Amba Marcos

Bishop of Shubra El-Kheima

By  Réhab El-Bakry

Khaled Habib/Egypt Today


TENSIONS BETWEEN THE nation’s Muslim majority and its Coptic Orthodox minority have ebbed over the past 25 years. In the most high-profile acknowledgement that Christians are part of the Egyptian family, President Hosni Mubarak declared Orthodox Christmas (January 7) a national holiday for members of both faiths.

But tensions persist, and few know that better than Amba Marcos, the high-profile Bishop of Shubra El-Kheima, who says Egyptians of all religious stripes have rediscovered their relationship with God in the past few years.

“There has been a growing desire among Egyptians to connect with God, partially because of the economic crisis that we have been living with for so long, and partially because of our desire to retain our own identities, which many feel are slowly being eroded by foreign pressure.”

The result has been growing conservatism on the part of both Christians and Muslims, he says.

“Among Muslims, you see the rise of a minority that interprets religion in the strictest of terms; with these ideas, they slowly drift outside the character of who we are as Egyptians a kind and generous people. In the case of Christians, this return to God and the Church has resulted in a kind of isolation in which more and more their lives are closely bound to the Church.”

Churches and mosques alike, Marcos says, are working hard to provide social support services to the faithful, whether they’re sports activities, trips outside urban centers or daycare services. The growth in number and diversity of these services over the past 25 years, he says, has further tied people to their religions.

But as Marcos admits, they have also contributed to rift that emerged between the two faiths beginning in the days of Sadat.

“The roots of this rift can be traced back to the time of Sadat in the late 1970s, when he used the extremist Islamist current to combat Nasserism as the most common ideology of the time. The truth of the matter is that this gave rise to a very different current of Islam; it has the strong support of only a tiny minority, but it has left its imprint on the majority. This rift was never there before.”

Although the official stance is that there is no gulf between Muslims and Christians, the reality is very different, and the fact that no one speaks of it in public only makes it wider, Marcos suggests. Take, for example, the outbreak of sectarian violence in the small village of El-Kosheh in Upper Egypt in both 1999 and 2000, where a petty dispute between a Muslim merchant and a Christian vendor set off battles that left as many as 12 Christians dead.

Although everyone, even the Church, publicly denied the incident was drawn along religious lines, the stories told by eyewitnesses painted a very different picture. Many analysts feel El-Kosheh and other incidents of violence could be prevented with more open dialogue between the two faiths at all levels.

While Marcos won’t specifically comment on the violence in El-Kosheh, he does acknowledge that Christians increasingly feel they are subject to discrimination.

“This is something that we have become accustomed to. We no longer bother to complain about it because no one really cares,” Marcos with a weak smile. “No matter how often we try to bring it to the public’s attention, it just falls on deaf ears. Even the media will not write about it, the only real exception being Al-Watany, the Coptic newspaper.”

Marcos can recount a dozen anecdotes to support his argument, saying that for decades, the Coptic Church was not granted permission to renovate any of its historic churches. The result: Many deteriorated to the point where they were unusable.

Permits issued by building authorities were not good enough local officials simply impounded construction equipment even when the paperwork was completely in order.

“I myself have experienced this with this church, where I have a legal permit signed by the governor to build a five-floor annex in the courtyard of the church for the services we provide. We were only allowed to build three and we were never given an explanation as to why we were not allowed to continue. This is just an example,” Marcos says.

Still, he notes, interfaith relations have improved, and some in power have taken steps both to open a dialogue and ensure Copts can exercise their full legal rights.

“I believe we need to spend more effort on education to teach children about what unites us as opposed to what separates us,” he says. “There needs to be more time spent on teaching children the core values that make us all Egyptian and less time stuffing their minds with information they will forget the day after their exams.

“We also need to be more willing to address the touchy issues with one another, both officially and unofficially. I believe that there needs to be an open and frank discussion between the leadership of this country and the leaders of the two religions in which they engage in a real conversation about the problems and truly attempt to come up with effective solutions.

“On the social level, I believe we need to use the mass media to address issues that have been swept under the carpet for too long.”

But for the Church itself, Marcos expects there will be few changes in the coming 25 years.

“We are very bound to our traditions, which have become part of the definition of who we are. They are the things that make the Coptic Church unique. We will always remain a traditional church that puts great emphasis on its history and its conservativeness.”  et