A New Cardinal for Egypt

Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, is seen during a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East at the Vatican Oct. 14. Patriarch Naguib was one of 24 new cardinals named Oct. 20 by Pope Benedict XVI.
Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, is seen during a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East at the Vatican Oct. 14. Patriarch Naguib was one of 24 new cardinals named Oct. 20 by Pope Benedict XVI. (photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

For many Catholics in the West, “Coptic” and “cryptic” might as well mean the same thing.

But Pope Benedict XVI has just named 24 new cardinals, and one of them is Coptic, so this is a good time for many Latin Catholics to learn a bit more about Copts.

Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, is one of the two dozen priests who will be created cardinal in the consistory on Nov. 20. He also happens to be one of the leaders of the Synod of Bishops that has been meeting since Oct. 10 at the Vatican considering the special challenges Christians face in the Middle East. That synod wraps up its work this Sunday.

For me, the Pope’s announcement was timely because I recently received a call from the head of a group called Voice of the Copts, and I’ve been trying to learn what I can about Coptic Christianity.

There’s a Coptic Orthodox church in town, and I’ve dropped in there in the past to get a flavor of their liturgy. It’s like stepping into another world: the congregation consists of immigrants from Egypt who come to the two-and-a-half-hour liturgy each Sunday from all parts of the New York metropolitan area. The liturgy is sung in a very Arabic-sounding chant. Men and women sit separately and receive Communion on opposite sides of the sanctuary, reverently holding a handkerchief over their mouths as they return to their seats (sort of like a tabernacle veil?).

In Egypt, though, Christians are a minority. About 90% of the country’s population is Muslim (the Sunni variety). About 95% of the country’s Christian population are Orthodox. There are only about 166,000 Catholic Copts in Egypt, according to the 2009 Annuario Pontifico — a drop in the bucket compared to the country’s population of about 80.5 million.

It would be no surprise, then, if Patriarch Naguib felt he needed to choose his words carefully, whether he’s in Alexandria, Cairo or Rome. He and Maronite Archbishop Joseph Soueif of Cyprus prepared and read a statement at the opening of the synod, part of which read: “We must emerge from a logic in defense of the rights of Christians only, and engage in the defense of the rights of all.” Catholics must reach out to their Muslim neighbors, promote dialogue with them and work with them to improve the living situations and freedom of all, the statement said.

“Difficulties in the relations between Christians and Muslims generally arise when Muslims do not distinguish between religion and politics,” the statement also said. In such situations, Christians may be treated as second-class citizens.

That is certainly what Voice of the Copts sees — and more. Ashraf Ramelah, the Cairo native who heads VOTC and who reached out to me, is worried about the Christian community back home being under siege.

“Every day, we have issues” with Muslims in Egypt, Ramelah said. “Two weeks ago they burned down a Coptic church in upper Egypt.”

Ramelah, who was born into an Orthodox family, studied architecture in Italy and now lives in Pennsylvania, said the authorities in Egypt are not allowing Orthodox churches to be built.

There have been a few high profile incidents of Muslim persecution of Christians in Egypt this year, including the Christmas Eve (Orthodox celebrate the Nativity on Jan. 8) killing of several Copts leaving church.

Ramelah points out that Coptic Christians were in Egypt long before the rise of Islam (“Coptic,” in fact, means Egyptian), and that today’s Copts are the descendents of those who did not apostatize when Islam spread through the region.

Another U.S.-based human rights group, Coptic Solidarity, also reports ongoing problems and warns of possible violence against Copts and their spiritual leaders as Egypt enters into a period of political changes.

Just today, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak set the country’s parliamentary elections for Nov. 28.

“Above and beyond the never-ending and routine scenario of violence, discrimination, alienation and persecution the Copts have endured, there has been an alarming upsurge of significant anti-Coptic activities over the recent weeks,” Coptic Solidarity said recently in a press release. Notably, it said, there have been “wild demonstrations” in Cairo and elsewhere demanding the delivery of a Coptic priest’s wife, who demonstrators say converted to Islam and should be released to the Muslim community.

In addition, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2010 Annual Report, found that “serious problems of discrimination, intolerance and other human rights violations against members of minorities…remain widespread in Egypt. The commission reported a “significant upsurge in violence targeting Coptic Orthodox Christians.”

All of which leads me to this conclusion: Let’s keep the new Coptic cardinal — and all Christians in Egypt — in our prayers.