This is a full transcript of an interview that was conducted in late October, in St. Georges Coptic Centre, UK.
What were your first thoughts when you heard about what happened on October 9th?
When we heard what happened at Mespiro it was tragic and very confusing. I was on the telephone with one of our young people who was at the demonstration. He said it was fine and peaceful and they were waiting for people to arrive from one of our predominantly Christian neighborhoods. Then ten minutes later I received another phone call from a reporter I know in Cairo who said they had been driving by and had just heard some gunshots in the square. And so I phoned this young person I know and lo and behold, in just ten minutes things had turned around.
Then I was here in London, I travelled to Cairo the following morning. We were watching the news and it was horrific to see an obviously peaceful demonstration, it was a family demonstration, there were women, children, elderly people, and to see gunfire, and military vehicles being driven into and over demonstrators, it was horrific.
The generals said that the soldiers had panicked, at the size of the crowd and also the fact that they had been attacked. What do you make of that?
I generally think that soldiers who panic and cause death are worthy of court martial, or at least a trial in a military court. Because I think that soldiers are trained for military situations, and military situations are not calm situations. They are meant hopefully to be able to deal with situations of much pressure, tense situations, and if they are going to panic because men, women and children start to run, because they are being chased down by military vehicles, I hate to think what they would do at war.
The same soldiers were very restrained at Tahrir square during the uprising in February…
In Tahrir square, even on that awful night when people were killed, the army sat back and did nothing at all. They were pleaded with to do something and they did nothing. What we have also seen is that in the past several months, since the revolution, there have been hundreds of protests, sit-ins, marches and this level of force has never been used by the army. Justifiably, because I think the army is not there to use this level of aggression against their own people. What is astounding is that even during the attack on the Israeli embassy, which by all international treaties is an act of trespassing on sovereign territory, and potentially an act of war, nothing was done, the army didn’t use this level of aggression. So it’s just strange that the policy and the reaction would change so much.
Some claim the generals provoked the incident to keep a hold on power, others say the military council has been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood…
I think people much wiser than I do not really know what happened that night. I don’t know. All I know is that it went against every semblance of appropriate action by an army against civilian demonstrators. Whether people had infiltrated the military council, people infiltrated the demonstration, people infiltrated the military itself, there was no justification for that sort of reaction.
And I don’t understand what went through the officers’ minds, even if it was the soldiers doing it. Did they not think they would be under scrutiny, did they not think people would be watching? Did they not think they would be accountable?
Then there are accounts of the state television calling upon people to go and protect the soldiers from the Christians… what happened there?
Again, it was apparently a change of regime, but only by name. Because the state media has always had this problem of integrity in Egypt, unfortunately. And we thought that after the revolution things would be different, but again that wasn’t the case. For a reporter to come out and call upon the general public to support the army because the Christians were attacking them, and then to actually try to justify what she had done the next day and not be called to account, that’s just implausible. The broadcasting organization for whom she works must have rules and regulations about what reporters can and cannot do. And even if that is not the case, there is a standing law in Egypt against incitement to religious conflict. Why wouldn’t that be called into place at the moment? So again, it seems that lots of rules are either being misapplied or not applied at all, or tailored to the situation.
To add insult to injury, after these occurrences we had that quite bizarre press conference held by the military council in which they tried to completely exonerate themselves, and make those absurd remarks. How could that possibly have seemed to be a plausible and wise reaction, when there is footage of people being driven into by the armed personnel carriers. How can we be told that they were running away, when there is footage of them actually running into people? How can we be told that the army didn’t even fire, and then be told that the protesters actually stole weapons from the army and shot at the army. Well if the army was armed how can you say they weren’t, and if they weren’t armed how can you say that protesters stole their weapons?
What are 10 to 12 million Christians doing in a Muslim country anyway?
Well very briefly Christians have been in Egypt since the first century. When you talk about Coptic orthodox it just means Egyptian orthodox. So the copts are the indigenous people of Egypt and they have been there for two thousand years. They are the direct descendants of the pharaohs whereas Islam only entered into Egypt in the seventh century.
So I think Christianity is seen to be there far before Egypt started to take on the appearance of an Islamic state, or an Arab state, for that matter. The Arab state status only came in during the days of Nasser, in the 50s who really wanted to bond more with the Arab identity.
