Azhar University in Cairo: “We don’t want an Islamic state”– Coptic-Catholic Patriarch demands right to speed up church construction – Coptic-Orthodox Bishop: “Democracy is more than the rule of the majority”
by Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by AB Griffin
Religious representatives from Egypt speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), expressed the hope for a positive development in the crisis-ridden country following the fall from power of the Muslim Brother Mohamed Mursi.
The Coptic-Catholic Bishop of Asyut in Upper Egypt, Kyrillos William, told “Aid to the Church in Need” on Tuesday that he regretted the many victims claimed on Monday morning in Cairo by the clashes between the army and supporters of the toppled President Mursi. The talk is of more than 50 dead and hundreds of injured. “It’s sad,” the Bishop said.
In the meantime Bishop Kyrillos has expressed his hope that the situation would quieten down. “There will not be a civil war. Who would fight against whom? The people have no reason to do so. I can’t discount the possibility of single acts of violence by the Muslim Brothers, however. But the army and the police are too strong,” the Bishop continued. The appointment of the head of government on Tuesday showed that the situation was slowly beginning to normalize, and the political transition was taking shape. “Life in general is carrying on as usual for most people in Egypt,” the Bishop explained. With regard to the Muslim Brotherhood he said that no-one had been excluded from the political process. “The Muslim Brotherhood have been invited to take part in the national reconciliation.”
Egypt is not Syria
The head of the Coptic-Catholic Church, Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, had stated previously to ACN on Friday in Cairo that the deposition of the Egyptian President Mursi last week was something between a military coup and a second revolution by the people. “The military had not seized power. Furthermore,the people wanted a change and asked the military to help. Fortunately our army is on the side of the people. Egypt is not Syria,” the Patriarch continued. Mursi had not been able to fulfil the expectations set. “My impression was that he was not prepared for this task. I think one of the main problems was also that Mursi was not really President. He had a President, namely the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other people in this international society. It’s from them that he had received his instructions,” the Patriarch believed.
When asked about his hopes for the new Egyptian constitution Patriarch Ibrahim said: “My hope is for a civil government which guarantees the freedom of every individual.” On the other hand,the Church leader discounted a relationship between state and church based on the French model. “We are a country dominated by religion. The majority are of the Islamic or Coptic-Orthodox faith. This must be properly taken into account.”
Christians: an easy target
Yet the Patriarch made a forceful plea for changes in the approval procedure for Christian church buildings. “I think an application for building a church should be treated like any other construction application. The building regulations must be satisfied. But then that should be an end to it.” To date the State President has had to decide on a permit. It can often take ten years or more for an answer to come.
Overall Patriarch Ibrahim was confident about the future of the country: “If Egyptians just want it then they can overcome the economic and political problems. Since the revolution of 25 January 2011 we have experienced events which would not have been considered possible before. In view of this I’m optimistic.”
The Coptic-Orthodox Bishop of Qussia in Upper Egypt, Bishop Thomas, defended the army’s toppling of President Mursi. He emphasized in conversation with ACN on Sunday: “It was not a coup d’état, but a revolution by the people. We are happy that the army has taken over. The Christians suffered under the Muslim Brothers.”
For instance, compared to the times under the former head of state Mubarak prosecutions under the blasphemy laws had increased significantly. “Within one year we have had many cases,” according to the Bishop. Furthermore, many Christians had been abducted by Islamists to extort ransom money from them. Time and again there were violent attacks on Christians and their institutions. There was a lack of protection. Complaints made to the police following incidents with Islamist motives remained fruitless. “On top of all this the Muslim Brothers have given the green light,” Bishop Thomas said. “Now, since they have been removed from power, the Muslim Brothers threaten us directly. We Christians are an easy target for Islamist extremists. The terrorist threats by extremist groups will continue. Our situation will only improve as a whole with the stabilisation of the security situation in Egypt.” Despite the present problems such as attacks on Christians and their institutions, the Bishop showed himself tobe optimistic as far as the future of Christians in Egypt was concerned. “I hope for a change for the better.”
Democracy: more than the rule of the majority
The Bishop described political religion such as the Islamism of the Muslim Brothers, however, as not a solution to Egypt’s problems. Rather it was necessary to develop an awareness that democracy was more than the rule of the majority. “The majority coming to power through elections have a responsibility to protect the rights of all. With this in mind he wished that the new Egyptian constitution would embody the principle of a civil state. “The constitution must express the equality of all Egyptians, Christians as well as Muslims, before the law.”
A representative of Cairo’s Azhar University expressed a similar sentiment to “Aid to the Church in Need”. Mahmoud Azab, adviser to the Grand Sheikh for inter-religious dialogue, said when talking to the Catholic pastoral charity on Sunday in Cairo: “We do not want an Islamic state in Egypt. This is the position of the Azhar University, and one we have propounded on a number of different occasions.” This, Azab continued, was also the principal difference to the Islam of the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists. “We want to have a democratic and modern national and constitutional state in Egypt. Muslims and Christians must have the same rights based on citizenship.”
The representative of the Azhar University, the leading authority of Sunni Islam, stressed at the same time that his institution also did not wish to have a separation of religion and state such as existed, for example, in France. “The French secularism cannot be applied in Egypt.” This would mean, for example, that questions of civil status would have to be regulated for Muslims by sharia and for Christians by the precepts of their Church. But he rejected a fundamentalist interpretation of sharia. Azab also condemned acts of violence perpetrated against Christians. “That is contrary to Islam.” Dialogue and respect would have to be the basis for dealing with the different social groups in Egypt.