In an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, Father Bishoy, secretary for the Coptic Ecclesiastical Council, tackles a number of hot issues fueling debate and dispute across Egypt, such as the row provoked by the disappearance of Kamilia Shehata, the wife of a Minya priest, who some allege has converted to Islam and is held in confinement by the Coptic Church.
In the interview Father Bishoy talks about the issue of presidential succession and the church’s stance on the nomination of the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak. He also speaks about the dispute surrounding suggested state control over church affairs, and the succession of Pope Shenouda.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Where have Kamillia Shehata and Wafaa Qostanteen disappeared?
Father Bishoy: They’re safe. The Interior Ministry knows perfectly well they’re very safe.
Al-Masry: The church is accused of kidnapping them both to force them to convert back to Christianity after embracing Islam. What do you say?
Father Bishoy: This is nonsense, groundless accusations. I’m only following Shehata’s case, but I was a key party in Qostanteen’s case, who said during investigations “I’m Christian, and I’ll die as a Christian.” She never went to Al-Azhar to convert to Islam.
Al-Masry: But she went to the police and asked to convert to Islam?
Father Bishoy: Wafaa had some problems. She went to the police, not Al-Azhar, and said “I want to be a Muslim.” Security then called Father Bakhimos of Beheira’s archbishopric and demanded, according to a ministerial decision, that Wafaa be given religious advice sessions, to be certain of her intention of converting to Islam. We then agreed on her staying at a neutral venue under security. We chose al-Naam villa at Zeitoun, which was owned by the church and then was handed to security. I used to visit her along with Father Moussa and Armeya after getting permissions from security.
Al-Masry: And where did she go after she was released? She was said to be kidnapped or killed?
Father Bishoy: Why would I kidnap, kill, or even torture her, if she said she was Christian and would die Christian? She had the chance to say whatever she wanted. She could have asked for security, but she courageously announced her Christianity. She was transferred to a secure place, because we were afraid some people would accuse her of apostasy for converting from Islam, or kill her. If she had insisted on embracing Islam, I would have taken her to Al-Azhar.
Al-Masry: What about Kamillia Shehata? She is said to be kidnapped and currently receiving medical treatment that could affect her sanity?
Father Bishoy: Untrue. The church doesn't oblige anyone to embrace a specific religion. What I can say is that it’s a similar story to Wafaa’s. Kamillia is now in a safe place by her own will.
Al-Masry: Do marital problems or refusal of divorce make Christian women escape and convert to Islam?
Father Bishoy: This is an exaggeration. Wafaa, for instance, didn’t have marital problems. She wasn’t in a relationship with anyone, she didn’t even think of divorce from her priest husband, who passed away later. If a priest’s wife accused her husband of beating her, for instance, he will be tried by the church. I, as a president of the General Clerical Council, can try priests on behalf of Pope Shenouda. People like to depict problems as phenomenons.
Al-Masry: If someone informs you of his/her intention to convert to Islam, do you inform Al-Azhar first?
Father Bishoy: We always call for religious advice sessions, which were canceled after the Wafaa Qostanteen incident, to be held again. People who have such intentions will harm others, if he is not a real Christian. We submitted a report with such demands to the president. Now, I call for the religious advice sessions to be held again, not in the archbishopric or the security directorate but at the Human Rights National Council headquarters in Cairo. If a Christian was completely convinced with embracing Islam, I will take him to Al-Azhar by myself because I believe in freedom of thought and belief.
Al-Masry: Do you accept similar advice sessions for converts to Christianity?
Father Bishoy: Of course, on the condition of being protected by law. Converts must take their time in thinking even if this extends to a month or year. They must also be protected from their family and police.
Al-Masry: Copts had recently staged many protests over a range of cases like Islamicization, teenagers abduction and building a church or a fence, how do you explain this?
