For Easter 2012, Egypt’s Coptic Christians had an opportunity they formally hadn’t had in decades – visit Jerusalem. Pope Shenouda III (who?), the leader of the Coptic Church (20 million+ members worldwide), passed away last month. In addition to his being a significant religious figure, the late Pope also banned Copts from making any pilgrimage to Jerusalem as so long as it was considered occupied. But his recent death has marked an unexpected shift for Egypt’s Christians and maybe Israel’s diplomatic opportunities around the Nile.
Copts have unprecedented pressures in Egypt: a revolution’s new wave of violence against Christians; Islamists’ election victory; and now, their spiritual and de facto political leader’s demise. At the helm since 1971, it is a tremendous power vacuum. Simultaneously, Israel’s link to Egypt is fraying and the country has no social traction with the Egyptian on the street. So, the Copts of Egypt should be a vital concern for Israeli diplomacy, and electing a newer Pope should certainly have some bearing on where either side goes in respect to each other.
The idea of leveraging minorities in neighboring countries is often a fantasy of Israeli commentators or enthusiastic politicos who can’t resist thinking of ways to make Israel’s security more solid. But it’s hardly unprecedented. Innumerable resources were poured into Iraqi Kurdistan pre-Yom Kippur War to pressure the Baath Party, and Israel was quick to align with the Catholics of Lebanon in 1982. Extending these policies to Egypt would be seeing an Egyptian Christian minority have controlling votes in a new parliament and blunting the political blades of Islamists in government. But it’s tough to tell if Egyptian Christians really would hold any measurable or favorable sway on their country’s foreign policy if they were to become more politically organized. But this latter event is a prerequisite to any significant amelioration of the relationship between Egypt and Israel.
A new Pope already has more pressing concerns, like keeping open the opportunities the revolution has given and defending the community against ethnic and religious attacks. Israel has plenty to talk about with a new Church leader: priority among them would be the dispute over Coptic Church property in and around Jerusalem. Even if Israel does recognize, negotiate with and reach a deal over disputed spots in the holy city, that doesn’t translate into good will between Israelis and Copts on a general level. And even with a maximum outburst of positive emotions, Copts’ physical security (that is, their own preservation) is the overwhelming priority.
But taking the diplomatic path with a reinvigorated Church could bear unexpected fruit. At the onset of Hosni Mubarak’s power, the Coptic Church has been relatively independent. All it and the late Pope Shenouda III had to do was support Mubarak or stay out of his way. The side-effect was an uninvolved Coptic community, grossly unprepared for the better organized and experienced Muslim Brotherhood to win post-revolution seats in the parliament in December. Standard along with that, Shenouda III always toed the line on the social climate regarding Israel – before Mubarak, he vocally opposed Sadat’s normalization with the Jewish State. It doesn’t stop there.
Isolation is a tempting strategy in the Middle East, but what comes with it is letting enemies encroach on what minimal boundaries you have. An aggressive minority would have a better chance of defending its interests, and Copts should be initiating their own political parties, matching Islamist political enthusiasm and distinguishing their views from the Muslim Brotherhood. The community gains a sense of direction beyond politics with a well-defined platform. Fearing a similar result in the next elections, some vibrant counterbalance to Islamist politics isn’t against the interests of the Egyptian army.
Relations with Israel are a political issue, not unlike how Americans debated ties to Napoleonic France. Coptic authorities also dispute property in the Old City that Israeli police handed to a different Church in the early 1970s. These issues are probably interrelated. Resolving one would unbind the other. While Israelis consider gestures for the next Pope, he’ll in turn have a chance to solidify a political stance and philosophy being engaged with Israel.
Shenouda III was not John Paul II. But therein might lay a solution to the Church’s problems. In a broader scope, it works in defining the Coptic Papacy as a socio-political pillar in Egypt and the Arab World. tandem with promoting ethnic and religious harmony across the Middle East. Being an outspoken advocate for the fortune of Arab Christians will work well in tandem with promoting other causes for coexistence in the Middle East.
But ultimately, Copts will weigh the benefit versus the cost of being more open to Israel. In today’s climate, they might be inviting more pressure from Muslim Egyptians.
Israel’s options for facilitating the reputation of such a man are limited, but probably more from a lack of imagination than ability. It would be in their interest to open a new chapter with the Church beyond traditional political issues and foment an alliance. Israel should facilitate a leader that can stabilize a shaky fault, and tremors in the Coptic community imply an opportunity to do just that. Anything Israel can do overtly and covertly to facilitate those mechanisms and developments ought to be a priority. It can change the calculus in Egypt and balance the equation across the Sinai.