At St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Palatine, Ill., above the altar where the priest waves incense while reciting the liturgy and between panels of Eastern iconography, a signature—through surprising—element of Coptic decor is displayed: an ostrich egg.
The story goes that as an ostrich dutifully watches its egg until it hatches, so God watches over humankind until its “hatching”: the resurrection.
For years, Copts have followed the lead of their patriarch, the late Pope Shenouda III, in his support for former president Hosni Mubarak, who at least promised to protect religious minorities from hostile Islamist forces. But since the revolution that ousted the autocrat last February, many Christians are starting to emerge from their shells as a new revolution hatches. More than ever, Coptic Christians are speaking out about their distrust of the government and even the Church.
“[The Coptic Church] feels its voice now,” says American journalist Jayson Casper, who has been living in Cairo and attending a Coptic church with his family since 2009. “After the revolution, people said we don’t need to simply accept the situations we have. We cannot afford to let the church represent us politically or be quiet on what we believe in.”
Now Egypt’s largest religious minority is in the center of the debate over the new Egypt’s cultural identity.
The factors are many. An Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. A highly Islamist parliament (which was later dissolved by the courts on a technicality). A decree from the president that gives him temporary authority over those same courts until a constitution is finalized on December 15. A draft constitution with Islamist elements, which has been hotly disputed by Egyptian liberals and Christians.
The Egyptian controversy is complex, and rife with misunderstanding. What does it mean for Egypt’s Christians?
First of all, who are they?
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is a 19-century-old Egyptian tradition that traces its roots to St. Mark (as in, The Gospel According to) and has 12 to 15 million adherents worldwide—mostly in Egypt, where Christians make up around 10 percent of the population. The history of monasticism starts with the Copts, who began living communally in deserts in the 4th century. Coptic liturgies performed today, which are hours-long and filled with incense, chanting and song, date back at least that far.
But Christianity in Egypt is diverse. Like Christians in any country, they may be quietly devout, charismatic, conservative, liberal or indifferent.
With the draft constitution up for a public referendum this Saturday, a lot is at stake for all of Egypt’s Christians this week. Now is a good time to clarify the recent unrest and how it relates to Coptic Church. Here are three clarifications.
1) The issue is not Christians vs. Muslims.
For Egyptian Christians, finding their voice now means aligning with millions of likeminded Muslims and secularists. While most Egyptian Christians disapprove of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition is made up of both Muslims and Christians alike. The National Salvation Front, an opposition movement against Morsi’s constitutional decree, includes members from various religious backgrounds who have publicly rejected the draft constitution, in part because they believe the Shariah proposed in the document is not representative of Egyptian society, Muslim or Christian.
Joseph Fahim, a liberal Copt and senior film critic for Variety Arabia, who wrote a popular op-ed detailing his reaction to Morsi’s election, sees this played out in the Tahrir Square protests. “Nothing felt like it had anything to do with being a Christian, or a Muslim,” he says. “The spirit was jubilant and boisterous.”
2) Religious freedom is not the only issue Christians are concerned with.
In an interview with Egyptian television network Al-Nahar, opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei expressed a common sentiment among liberal Muslims and Christians regarding recent events:
“The revolution did not take place 20 months ago so we could see something like this,” he says. “The revolution was waged for the sake of bread, freedom and social justice. We have not seen even a part of these so far.”
Christians want to know if their religious freedom will be protected. But they also want to know if the government can bring youth unemployment down. Can it end shortages of bread and fuel? Can it create a safe place for women and children? Is the Muslim Brotherhood capable of delivering a prosperous and just society?
For Fahim, the Brotherhood and allied Islamists fall short. Others are suspending judgment—at least for now.
“Egyptians should give Morsi and his government ample time and opportunity to see if they can follow through on the promises they’ve made,” says Mohamad Elmasry, an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. “All Egyptians should have a healthy degree of skepticism and try to hold the president and parliament to account.”
3) Shariah hasn’t always been a problem for Christians.
Article 2 of Egypt’s draft constitution reads: “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Shariah are the main source of legislation.”
This actually isn’t a surprise to Egyptian Christians. It’s the same language used in the previous constitution, and Christian leaders, including Protestant leader Safwat al-Baiady, supported it early in the draft process. Islam, as the majority religion, inevitably informs many aspects of Egyptian law and culture. Most liberal Muslims and Christians accept this and have been able to live as citizens under a broadly defined Shariah with room for interpretation.
Al-Baiady and other Christian leaders eventually left the constitutional draft process not because of Article 2 but because of other articles that specified Shariah to more hardline interpretations. Unlike the previous constitution, the draft further defines Shariah and gives the final say in disputes to outside Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar, a top Sunni learning center. Though Al-Azhar scholars are traditionally moderate, the new article made many Copts uncomfortable.
For Coptic Christians, the goal is not to void Egypt’s government of Muslim influence altogether but to prevent extremists in power from taking Shariah too far—by limiting their own practice of faith and putting the safety of Christians at risk.
Some Copts, like Fahim, believe this has already happened.
“The fact that we are under such a thing as the Muslim Brotherhood is our biggest nightmare,” he says. “I think we’re past the point where Copts can support the government.”
But Coptic scholar Rafik Habib, former vice chairman of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, sees a moderate Islamic state that protects religious freedom as preferable to a Mubarak-style secular state, which marginalized religious thought and kept it from the public sphere. He said in a 2010 Arab West Report interview:
Nowadays Christianity exists inside the church but is limited to the Christian community. Thus, secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under the Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.
Habib has since criticized Egyptians for undermining democratically elected Islamist leaders through recent protests instead of honoring the electoral process. While many Copts disagree with Habib’s optimistic views of the Brotherhood, most Copts are willing to work alongside an Islamic-influenced moderate government.
The debate is far from over, and it probably won’t end with Saturday’s referendum. Both sides, liberal and Islamist, have made undemocratic moves for the sake of preserving what they perceive to be the aims of the revolution. At the center has been Copts, who are experiencing a new independence, no longer represented by one religious authority or political party but voicing their own diverse opinions.
The Copts are facing turmoil, growth spurts and confusion, but also a renewed confidence. They are finding their voices. And perhaps, through it all, they will experience a powerful rebirth.