Father Bishoy: We blame this on cancellation of advice sessions and reticence over Islam of some Coptic girls. Regarding disputes over church or fence building, it only happened in Minya. It was due to the governor’s stance against injured Abu-Fana who applied to join the monastic community, he also refused them to be medically treated. They were then transferred to Cairo for treatment. What happened didn’t relate to building a church or a fence, it was about an armed attack on the monastery, which resulted in death of a Muslim by accident and the arrest of two Christians. Copts then relinquished reports of assaults and arrested Christians were released in return, which made other Copts angry, and it’s their right.
Al-Masry: But some say that the Copts have become more outspoken because they are drawing on the power of expatriate Copts and foreign countries.
Father Bishoy: That’s not true. When 20 Copts were killed in the second Kosheh incident and the victims recognized the perpetrators of the attack yet no ruling was issued against them, those foreign powers did not help. When the Copts scream for help, their calls are addressed to President Mubarak. Expatriate Coptic activists publish news on the Internet on their own initiative. They also disseminate news that I myself do not know of–we get our news from them. They know everything about us from their friends and relatives.
Al-Masry: Recently, some Copts have been converting from the Coptic Orthodox theology because of its strict rules governing marriage and divorce?
Father Bishoy: Not true. There’s a signed agreement between the heads of the Christian sects that divorce should only be granted if considered lawful according to the teachings of Christianity and the two sects in question accept the divorce.
Those priests who preside over the marriage of Christians who have managed to get a court ruling permitting divorce are either outlawed Protestant priests or defrocked Orthodox priests, like Andraus Aziz, woh is a defrocked priest with a marriage registration book. The Ministry of Justice has not withdrawn that registration book from him even though we have asked for it.
Al-Masry: Speaking of the second marriage, some Christians have been calling for an implementation of the “spirit of the Bible”.
Father Bishoy: In Islam you say that there should not be independent judgement whenever there is a religious text the provides a conclusive opinion. We have the same thing. In Christianity, divorce is only permissible in the event of adultery, and the adulterer cannot remarry. There is a clear text which states that a man who divorces his wife is making her commit adultery, and another which states that a man who marries a divorced woman is considered to be committing adultery.
Al-Masry: How far have you gone with the Unified Personal Status Law for non-Muslims?
Father Bishoy: It is still under study and has not yet been submitted to the different sects for approval of its final version.
Al-Masry: The Evangelical Church has rejected Pope Shenouda’s decision to remove the part of the law on adoption, and the Roman Orthodox have been objecting that they are not represented in the committee preparing the law. What do you say?
Father Bishoy: It was the Justice Minister who formed the committee and said that the Roman Orthodox had approved the very same law before and so that’s why they weren’t represented in the committee. Regarding adoption, the Pope did not reject it. It was the Muslims who did. The Pope said that if adoption was going to be an obstacle to the issuing of the law, then it can be discussed later. To those who oppose this point of view I say, “ You can demand the inclusion of adoption in the new law, and it would be good if your effort was met with success and we will make the same demand.”
Al-Masry: You said before that Evangelicals and other sects are attempting to proselytize in the Coptic Orthodox community. Is this continuing?
Father Bishoy: Yes, they are penetrating our sect helped with funding from the US. We have tapes and books where they claim that we worship idols. When I met the head of their sect I asked him if he was happy about these claims. They were embarrassed. They penetrate our sect by holding conferences for the youth in which they can participate upon the payment of a nominal fee. They let them spend an entire day playing sports and then deliver a short sermon at the end of the day. I have CDs showing these activities.
Al-Masry: What was the response of the Coptic Orthodox Church?
Father Bishoy: We have our own festival in which half a million youth participate. The festival includes activities such as sports and reading. But they are gradually attracting our youth, and they have satellite channels which, sadly, present some of our Orthodox Priests, even though a decision by the Holy Synod bans Coptic Orthodox priests from appearing on non-Orthodox channels.
Al-Masry: Moving on to public affairs, What do you think of the current state of political mobility, and the fact that some candidates are trying to win the support of the Church?
