A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
The Long Road of Change for Egypt

Part 1

Luxor's Bishop Zakaria on the Good and Bad of Revolution

By Emil Ameen

LUXOR, Egypt, 22 JULY 2011 (ZENIT)
A new attitude of hope has taken root among Christians in Egypt, says the Catholic Coptic bishop of Luxor.

Bishop Youhannes Zakaria, 61, told ZENIT that since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, "silence and negativity ... characterized most Christian Egyptians." But, since the revolution earlier this year, which deposed President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of ruling the country, the presence of Christians in the country is "alive and effective."

The bishop said this in a three-part interview on the current situation in Egypt after the Jan. 25 revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime.

In Part 1 Bishop Zakaria discusses the new attitude of Christians in Egypt, relations between Islam and Christianity and the prospect of a new Egypt.

Parts 2 and 3 of this interview will appear Sunday and Monday, respectively.

ZENIT: Your eminence, how would you generally describe the situation in Egypt after the Jan. 25 revolution? What is its influence especially on the Christian presence?

Bishop Zakaria: At first, I would like to express my thanks and deep appreciation to ZENIT's editorial team for all its sacrifices and hard work in order to spread distinguished Christian information, especially through its daily edition in Arabic and other languages.

In my opinion, the situation in Egypt after the Jan. 25 revolution is obscure. The way is not totally clear, and the journey is still long to reach a period of stability and safety.

Yes, the youth revolution has excellently succeeded in Cairo's Liberation Square. It overthrew the military regime that ruled Egypt since the July 23, 1952, revolution, liberated all Egyptians, destroyed the wall of fear and eliminated it from all Egyptians' hearts. It encouraged them to abandon their negative attitudes and seek the participation in the political action.

But, the success of this youth revolution, thanks to their sacrifices and martyrs, offered the golden opportunity for some political forces and religious communities that were forbidden and persecuted under the former regime's rule, to break their silence and work hard in taking this opportunity in order to achieve their goals, and their political and religious agenda.

In terms of the Christian Egyptian presence, I noticed lately the end of silence and negativity that characterized most Christian Egyptians, especially after the July 23, 1952, revolution. The Christian Egyptian presence in the Liberation Square was really honorable, active and constructive, especially among the Christian youth. Until now, the Christian Egyptians' participation in the current events is still alive and effective, and their presence in the national conferences and popular committees reflects their concern for the nation's affairs, and their readiness to cooperate to develop it.

I hope that the Christian Egyptian presence will be characterized by unity, will renounce all denominational disagreements, and won't be isolated. But it has to dialogue and cooperate with all the political and religious forces present on the Egyptian scene.

ZENIT: The increase of radical movements from various parties is beyond doubt a reality… can Egypt's Copts adapt themselves to the latest developments?

Bishop Zakaria: After January 25 revolution, and after the return of the political freedom to Egypt, and the fall of the wall of fear, the Egyptian scene witnessed the emergence of a lot of religious communities and political forces that were not recognized by the former regime which never cooperated with them and was trying instead to eliminate them.

I think that these religious communities and political forces need more time and work to reach a phase of national and political maturity, be able to accept who is different from them in terms of religion, creed, opinion, and thought, and therefore cooperate with all Egyptians without exception and work together for a better life and a new developed state.

If these religious communities and political forces were able to evolve and accept the other party which is different from them in terms of religion and thought, Egypt's Copts will cooperate and live together in peace.

ZENIT: Everyone is calling for the inevitability of a secular state, but all the clouds in Egypt's sky reflect that the religious state is the closest … your eminence, what is your opinion?

Bishop Zakaria: Peoples' experience and nations' history reflect that the experience of a religious state that believes in a certain religion or creed or doctrine has been doomed to failure in the West and the East.

In modern times, we see that, in all the states and cities of the world, in the East and the West, there are too many people who belong to different religions and believe in various beliefs and doctrines, but they seek to live together in peace and harmony. For the security of the nation in which they are living, they call everyone to respect the other's religion and doctrine, and they invite all citizens to cooperate with each other for their society's well being. Therefore, the creation of the religious state does not make internal peace, and it neglects the legitimate rights of the group that professes a religion different from the state's religion.

In this regard, I remember what Lord Jesus said: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's," and the motto of 1919 Revolution when Muslims cried out and Copts repeated with them against the English colonizer: "the religion is for God, and the nation is for everyone," and they asked for the creation of a civilian state that respects all its citizens' rights.

Religious doctrine and thoughts of faith in which people believe are very important in close relationships between God and man, and between man and his human brother. They also have a strong influence on the daily human and social life. When the religious doctrine is far from the plague of hideous fanaticism, hatred and ignorance, it will be able to build the homeland and sow the seeds of love and peace. Therefore, all Egyptians have to maintain their Muslim or Christian faith, and build cordial relations based on mutual respect, and progress in dialogue and constructive cooperation to serve their society and country.

