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Christians in Egypt: Much Light, But Shadows Still Loom

In an interview with the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Coptic Catholic Bishop Kyrillos Samaan of Assiut talked about the situation of the Catholic Church, relations with Islam and ecumenism with the Orthodoxy. A situation which is improving in part due to the common declaration signed two years ago in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University.

Interview conducted by Oliver Maksan for ACN International

Egypt, Cairo, 29 April 2017 Pope Francis arrives in Egypt for an historic two-day visit with an aim of fostering peace between the Muslim and Christian-minority community. Pope Francis delivers his homily during a Mass he celebrated for Egypt’s tiny Catholic community, at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo, Saturday, April 29, 2017.

ACN: Two years ago, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo signed a joint statement in Abu Dhabi on a shared belief in God and the human fraternity arising from this belief. Has this initiative borne fruit in Egypt?

Bishop Kyrillos Samaan: Definitely. Our Church published and distributed the document here in Egypt. It is a document that is still being cited by Muslims as well. For example, Al-Azhar University held several conferences in February to observe the second anniversary of its signing. I was also invited as a speaker and affirmed that the Pope holds Islam in high esteem, as expressed in such documents as his encyclical Fratelli Tutti. I distributed copies of the text to the governor and other important figures. It was well received.

Is Pope Francis also held in esteem by Muslims in Egypt?

Very much so. He is always being compared with Pope Benedict, who found himself in a difficult position following his Regensburg address in 2006, which was understood as criticism of Islam. Unfounded, of course. But there it was. It is a completely different atmosphere now with Pope Francis. He has a direct line to the Grand Imam in Cairo and visited Egypt in 2017. In his pontificate the relationship between official Islam and the Catholic Church has truly changed for the better.

However, there are still groups that are very much against Christians, such as the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yes, but they no longer have much power. For example, little is heard about the Salafis. They were very vocal in 2012/2013 during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now they have become isolated in the country. Most of the population has become more tolerant of non-Muslims.

Archive Photo 2019: Photo: Bishop Kyrillos William with Bishop Daniel Lotfy at St Anthony Parish, Assiu.

And yet attacks against Christians are still regularly being carried out today. For example, ACN’s Religious Freedom in the World Report mentions the killing of a Coptic Christian in Sinai or the abduction of Christian girls in Upper Egypt.

Yes, but there are far fewer of them. The government is doing everything in its power to prevent them. Recently, a Muslim who had murdered a Christian was even executed. Before, it would have been unthinkable that a believer would be put to death because of an infidel.

The Churches in Egypt often praise the progress that has been made under the government of President Sisi. Things have really improved with regard to the legalization of churches that were built without approval, haven’t?

That is true. I read that about fifty percent of the church buildings in Egypt have, in the meantime, been legalized. However, things here in Assiut are moving forward very slowly. The process is very complicated.

There needs to be a change in mentality. President Sisi frequently talks about the equality of all Egyptians. That is important. Compared with our situation during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, these are golden times for us Christians under Sisi.

When a mosque is built in a new city, he always asks when a church will be built next to it. He often affirms that everyone—Jews, Christians and Muslims—must be allowed to practice their religion freely and be able to build places of worship.

Which requirements need to be met?

Two essentially. You have to be able to prove undisputed ownership of the land on which the church was built. The second is the submission of a plan of the building prepared by a registered architect. There are also special safety requirements.

Considering the situation of the Christians, where do you still see room for improvement?

We are not asking for much and are being realistic. Unfortunately, there are still many people who consider Christians second-class citizens. This will take time.

Bishop Kyrillos Willian Samaan showing his tattooed cross (a mark of Egypts Christians) at ACN Brazil in São Paulo.

How does this become manifest?

For example, Christians are underrepresented at universities. Not only in terms of student numbers, but particularly among the faculty and the administration of the university. Every now and then, a Christian is appointed but this is mere show. Overall, Christians are usually passed over even when they are equally qualified. This is also the case in public administration or the army.

How can this be rectified?

There needs to be a change in mentality. President Sisi frequently talks about the equality of all Egyptians. That is important. Compared with our situation during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, these are golden times for us Christians under Sisi. When a mosque is built in a new city, he always asks when a church will be built next to it. He often affirms that everyone—Jews, Christians and Muslims—must be allowed to practise their religion freely and be able to build places of worship.

However, even under Sisi individual Christians still attract the attention of the state. Serious allegations, even including charges of terrorism, have been made against Coptic activists and government critic Ramy Kamel. These are considered absurd by human rights activists. Is this a sign that, although Christians have freedom of worship under Sisi, there is no political freedom?

Without discussing this specific case, there are restrictions for all Egyptians, irrespective of their religion. These are not specifically targeted at Christians.

Coptic Cross on Bishop Bishay’s house, Luxor, Egypt,

Let’s take a look at the ecumenical relationship with the Coptic Orthodox Church. For several years now, the Catholic Church has expected the Coptic Church to accept Catholics without rebaptism. In spite of the good personal relationship between Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros, this has not happened yet. Why?

From the very first visit of Pope Tawadros to Rome, a close relationship has developed between the two church leaders. At the time, Tawadros promised to address the issue of rebaptism. However, he cautioned that he would first have to convince the Holy Synod of Bishops because this was an issue that could lead to division. Many of the bishops in the synod were appointed by his predecessor, Pope Shenouda. They are very critical of ecumenism.

Has Tawadros given up in the face of the criticism?

No. At the time, Pope Tawadros instructed Abbot Epiphanios of the Monastery of St. Macarius, who has since passed away, to work on changing the minds of those who advocated rebaptism. The abbot used very convincing arguments stemming from Coptic tradition. He was also entrusted with the drafting of a corresponding document. Based on the wording of the initial draft, it appeared as though the recognition of Catholic baptism was imminent. We even sent a translation to Rome.

However, shortly before its publication, there was an uproar among the followers of the old ways. Therefore, new wording was adopted at the last minute, which merely pledged to make an effort to change Coptic practices and no longer expressed a firm intention or even obligation to do so.

Bishop Kyrillos Samaan from Egypt in Switzerland June 2021 – in front of the church in Kloten (Township of Zürich)

Does this mean that Tawadros was thwarted in his efforts?

Yes. He was even opposed because of his openness in other matters such as changes to liturgical practice. For example, he wanted to stop using a spoon to distribute Holy Communion during the COVID pandemic for hygienic reasons. This has led to accusations that he wishes to introduce Catholic practices. Some also oppose him in public and are working to oust him.

Is this a small minority?

That is not quite clear. If so, then it is a strong minority. After all, there are bishops among them.

Which means that we shouldn’t hope for fast results in matters relating to rebaptism.

No, this will take a great deal of time. What was sown for forty years under Pope Shenouda cannot be undone in a few years. But Tawadros is a patient man. 

To learn more about the situation in Egypt – please consult our Religious Freedom Report 2021 – section on Egypt.

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