A politicized papacy: Analysts look at new pope’s political agenda

Newly ordained Pope Tawadros II's first meeting took place on Tuesday with figures from the leftist Popular Current led by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.

The meeting lasted approximately 90 minutes, a sign that relations may be developing and further fuelling speculation about the Church's political position under its new leadership. 

Among the subjects the pope discussed with Sabbahi were normalization with Israel and Coptic visits to Jerusalem. The answers the new pope gave the delegation showed him to be following in the footsteps of former Pope Shenouda, who banned Copts from visiting Jerusalem as long as it remained under Israeli occupation.

On several occasions, Tawadros — like Shenouda — has said he would only allow Copts to visit Jerusalem with their fellow Egyptian Muslims when the land is liberated.

Tawadros said that Coptic visits to Jerusalem would constitute treachery to the nation, even though the Palestinian Fatah movement which controls the West Bank appeals to Arabs to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank. The radical Islamist Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, applauded the pope’s position, describing it as “patriotic and honorable.”

Abdallah al-Sennawi, editor-in-chief of the independent al-Arabi al-Nasseri newspaper, who was also part of the Popular Current delegation who met with the pope, confirmed Tawadros' opposition to normalization with Israel.

“I am sure that Pope Tawadros will follow in the footsteps of Shenouda with regards to rejecting normalization," he says.

Sennawy had just written a column for the privately-owned Al-Shorouk newspaper explaining the possible pan-Arab political inclinations of the new pope, basing his analysis on Tawadros' activities while a university student.

While the anti-normalization stance is popular in Egypt, Kamal Zakher Moussa, coordinator for the Secular Copts Current, believes that the pope’s opinion on normalization represents a political rather than a patriotic stance, since there are others who do not object to normalization, he says.

Priest Ikram Lamie, spokesperson for the Evangelical Church, says the pope should have emphasized that his opinion on Copts visits to Jerusalem is that of the Coptic Church and that other figures are free to have different views.

“We’re not a herd of cattle. Each of us has an opinion, particularly when it comes to politics,” he goes on. “If people are free to choose their faith, how come they’re not allowed to have political freedom?”

Lamie explains that a number of Copts had been critical of Shenouda's anti-normalization position, which is being upheld by Tawadros.

But beyond his anti-normalization rhetoric and even though he has portrayed it as a spiritual choice rather than a political one, Tawadros' appointment is loaded with politics.

For one, his ordination ceremony on Sunday was an illustration of the on-going political polarization between religious and civil camps in Egypt.

Some Salafis issued a fatwa prohibiting attendance of the Coptic ceremony, leading to only nominal representation of Islamists.

Meanwhile, most leading civil and secular leadership figures were present. They were received with a warm welcome and greeted with enthusiastic applause. President Mohamed Morsy’s name did not get as much applause from the predominantly Coptic audience, nor did Prime Minister Hesham Qandil, who arrived late and left before the end of the ceremony.

Pro-democracy leader Mohamed ElBaradei earned the most animated applause, followed by former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Sabbahi.

The figures who were so warmly received by Church officials are the very same opposition figures who were given a rather cold shoulder by the Church under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, out of fear that associating with them would antagonize the regime.

Morsy did not attend the ceremony, although he had said that he would come if invited. The Coptic Church says it invited Morsy but Sennawy thinks he chose not to go in order to appease Salafis.

“Morsy should have attended the ceremony because he is a Muslim Brotherhood member. He wasted an opportunity,” Sennawy says.

The presence of Abdel Rahman Abdel Barr, a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, failed to leave a positive impression on Copts. Abdel Barr remained seated while the remaining audience stood up during the prayers. In response to Salafi fatwas that prohibited participation in the event, he had issued a fatwa in which he said that attending Coptic celebrations is a gesture of compassion that Islam advocates.

The ordination of the new pope came one day ahead of the withdrawal of representatives of Egypt’s churches and other civil powers from the Constituent Assembly.

The new pope described Article 220 of the new constitution stating that “The principles of Islamic Sharia shall include full evidence, orthodox and jurisprudent rules, and sources approved by schools of the Sunnis and the community” as “catastrophic.”

Ameen Iskandar, Karama Party chief and a member of the Popular Current, said the coming stage of the relationship between the Coptic Church and the Brotherhood leadership will be characterized by what he termed “rough diplomacy.”

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