ZENIT: Sohag and Qena witnessed in the last two years an unprecedented increase of the denominational turmoil that led to the death of some Copts … in your opinion, what are the true reasons of this increase?

Bishop Zakaria: Yes, lately, these painful events between Muslims and Christians increased in all the provinces and the whole country, and Copts had to endure more pain and sacrifices and losses of lives and properties. I think that the reasons mainly lie in ignorance, poverty, physical and psychological illness from which most of the Muslim and Christian Egyptians suffer. In addition to all that, there are tensions and sectarian disagreements created by the former regime in some villages and some parts of the country. Also, I don't exclude some conspiracies and external and internal reasons that seek to destabilize the internal situation and make sectarian and factional profits.

ZENIT: What do Copts think of those who talk about the inevitability of implementing the Islamic law or imposing the jizya tax [levied on non-Muslims] in new Egypt if an Islamic government was formed?

Bishop Zakaria: I cannot speak in the name of Copts, but I can give a personal opinion. If the Muslim brothers are convinced that the implementation of the Islamic law is inevitable, I do not mind its implementation, but only for them. For non-Muslims, there should be an application of their laws and their doctrines' principles.

Concerning the imposition of the jizya tax system, there are a lot of interpretative judgments and studies made by Muslim scholars who refuse this system and affirm that the tax was imposed in the beginning of the Islamic era to defend the non-Muslims. The system of various taxes and governmental fees replaced the tax system. I think that this system won't be imposed in Egypt in any form, and as a Christian Egyptian citizen, I categorically refuse being obliged by a government to pay the tax in order to preserve my religion.

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Part 2

Luxor's Bishop Zakaria on Hope for Christians

By Emil Ameen

LUXOR, Egypt, 24 JULY 2011 (ZENIT)
The 2010 Mideast synod of bishops was considered a success for many reasons, say the Catholic Coptic bishop of Luxor.

Bishop Youhannes Zakaria, 61, told ZENIT that the gathering was not only "the first time that all the Middle East's Catholic bishops have met with the Holy Father in Rome" to discuss the situation of the Church in the region, but that it also put the "news, history, and affairs of the Middle Eastern Churches and the problems of their Christian faithful" on the world stage.

The bishop said this in a three-part interview on the current situation in Egypt after the Jan. 25 revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime.

In Part 2, Bishop Zakaria discusses forced conversions to Islam, the fruits of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, and relations between Muslims and Christians.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Friday. Part 3 will appear Monday.

ZENIT: In recent years, we have noticed unprecedented cases of forced conversions to Islam. In your opinion, is it a methodical plan, especially considering that the targeted age group is only one, just young girls?

Bishop Zakaria: I don't think that they are random incidents, but I feel that some people are planning and financing such incidents, and taking advantage of the emotional, familial, and financial problems from which some Coptic girls suffer. They facilitate their escape from their families, and then invite them to convert to Islam.

Every Coptic family should take care of its daughters and sons, and the Church in this delicate period has to intensify its activity in deepening faith among its children, look after them and work for their own good.

ZENIT: In fact, most of the Copts dream of emigrating and leaving Egypt to ward off the future harm, from their perspective … how does the Catholic Church in Egypt consider this issue?

Bishop Zakaria: Not only the Copts dream of emigration and traveling abroad, there are also their Muslim brothers and youth from most of the third world countries who share this dream. The reason of this emigration is not only an escape from a bitter reality in their countries, on the political, economic and security levels, but a search for an opportunity of a better future for their lives and children.

The Catholic Church in Egypt does not encourage its faithful to emigrate, in order to preserve the Christian presence in our Egyptian land and in the Middle East. But the Church must have plans for youth, plans that offer job and housing opportunities and aim at providing their stability and securing their own future and their children's future.

ZENIT: Many people have considered that the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East is a hope for Christians of the Middle East, but in reality, it offered only theoretical recommendations. What is the benefit of such a synod?

Bishop Zakaria: The Synod of Bishops for the Middle East is considered as a singular event in Eastern Church's history. In fact, it is the first time that all the Middle East's Catholic bishops have met with the Holy Father in Rome to consider the aspirations and problems of the Church and Christians in the Middle East.

This synod was preceded by intensive studies and preparatory discussions that took place in most of the Catholic archdioceses, institutes, centers, and monastic orders in the Middle East. Many personalities and committees specialized in the Middle Eastern Churches' affairs from the Catholic Church took part in these preparations.

During this synod, the audio-visual media all over the world focused on the news, history, and affairs of the Middle Eastern Churches and the problems of their Christian faithful. This is considered as a success of the synod, which discussed and focused on the situation of the Eastern Churches and the Christians' situation and problems.

