After Sectarian Violence, Coptic Pope Takes On Egypt’s President

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An injured Coptic Christian man being carried to safety during clashes at a Cairo cathedral on April 7, 2013, following the funeral of Copts killed in a conflict two days before

It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that Egypt’s Muslim-Christian problems started with the January 2011 revolution. After all, Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were hit in two separate deadly attacks in the final 14 months of Hosni Mubarak’s reign. One of them — a church bombing in Alexandria that killed 23 — came just two months before the Egyptian revolution began. And in November 2010, Coptic youth battled security forces for days in Giza in a dispute over the acrimonious issue of government restrictions on church building permits.

In short, Egypt’s sectarian ice had been dangerously thin for years. But this weekend’s sudden spasm of Muslim-Christian violence opened up new cracks: there’s the very real possibility now of open conflict between Egypt’s fledgling Islamist rulers and the Coptic Orthodox Church itself. The present moment represents yet another serious challenge to a country already paralyzed by political turmoil and caught in a worsening economic spiral. Two years after the euphoria of Mubarak’s people-power ouster, the revolutionary glow has decidedly dimmed.

(PHOTOS: Egyptian Copts Mourn and Riot in Cairo)

The violence began April 5 in the village of Khosous, just north of Cairo, when an apparent dispute over youths spraying graffiti on a building escalated into an armed clash that left four Christians and one Muslim dead. Two days later, on Sunday, April 7, the funeral for those dead Christian citizens became engulfed in violence as angry Christian mourners apparently clashed with unidentified attackers. Police responded late and haphazardly with several tear-gas canisters landing inside the grounds of St. Mark’s Cathedral in central Cairo, terrifying the Christians seeking refuge inside and leading many to claim that the police were joining in the siege of the cathedral.

On Tuesday, Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II took to the public airwaves with an unvarnished and unprecedented attack on President Mohamed Morsi’s government, starkly warning: “This is a society that is collapsing.”

In a phone interview with ONTV, one of the country’s most popular and influential satellite news channels, the 60-year-old Pontiff harshly criticized the behavior of the security forces and Morsi’s handling of the situation, saying that the tear gas on the cathedral grounds “breached all the redlines.”

“The church has been a national symbol for 2,000 years,” Tawadros said. “It has not been subjected to anything like this even during the darkest ages … There has been no positive and clear action from the state, but there is a God. The Church does not ask for anyone’s protection, only from God.” Tawadros added that President Morsi had promised him in a telephone conversation to do everything to protect the cathedral, “but in reality he did not.”

Morsi, on Sunday evening, condemned the violence and announced an investigation. State media quoted him as saying, “I consider any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally.”

The government also announced that Morsi would revive the National Council for Justice and Equality, a dormant quasi-governmental body designed to encourage religious harmony. But Tawadros, in the television interview, was openly dismissive of that step. “Enough already of formations, committees and groups and whatever else,” he said. “We want action not words and, let me say this, there are many names and committees but there is no action on the ground.”

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The papal outburst brings the Coptic Church into a position it hasn’t occupied for three decades: openly opposing the government. Previous Pontiffs have paid a stiff price for such opposition. Tawadros’ long-serving predecessor Pope Shenouda III publicly butted heads with Anwar Sadat in 1981 and ended up being placed under house arrest in a Sinai monastery near the end of Sadat’s tempestuous reign. During the Mubarak years, Shenouda largely kept his criticisms of the regime behind closed doors and worked to present a unified public face with Mubarak — a strategy that led many younger Copts to view him as a borderline collaborator in the final years before the revolution.

Tawadros, who was named the church’s 118th Pope last November, was expected by some church watchers to toe the same apolitical line. But within weeks of his ascension, the new Pope confounded those predictions by publicly criticizing the nascent constitution as religiously biased. That constitution was then approved in a divisive fast-track referendum last December that spawned enormous amounts of political bad blood and severed most lines of communication between Morsi and Egypt’s oft-fragmented opposition.

Now this latest round of religious violence seems certain to harden those already intractable positions. With Morsi struggling to respond, the National Salvation Front (NSF) — an umbrella group of anti-Morsi parties — has pressed the political advantage, restating its list of demands in order to participate in national reconciliation talks and to alter its current position of boycotting parliamentary elections this fall.

Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the anchors of the NSF, spoke in terms very similar to those used by Pope Tawadros. “The state today is collapsing. It is a collapsing state politically, economically, socially and security-wise,” ElBaradei said during a Monday press conference. “And I don’t think we have long to fix this.”

(MORE: An Interview With Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi: ‘We’re Learning How to Be Free’)

The NSF’s conditions for engaging Morsi are threefold: rewriting the current electoral law, the ousting of the current prosecutor general and the formation of a “neutral and credible government” to manage the country and oversee the parliamentary elections. That last demand is particularly contentious since it essentially asks Morsi to turn over about a third of his Cabinet to figures acceptable to the NSF. Ministers that the NSF seeks to change include the Interior Minister, Minister of Local Administration, Minister of Supply and Minister of Youth. It would be a massive concession on Morsi’s part — particularly at a time when he is struggling to look strong. But as the country continues to stagger from crisis to crisis, the opposition is clearly gambling that Morsi just might become desperate enough to give them what they want.

“We are waiting for President Morsi to understand that time is not on his side, not on Egypt’s side,” ElBaradei said.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.