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Fatwas Part Seventy
European-Middle Eastern Encounters
Pope Shenouda’s recent remarks are a lesson in nationalism for all Egy
A Reproach to the Moderate Muslims of Egypt

Ragab Ramadan’s news clip in Al-Masy Al-Youm on 2/19/07 describes Pope Shenouda’s recent remarks on potential changes to the second article of the Constitution of Egypt. This article states that Islam is the main religion of the state and that Sharia law is the main source of legislation. Unfortunately, Ramadan did not present his facts as a proper journalist, with unbiased and factual delivery. Instead, he twisted the Coptic leader’s comments, implying that Copts do not want any changes. Despite these flagrant inaccuracies, this clip spread like wildfire over the Internet, causing some Muslims to gloat and many Copts embarrassment and shame. I know that Pope Shenouda does not support aggressive and adversarial confrontation with the government. He is a religious leader, not a political one, and therefore only commented on the spirituality of change, not on the political debate inherent in the change. Appropriate to his position as a religious leader, he simply stated that if the Copts are going to demand change, change should happen in a peaceful way. Pope Shenouda’s comments also showed the importance of the involvement of the Muslims in this debate. He stressed the point that changing the 2nd article of the Constitution is not a Coptic issue - it is an Egyptian issue. The Pope’s statements are in line with a long-standing tradition of Copts who will always sacrifice for national unity. Copts have consistently shown their commitment to protect their cherished Egypt. Let us examine some examples of Coptic sacrifice for national unity: In 1907, the Copts demonstrated a great faith in the national effort by joining the pro-Islamic al-Watani movement to call for the removal of the British occupation. However, party leadership and party goals changed to promote strict Islamic policies, causing prominent Copts to leave al-Watani party leadership. In reaction to this change, many moderate Muslims and Christians formed the al-Ummah movement in order to promote national unity. Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, co-founder of the al-Ummah Party, promoted the slogan “Egypt for the Egyptians.” The Party succeeded in defining the Egyptian identity as separate from the Ottoman identity. Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid specifically stated that the national movement was in support of the Copts because the movement supported all Egyptians – Christians and Muslims. Despite this, Coptic-Muslim relations continued to suffer under the combined strain of British rule and pro-Islamic Khedivial policies. In 1911, a Coptic conference was organized under the leadership of the Bishop of Asyout in reaction to the assassination of Boutros Ghali. At the conference, public demands were made for Coptic rights, and immediately, an Islamic sectarian response developed. The tensions improved with the 1919 Revolution and the founding of the Wafd party. The leader of the Wafd party, Saad Zaghloul, was particularly sensitive to the Coptic demands and asked for three Copts to be nominated to his party. Saad Zaghloul also declared that Copts had the same rights and obligations as Muslims. Coptic men and women then threw themselves wholeheartedly into the Revolution. In 1920, the British continued to resort to the old tactics of divide and conquer by appointing a Copt as Prime Minister. In a show of unity – and to reject any sectarian division - over 2,000 people met at the Greater Murqussia church to protest the divisionary tactics of the British. One Copt even attempted to assassinate the Copt nominated for Prime Minister, Yousef Wahbeh. This protest movement shows the strong desire of the Copts to stay committed to national unity, even at the expense of their own possible promotion in government. Copts also rejected the British communal policies (a policy which put religious membership quotas in place for Parliament and other posts) in the Egyptian constitution. Both the Watani and the Wafd parties also rejected the inclusion of confessional representation stating that this was not the best way to represent minority rights, but yet another divisionary tactic.* These examples run in stark contrast to the reactions of Christians in other countries in similar situations. For example, Lebanon accepted the quotas set out by the French, and now that country is torn with civil war; sectarian strife and violence is rampant. The only reason that Egypt is different from countries like Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan is because Egyptian Christians have continued to fight for what is best for Egypt, even at the expense of their own rights. Prior to the 1952 Army Coup, moderate Muslims took positive steps in fighting for equality for all citizens. Unfortunately, since this revolution, Copts have continued to sacrifice, but moderate Muslims have held back support and now remain totally silent on the issue of civil rights for all members of society. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all organized and sponsored grave acts of discrimination against the Copts. Copts are now alienated, in a separate and lower class from other citizens. This has happened with almost no protest from the Moderate Muslims. Here are a few examples of government acts of discrimination: Enforcement of the old Hamioni law, which greatly restricts the building and repairing of churches and monasteries. Lack of promotion or appointment for Copts in higher government positions, the army, and universities. Different treatment of Christians who have converted to Islam as compared to those who have converted to Christianity. The government sponsors a policy that leads to a great number of Coptic men and women converting to Islam. Government promoted radical education and media against the Copts. Despite these injustices, the Egyptian Copts have demonstrated the need for peaceful behavior and consideration for national unity. Pope Shenouda realizes that any protest from the Copts could crack the bonds of national unity, which is why he made such remarks to Al-Masry Al-Youm. Pope Shenouda knew exactly what he was saying when he spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm. He was calling for Copts to act in a peaceful manner if they are to demand change, and when he spoke of the 2nd article of the Constitution, he said the Muslims – and not the Christians - should debate it because if only the Christians objected and demanded change to this article, it could lead to sectarian divisions. The Pope acted wisely in choosing his words. In my opinion, the 2nd article of the Constitution is not good for Egyptians. Here’s why: The second article of the Constitution is a disadvantage to all citizens of Egypt because it destroys the concept of national unity and prevents the inclusion of all citizens to take pride in their country, and to share this pride with their neighbors, regardless of their religion. The second article of the Constitution is extremely ambiguous, especially when it comes to determining legislation based on Sharia law. It does not specify which sect or subgroup of Islam – and we all know there are many – will govern. This leads to a dangerously wide range of interpretations, from the radical to the moderate. Due to the aforementioned ambiguity, sheiks and mullahs become the source of authority to interpret legislation. The personal opinions of the sheikhs carry a lot of weight in these decisions, and that gives them unprecedented authority. Therefore, we face the danger of the sheiks running the state while the government follows. Pope Shenouda’s words are a lesson in nationalism for all of us. The above examples show the need for the Muslim majority to speak out to promote national unity. I know the environment of fear that exists in Egypt, but Egypt is changing, and dissenting voices are more acceptable now. No one can stifle multiple dissenting voices if they are loud enough. To the moderate Muslims of Egypt who spoke out in defense of the Copts, including Farag Fouda, who gave his life for the cause; Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour, who was exiled from his home country; and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was jailed – we thank you for fighting for national unity in Egypt. To my friends, the silent moderate Muslim Egyptians: Remember your fathers and grandfathers, and how their reactions to Egyptian unity 80 years ago produced the 1923 Constitution that we all dream of having. It is time for you to return the sacrifices that your Coptic neighbors have made in order to promote national unity.

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