02/07/2004, 00.00
Egypt - Vatican
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We Christians are smothered by Islam and the West

by Giuseppe Caffulli

An interview with Card. Stephanos II Ghattas, patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Catholic Church.

Cairo (AsiaNews) – Some days ago the first meeting occurred between the Catholic Church and Egypt's Orthodox Churches. Representing Catholics was Card. Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. During the meetings, the Coptic Orthodox pope, Shenouda III, appeared briefly to share his greetings. Church leaders agreed to make an appointment to meet again in Rome next Jan. 25 2005. Meanwhile, Christian Churches in Egypt are persecuted, sometimes in subtle or violent ways. In order to have an idea of the ecumenicalism and missionary work-martyrdom experienced by these Churches, "Mondo e Missione" interviewed Card. Stephanos II Ghattas, patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church of Egypt (see. Feb. 2004 issue).

Today we will offer an update on violence used against Christians on  www.asianews.it .   

Your Eminence, it's not easy living in a country which proclaims equality for all its citizens, but where, at any rate, there is an overwhelming concern for Islam…

To say the least, from a doctrinal and theological perspective, dialog with Egyptian Muslims is problematic. We respect each other, but we have deeply different identities.

In terms of daily life, we have relations with Muslims as far as prayer, fasting, social services and schools are concerned. In our 170 schools educational institutions, most of our students are Muslim. This allows us to establish sympathetic and collaborative relationships with them.

Certainly there is a fundamentalist trend deeply felt throughout the country, which would have an even more heavy effect on social and political life. One of the obstacles that Christians –both Catholics and Orthodox –must face is that of obtaining authorizations for building and restructuring their churches. The law says a presidential decree is needed first, in addition to many other formalities. Yet even when building permits are obtained, the local government always finds a way to cause problems. And hence, many years pass before work can begin. One of the reasons for such an attitude is both the state of Egypt and the nation attempt to affirm their Muslim identity whenever they can.  

Humanitarian organizations have also recently reported limitations placed on personal freedom, to the detriment of Christians. Is this true?   

We are living under huge social pressures, pushing Christians to Diaspora status and causing some faithful to become Muslims, especially for financial reasons. If you want a home or a job, undoubtedly you will be better looked upon if you are Muslim.    

And yet, despite the social-political game and certain restrictive laws, Christians are very conscious of and convinced about their faith. Their sacramental life is very much alive, and there are may religious and priestly vocations.   

What is today's image of the Coptic Catholic Church?

Of our 250,000 members we have many vocations coming from women, 200 diocesan priests, in addition to 150 religious in all of Egypt.

We have a large seminary, requiring 8 years of formation. Many priests continue their studies outside Egypt. In terms of the Orthodox Church, monasticism has left less of a mark. Us Catholic priests, even while conserving the rites and traditions of the ancient Coptic Church, are still celibate; yet Orthodox priests, like those of many Eastern Churches, can get married. Monasticism is a much more radical way of life, and from monasteries come Orthodox bishops. For us Catholics, the choice is made by way of the Holy Synod, which is not just a consulting body. Even the patriarch of Alexandria is chosen by the Synod of Bishops.       

What is the relationship between Orthodox faithful and Pope Shenouda III?

While there is much good will, there are many difficulties. Rome has begun ecumenical dialog with our Orthodox brothers and sisters and has agreed on an important common Christological declaration, reducing the issue of Monophysitism to that of a verbal undertone.

Theological matters are not those causing problems. A lot of other bad blood is involved, coming not only come from Copts, but from the other Orthodox communities. Shenouda hoped that all Christians in Egypt would be reunited under the Coptic Orthodox Church after successful ecumenical dialog and agreement on the common Christological Declaration.     

It didn't turn out this way. Hence, ecumenical dialog is suffering slightly. Today members of the Orthodox Church dismiss the issue of a common Christological Declaration as a fact which has concerned Rome and the Coptic pope, but which has not been approved by the Holy Synod. Thus, the Orthodox Church most likely will not commit itself to true dialog with Catholics. Despite these problems, I ardently hope the Lord will lead us to unity.     

What is it like to be a Christian living in today's Egypt?

People live, believe and hope together. They feel part of the same Church founded by St. Mark, the martyr, between 40 and 64 A.D. in Alexandria, once a rich and cosmopolitan city, a  beacon of culture and civilization.

Catholics and Orthodox share the same sacraments, same liturgy and coinciding ecclesial identity. Yet the fact is our Orthodox brothers and sisters try too often to convince their faithful not to frequent Catholic parishes and claim Catholic priests are swindlers.  

At Orthodox-Catholic weddings, there even occurs a sort of abjuring of Catholicism and rebaptism of faithful is expected. This behavior clashes with the fundamentally good rapport I have with Shenouda III. For us, it is important to show our intentions to be united as Christians. But then in ecclesial practices, in parishes and dioceses, there are still hard remnants of bias and difficulties.  

What style do you try to adopt?

As even John Paul II said during the ad limina visit of Egyptian bishops last August in Rome, "the most important witness is that of daily life, based on the twofold commandment to love God and our neighbor."  

The path we are seeking is one inspired by charity. It is this which we try to do, even with our presence in schools and social services. In terms of social responsibilities, as Christians we want to be good citizens, giving our witness in environments in which people live and work. And this is the case, despite laws and practices which prevent Christians from having certain jobs and causing a certain level of frustration among Christians who feel like second-class citizens, despite what the Constitution says.    

What can Western Churches learn from the Church in Egypt?

To cultivate and preserve the faith in constant memory of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for Christ. And this to give witness to one's faith.

The life which is good and lived well is that an open book: it speaks for itself. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are often scandalized by counter-testimonies given by the Christian West, in its showiness and decline in morality and traditions. And they want to know why. What we strive for and want to transmit is the beauty of an upright life lived according to Gospel. If we know how to pay such testimony, God –I am certain –will never abandon his Church.   

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