A Growing Rift Between Egypt’s Christians and Their Leaders Spells Trouble

by Sarah E. Yerkes

Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of the October 9, 2011 Maspero massacre in which Egyptian army forces killed two dozen Egyptians, mostly Coptic Christians, and injured hundreds more who were engaged in a sit-in in front of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (Maspero) building. The protests against the destruction of a church, and the subsequent violent response, represent one of the lowest points in Christian-Muslim relations in modern Egyptian history.  Five years later, despite attempts by both the current Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the leadership of the Coptic church to improve sectarian issues, the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt remains volatile. While President Sisi and Coptic Pope Tawadros II have developed a strong, symbiotic relationship, there are growing fissures between the Coptic leadership and the Coptic community both in Egypt and abroad.

Pope Tawadros, who was selected in November 2012, during the government of Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has visibly and vocally supported President Sisi’s, seeing him as a welcome alternative to Morsi. Pope Tawadros was in the front row when then-General Sisi declared the successful removal of President Morsi under whose rule Egypt witnessed an increase in sectarian violence against Christians. And Tawadros has applauded President Sisi’s attempts at national unity and has publicly urged the Coptic population around the globe to join him expressing their support for Sisi’s government.

But, as I have written elsewhere, the relationship between Egypt’s Christian population and the Sisi government is complex, with a clear divide between de facto legal protection for Christians, enshrined in the constitution, and de jure discrimination. Even under Sisi, who has gone to great lengths to publicly demonstrate his belief in national unity, sectarian violence remains commonplace. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights counted 77 incidents of sectarian violence between 2011-2016 in Minya, home to Egypt’s largest Christian community. Thus, as the Sisi-Tawadros relationship has failed to reduce sectarian strife, instead only papering over the problem, some Copts have grown frustrated with their religious leaders’ inability to address sectarian issues and improve life for Christians in Egypt.

The divide between the church leadership and the Coptic population has recently come to light in the response to the revision of the church construction law, passed on August 30. While the church has praised the revised law, Coptic members of parliament as well as human rights groups, have spoken out against the law, believing it is unlikely to significantly alter the archaic and complex process of legally building a new church, as it does not explicitly repeal any previous laws or regulations.  Furthermore, the church originally opposed the law, only backing off after a series of closed-door negotiations between church officials and a handful of high-level government officials, leaving many, including parliamentarians, feeling left out.

The church construction law is just the latest example of the challenges facing the official Coptic Orthodox church – who is stuck between maintaining a positive working relationship with the state and satisfying an increasingly angry Christian public and diaspora. When Copts demonstrated this summer in front of the White House in Washington, DC, against what they saw as the persecution of Christians in Egypt, the Coptic church issued a statement in the name of Pope Tawadros denouncing the protests because they might “cause serious harm to Egypt, and greatly embarrass our senior officials.”

The church also instructed its members not to participate in demonstrations in August in front of the general prosecutor’s office in Cairo demanding equality of law enforcement for people of all religions. Furthermore, ahead of President Sisi’s visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly meetings in September, Coptic community leaders in the United States distributed leaflets asking for American Copts to come out in public support of Sisi.

But this pressure seems to backfiring. Increasingly, Egyptian Christians are speaking out against the Egyptian government, ignoring the wishes of the church. Most recently 82 Copts signed a public letter protesting the church’s widespread support of Sisi and expressed frustration that even under Sisi, the situation for Christians in Egypt has not improved, with some going so far as to say it is worse than under Mubarak.

Implications for the Future

This rift is worth watching for multiple reasons. First, if the split between the Coptic population and church leadership deepens, there is the potential for further violence and instability. Without the protection of the church, the Coptic population is much more vulnerable to both physical and rhetorical attack.

Second, Egypt’s sizable Christian community (between 5-15% of the population) has regularly enjoyed outsized influence due to its connections to international Christian groups and advocates of religious freedom. The largest Coptic diaspora community is in the United States. Thus, the US government has a particular interest in ensuring that the rights of Egypt’s Christians are protected. The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, for example, regularly chastises the Egyptian government for failing to prevent religiously-motivated violence or allowing perpetrators of that violence to act with impunity. The report also regularly accuses the government of discrimination in hiring practices and expresses dissatisfaction with the use of informal reconciliation sessions instead of formal legal proceedings to address religiously-motivated crimes after the fact.  Should the Christian population continue to speak out against the Sisi government, it will draw further attention from the international community, creating an even bigger problem than it already has.

Additionally, Sisi, who has been hemorrhaging support over his inability to improve the economic situation, adequately address security threats, and brutal crackdown on human rights, needs the support of both the Coptic community and the church leaders. Although small in numbers, should Copts withdraw their support for Sisi, it could spell trouble for Sisi’s attempts at reelection in 2018.

Thus, President Sisi and his government would be wise to undertake serious attempts at national unity – rather than relying on empty rhetoric. A first step would be to end the use of reconciliation sessions and instead ensure that Egyptians of all faiths are treated equally under the law and that sectarian crimes are subject to the same judicial and criminal procedures as other crimes.  The Coptic church should recognize the growing discontent within its ranks to engage in frank discussions with the Egyptian government on these same issues. Turning a blind eye to the growing crackdown on human rights does not help the church, but rather damages the credibility of the church leadership with its adherents.  Finally, Egyptian Christians – both in Egypt and abroad – should engage in serious dialogue with their church leaders on how to best move Egypt forward and improve the lives of Christians in Egypt.

Sarah E. Yerkes is a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and an International Affairs Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.