on the street where I grew up in Alexandria and his sons, including Boutros were all our childhood friends. In spite of this, he and his son got involved in this crime that reached the point of smuggling weapons from Israel to be stored in their churches that could only be used against the Muslims.
Father Bishoy said today they were even willing to seek martyrdom. Martyrdom can only be achieved in warfare. The church and some of its leaders are preparing for war against the Muslims. The tragedy is that these stories are not being followed in the press; even the story you mentioned of the intercepted ship was given hardly any media coverage after it was first reported although the press is full of stories every day about Muslims who supposedly do something wrong. Hardly a word was written about this Copt who is importing explosives from Israel!
Ahmad: I have many small clippings, such as the one you mentioned from 2005 where the Pope said they would support President Mubarak and his son. No one pays any attention to them, even though they are important and dangerous.
Muhammad: No one pays any attention to these attempts to spread sedition in the country. The media is frightened and cowardly and they only publish these items on a small side column where no one will read them. They do not realize that when Father Bishoy talks about martyrdom, he is talking about war!