Father Bishoy: Everyone is free to express his opinion, provided he/she does so in a respectful manner. I personally respect the President and would not say anything hurtful even if we differ. Any Copt who would like to engage in politics should do so, but without making severe comments, for our religions forbids us from hurting the president. Some candidates come to the Church at feasts to extend their greetings to us, but they do not talk politics. They just want to show that they have good feelings for Copts, and we won’t kick those out. But nobody has come to ask for votes, because we won’t allow it.
Al-Masry: Is the Church directing the Copts to vote for a specific candidate?
Father Bishoy: No, we encourage them to participate and give their votes, but they are free to chose whoever they want.
Al-Masry: In the upcoming presidential election, who will the Copts vote for?
Father bishoy: I always say that I love President Mubarak, but I cannot force the Copts to vote for anyone even if it was Mubarak.
Al-Masry: What is the church’s position on the dispute over presidential succession and the nomination of Gamal Mubarak for the post?
Father Bishoy: Personally, I like Gamal Mubarak, but as I noted, Copts are free to choose.
Al-Masry: You mean you will vote for Gamal if he runs for the presidency?
Father Bishoy: It’s my own business, and that i will decide at the balloting box. But i am never discrete about my love for president Mubarak and his son, Gamal, a sincere love that is not a sort of compliment. Mubarak's reign was the best period for Copts despite some problems which the president is innocent from stirring. Mubarak always stands by us and gives us our rights, and his son is a decent person who loves Copts.
Al-Masry: Some are demanding a parliament quota for Copts as is the case with women, what do you think?
Father Bishoy: We are not demanding a parliament quota since that would be deemed as a nomination on religious grounds. It would also provoke similar demands by the Muslim Brotherhood for a quota for Islamists. Copts, though, can be nominated through a proportional representation system where women, Islamists, and Copts are included. It will be illogical if there is only four Copts among 444 members of the People’s Assembly.
Al-Masry: Speaking about the Muslim Brotherhood, what is the church’s stance towards them?
Father Bishoy: We love them since Christ ordered us to love all the people. I wish they love us and believe in the freedom of thought as we do. I will be very happy if the Brotherhood respects human rights.
Al-Masry: After several protests by the Copts, especially those triggered by the second marriage dispute, some voices emerged calling for freeing the church from the clergy’s grip and putting them under the state’s control, how do you view this invitation?
Father Bishoy: What do you mean by freeing the church from the clergy’s grip? Wasn’t it enough that Copts were obliged to pay tributes after the Islamic conquer? What else? Do you want to replace us in performing the prayers and church services?
Al-Masry: It simply means that the church should observe its religious duties away from anything else?
Father Bishoy: That’s weird, Those who advocate such calls forget that we are the natives. We deal gently with visitors (Muslims) who landed on our soil and whom we considered as brothers, but now they want to govern our churches. I do not accept any insults against Islam, and as Christians, we are ready to die for Christianity. But if somebody says that Muslims will take care of the church’s congregation, i would reply : “Kill me or put me in jail if you want to reach that goal."
Al-Masry: Nobody mentioned Muslim control. The debate was over “state oversight”. Some secular Copts even support the idea?
Father Bishoy: Former president Anwar el-Sadat tried to apply that but failed. As for the secularists, they are merely a bunch of people rallying behind one person who was not elected by the Coptic community.That person failed in the ecclesiastical council’s elections, and he only represents himself, not the Copts. Even the expatriate Copts who support such demands have issues with the church.
Al-Masry: Pope Shenouda made several trips for treatment recently, paving the way for discussions around his succession, what’s your comment?
Father Bishoy: The Pope is in good health and performs his duties regularly. His last trip to the USA was not for treatment; he was only holding a three-day seminar for priests in North America, where he gave some lectures. During the trip, he headed to Cleveland to undergo a routine medical check.
Al-Masry: But some suggested a number of names as successors for Shenouda, including you?
Father Bishoy: Such suggestions are improper. The Pope is in a good health and we hope him a long life.
Translated from the Arabic Edition.