The Christian presence in Egypt is the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East. The numbers in Egypt are between 10 and 12 million. Obviously the state would have it appear as much less, but whatever it is it is the largest presence in the Middle East, and therefore it is the last significant presence of Christianity in the region, after a huge drain of Christians from most other Middle Eastern countries.
Discrimination, what are the main complaints?
Although the Christians in Egypt are a minority in terms of demographics, we do not want to seek minority status, because as I said we are an indigenous people, and we don’t want to be marginalized in our own country.
The injustices and inequalities are numerable; I’ll give you just a few examples.
There are no senior ranking Christians in the intelligence services. In the army Christians will get to a certain level and then be retired. In public life, whether it is lecturers at universities, deans, professors, to my knowledge there is not a single one. Governors, there is one, in all of Egypt. So this is just one area, high ranking and high profile positions.
Very few judges.
Again, very few high ranking.
But then we look at other aspects of life, like attacks on churches and attacks on Christians that have gone completely unprosecuted and therefore without convictions over the past decades… It really makes Christians become soft and legitimate targets, because when you have attack after attack where people get away and are not prosecuted, then others see this and realize that they are not at any risk. They can, as has happened in the past few months, take bulldozers to a church and demolish it, nobody is going to do anything, burn a church down, nobody is going to do anything, raid the church with swords and weapons and kill people and nobody is going to do anything, and so on and so forth.
I have read accounts of young Coptic girls being kidnapped, forcibly converted and married off to Muslims. Does this really happen?
Absolutely. What is debatable is the number of cases, many will say there are more or less. But if there is only one of those cases that is a complete travesty, that somebody who is a minor can be taken and be forced into a conversion, so even if there is only one case, and there are very, very many, but even if there is only one it is a travesty, it shouldn’t happen.
What do the police do in these situations?
Well, again, the reactions have been varied but generally quite lax and negative, and not wanting to be involved to the extent that sometimes we feel that the security forces in certain areas are party to what is going on, just by their mere neglect and tunring a blind eye to it and not investigating properly and just dismissing everything as conspiracy theories, or saying that it isn’t really happening, or that they made choices, even though there is a rule that says that if somebody wants to convert they must be given an opportunity to sit with advisors of their own faith first, to be advised before they take the step, in many cases this doesn’t happen.
You have made a list of significant complaints, have things changed since the fall of Mubarak’s regime?
Yes they have changed, they have actually gotten worse. Because in the last ten months we have had somewhere in the region of 40 incidents in nine months as opposed to the same number of incidents in the preceding two years. We have had significantly more, and they have been more intense. Because we really hadn’t had a case of a church being burnt down, in contemporary history, we hadn’t had a case of a church being bulldozed to the ground. We haven’t had a case of people in a village deciding to turn up and just say we don’t want this church here, the villagers must leave, that’s ethnic cleansing.
If one faction of society goes into a village and says they don’t want the other faction there, and the government does nothing to rectify that, that is ethnic cleansing.
During the revolution Christians and Muslims were side by side in Tahrir square. It gave an idea of national cohesion. In your experience have the two communities actually been driven further apart?
They definitely have grown apart, because of the mismanagement of the previous regime. I have always been calling for a very active and positive programme of social cohesion and nation building. When you marginalize a certain part of the community for long enough then they take a step back, and then the other part of the community push them back even further.
At the time of the revolution I think people were much more positive and looking forward to a much more positive future. And that could have ideally been the case. Unfortunately only a few weeks into it we had cases of radical factions turning up and burning down churches and demolishing churches. Now in any society, in any nation you are going to have a rogue element, but it is how the state deals with that. And like I said earlier, if you have situation after situation and nothing is done about it, people see this as a green light to continue. And so what could have been a very good start, what was a very good start, actually turned into something very negative. Now there is still hope, if there is a change of attitude, if there is a change of direction, a change of leadership, there is still hope. Because Egypt now is in a formative stage, and it can be very different. But if it is not dealt with things will just continue to get worse.
It would seem to an outsider that life must be much easier if you are a Muslim. Is there a problem with conversions to Islam, is that a threat to the Christian community?
