Two weeks before millions of Egyptian demonstrators demanded the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, a much smaller group of Christians met in Cairo to discuss whether churches should be directly involved in politics.
The unanimous consensus: No.
Pope Tawadros II, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, presided at the meeting of the Council of Churches. Atef Gendy, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, attended as part of a Protestant delegation.
In an email interview, Gendy said the group unanimously agreed to “declare that the church does not want to be involved in politics and will not mandate to Christians what to do or not do. Christians are full citizens and they should decide for themselves.”
Less than two weeks later, a provocative image appeared on Egyptian television: Pope Tawadros II sat next to the country’s top Islamic cleric, as an Egyptian general announced the military had removed Morsi from power, barely a year after Egyptians elected him to office.
Gendy said the pope’s presence was symbolic, and showed the political plan the army declared “is backed by the vast majority of people, and diversity of political and religious powers.” Churches still aren’t mandating Christians’ political decisions, but the influence is undeniable.
The pope’s presence marks an unprecedented level of public influence for Copts—an often-persecuted minority. But it also evokes the ire of Islamists opposed to Morsi’s ouster. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood sharply criticized the pope for approving the controversial change of power.
A day later, Christians reported attacks at a handful of churches across the country.
On July 5, The Egypt Independent reported Muslim villagers looted and burned dozens of Coptic homes and businesses in an area about 300 miles south of Cairo. On July 6, assailants gunned down a Coptic priest in a city about 200 miles north of the capital.
The pope’s visibility during Egypt’s second revolution in less than three years underscores an ongoing tension for Christians in the Muslim nation: How can they advocate for religious freedoms without stoking anger or suspicion?
It’s a question many Christians are asking, even as they are jubilant at Morsi’s ouster. After his election last year, Morsi stacked political appointments with Muslim Brotherhood members, refused to work with other political parties, and rushed passage of an Islamist-dominated constitution posing a danger to minorities, including Christians. In a country where authorities already heavily restrict Christian activity, Morsi’s regime threatened to make things worse.
But Morsi’s problems weren’t just religious: The country’s fragile economy continued to spiral, with rising unemployment, soaring food prices, rolling electricity blackouts, and worsening fuel shortages.
By early this year, secularists began mounting political opposition to Morsi. By June, the group had collected millions of signatures calling for Morsi’s resignation—a process culminating with mass protests that began June 30.
When Morsi refused to step down, the military announced his removal on July 3, and said the country’s chief justice would serve as interim president until new elections. The military also announced the suspension of the country’s controversial constitution.
In the months before the revolution, Pope Tawadros called on government officials to allow greater freedom for religious minorities. In February, he told the Associated Press: “We are a minority in the numerical sense, but we are not a minority when it comes to value, history, interaction and love for our nation.”
That’s the kind of language other Christians have used in private, while remaining unsure how to exert public influence. For some, July’s revolution provided an opportunity, as they joined the protesters demanding Morsi’s departure.
‘People are celebrating the change with caution and open eyes to protect what they have gained.’—Pastor Nagi Said
Nagi Said, a pastor of the evangelical Kasr el Dobara Church in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, said many church members participated in the demonstrations: “People are celebrating the change with caution and open eyes to protect what they have gained.”
Andrea Zaki of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services said the demonstrations were “like a sports crowd after a momentous, come-from-behind victory.”
Others expressed relief at Morsi’s downfall but mixed feelings about the pope’s appearance at the announcement. “Christians were delighted that for the first time in recent history their leader was considered to represent a significant part of the populations,” said one Cairo pastor. “For fanatical Muslims, of course, this raises a red flag and gives the impression he is siding against them.”
Another evangelical pastor said while it’s appropriate to consult the pope’s opinions, his appearance with the top Islamic cleric was unwise: “Even without his appearance Christians were being threatened by Islamists. His appearance added fuel to the fire.”
Meanwhile, political fires continued to burn in Cairo, as thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters protested Morsi’s ouster. Clashes with soldiers at the Republican Guard barracks—where military forces held the former president—killed at least 50 protesters in a single day.
The violence threatened to upend the national euphoria, as Al Nour, the lone Islamist party supporting Morsi’s ouster, withdrew its support for the new government after the army reportedly fired on Morsi supporters.
Even if the clashes ease, it’s unclear how secularists, Christians, and Islamists supporting the revolution will hammer out a new government. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei admitted: “It is déjà vu all over again. Hopefully this time we will get it right.”
Samuel Tadros, a Coptic Christian and scholar at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, is far less optimistic about Egypt’s political future. “Nothing has changed in Egypt,” he said. “Egypt continues to be caught between a military rule or an Islamist alternative. Everything else is just details in between.”
For now, Tadros is particularly concerned about Egyptian Christians: He worries about the pope’s visibility in recent events, and says Islamist resentment could build: “It will come as no surprise at all … if we witness an increase in the number of violent attacks against Christians, as a method of reprisal by Islamists who feel the Christians were behind all this.”
Still, even if Tadros finds Christians’ high hopes unrealistic, he does find them understandable: “There’s no doubt that anything is better than Islamist rule.”