Oh, absolutely. If somebody converts from Christianity to Islam they are paraded in the streets and rejoiced with, and a huge deal is made out of it. If somebody converts from Islam to Christianity, and in theory, according to the Koran, there is no conversion in religion, we find these people are persecuted, marginalized, threatened, their lives are at risk. They must relocate, sometimes outside the country or, if they stay, they stay hidden, as closet Christians who cannot openly practice their faith, so it is very imbalanced in that way.
But is it even legal to convert from Islam to Christianity?
What people will say to you, and this is the technicality, is that of course, you can do what you want. But the state will not change your religion on your state ID. Recently there has been talk about changing that law, but what is ridiculous is that at one stage they said «OK fine, we will change your state ID but we won’t say that you are Christian, but that you were once Muslim». And that really is like signing a death warrant. Because every time you show your ID people will look at you as an infidel. But that fortunately didn’t happen, but not because of any common sense, it didn’t happen because the system couldn’t fit that amount of characters into the space they had assigned.
What was your feeling at the time of the revolution?
Unfortunately I was one of the skeptics. I could see what would happen today, back then. I knew that the state apparatus, and the mindset and the heart of the community wasn’t yet ready to embrace that. And I knew that it would be euphoric for a while, and I was there right after the revolution, I was there in February, and people were still very euphoric, and very positive, but unfortunately it was not sustainable. And what made it even less sustainable was the military council and government’s inability to maintain a firm level of law and order, which made people accountable. So it became, in its essence, a time when people became vigilantes, taking law into their own hands, and doing things for which they were never held accountable.
The Coptic hierarchy was cautiously silent. Why was that?
I think the manifestation of what we have now explains why we were cautiously silent. Because while many people jumped on a very fast moving band wagon, few people were focused on where we were going, and it became very fashionable to jump on the bandwagon, but through experience and knowledge of the setting, I think we were very cautious and we knew where it was potentially going to go.
What has the attitude of the hierarchy been now? Has His Holiness pope Shenouda spoken out?
Well he is very disappointed obviously, as we all are. His Holiness has expressed that disappointment, and has expressed the utter horror at what has happened to his children, and has also asked for justice. We are not vindictive, we don’t want people brought to account because we want to prove a point, or settle those accounts, but because people died, and those lives have value, and when there is a rule of law in the state those rules must be applied, to at least investigate and then prosecute.
Things seem to have changed. There are still problems, but it seems as if the Christians have had enough, and now they rise up. Peacefully, but they rise up. Is this the case?
Absolutely, I was in a press conference and I was asked about fear. And I don’t think anyone fears. I think if there was another demonstration today you would still have tens of thousands of people going out. I think these sorts of things build up resilience. Not a violent resilience, not of civil disobedience, because even this protest march was applied for and run very legally. I think this just makes people defiant in wanting justice and in wanting equality, in every aspect of their lives.
Looking at Syria, being a Christian leader yourself, and taking into account what has been happening in Egypt, what would you say to the Christians in Syria?
I don’t think I am in a position to say anything to the Christians in Syria, because I think everyone makes their own assessment within their own environment and knowledge. But I don’t know if many people would blame the Christians in Syria for continuing to support the regime, after seeing what is going on, particularly in Egypt, it is a very similar situation, and if they see that the fall of even what people may see is a corrupt regime, if all it brings is more disorder, more persecution and more attacks, what purpose could that serve in their minds?
There is a significant Coptic diaspora in Western countries. Is assimilation seen as a threat?
First of all as a church we don’t use the word diaspora, because diaspora would infer a mass exodus whereas in fact the vast majority of Coptic Christians still live in Egypt. The number of Christians outside of Egypt is maximum 10%. And we don’t see assimilation as a threat, assimilation is what we should be doing, but not losing our identity. So we don’t become rigid and alienated from our surrounding community, we become part of that community and become part of the life of that community, keeping our own Christian integrity but also being good citizens and interacting with the people around us.
Has that worked?
I think so, our own experience in Australia and here, the people here become British Copts, with everything that means. They input into the community positively, they are faithful with their work, they are law abiding productive members, they care about their communities, but they also hold onto their Christian faith, their Coptic heritage, their life as life in the world, and salt in the world, and they fulfill that function of being the image of God in the world around them.