This synod led to the publication of some important documents and recommendations. The churches and archdioceses studied these documents and sought the implementation of these recommendations. Our Egyptian church printed a book that contains studies and discussions about these recommendations, and currently, there is a study of this book in every Egyptian archdiocese.

Currently, we are waiting for the apostolic exhortation related to the Middle Eastern Churches, that the Holy Father Benedict XVI will publish soon, and that will include the final publication of the Synod's recommendations, to work and serve according to these recommendations and implement them in the Church's mission.

ZENIT: What does the Catholic Church in Egypt offer laymen who want to deepen their role in the Egyptian factional and political life, so that Copts are not accused of languor?

Bishop Zakaria: In the past, the Egyptian Catholic Church might have offered a little in this field, due to the conditions that impeded the work. Now, there are a lot of forums and meetings taking place in all the archdioceses, monastic orders, institutes and schools to educate lay people and encourage them to join the political and factional action.

In this regard, there is a concrete and serious work done by the Justice and Peace Commission of the Egyptian Catholic patriarchs and bishops' conference.

ZENIT: Why are Copts divided in the issue of the international protection? Some of them want it despite the fact that they are not calling publicly for it, and others ask for it publicly. What does the Egyptian Catholic Church think of this?

Bishop Zakaria: Undoubtedly, the Copts who are indigenous who live in their Egyptian country suffer from problems, difficulties accumulated over centuries, and feel that their rights are ignored, no one cares about them, and most of their requests are not granted. Therefore, some believe that the request for the international protection will eliminate their problems and difficulties. But I believe that the international protection that is understood as the Copts' reliance on the foreign powers is not the right way to solve the Copts' problems. I also see that the right way in this regard is the calm and constructive dialogue among the same nation's citizens.

ZENIT: What about your relations in South Egypt with the moderate Muslims and heads of liberal movements? Do the latter have an equivalent influence to that of the Salafis and the Muslim brotherhood?

Bishop Zakaria: In my priestly and episcopal service, my relation with my Muslim brothers has always been good.

I remember when I was a pastor in the city of Alfikriyah in Minya province; I established a nursing home for children and most of these children were from Muslim families. I never discriminated between a Muslim and a Christian child. Until now, I still have a personal relationship with some responsible for these children.

There is a feeling of cordiality and mutual respect between us, and when I visit my family in Abu Qarqas, many of them come to visit me. It's also a great pleasure to meet my sons and daughters who were in this nursing home, who grew up and are now holding senior positions. And some of them who go to Luxor for work come especially to visit me. With them, I remember those beautiful days that we spent together.

In my pastoral visits to the churches and parishes in Luxor's archdiocese, all Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic parishioners come to welcome me, and when I visit the parishioners' houses, priority is given to the visit of my Muslim brothers' homes.

In fact, I can say that relations between Muslims and Christians who live and work side by side in the village and some cities in Upper Egypt are cordial relationships. And many people who sow seeds of sedition and division come from outside the village or the city, bear fanatic ideas, and work on spreading grudge, hatred among people of the same village whose ancestors lived for many centuries and hundreds of years in love and peace, without any discrimination between Muslims and Christians.
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Part 3

Luxor's Bishop Zakaria on Islam-Vatican Relations

By Emil Ameen

LUXOR, Egypt, 24 JULY 2011 (ZENIT)
Even thought Egypt is currently undergoing a period of turmoil and change, the nation will not only survive, it will improve, says the Catholic Coptic bishop of Luxor.

Bishop Youhannes Zakaria, 61, told ZENIT that "the Egyptian civilization has excelled and overcome all the difficulties and pains through its long history, which extends over thousands of years," and that after this "delicate period in history, Egypt will triumph and improve, thanks to that Egyptian spirit deep-rooted in all Egyptians' hearts, and thanks to the courage and enthusiasm of all its citizens."

The bishop said this in a three-part interview on the current situation in Egypt after the Jan. 25 revolution that brought down the Mubarak regime.

In Part 3, Bishop Zakaria discusses the call for foreign protection of Egypt's Copts, the breakdown of dialogue between the Vatican and the Cairo-based Research Council of the University of Al-Azhar and prospects for the future of Egypt.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Friday, and Part 2 of this interview appeared Sunday.

ZENIT: We started to hear voices asking the Vatican to intervene for the protection of Egypt's Copts. How do you explain such a phenomenon especially that the Vatican has no military troops or armies?

Bishop Zakaria: Personally, I do not accept what is called the foreign protection of the Copts. Copts who live in Diaspora and call for this issue should be educated on the danger of this request, and its harmful influence on the interests of the Copts living in Egypt next to their Muslim brothers.

Benedict XVI, who is the head of the Holy See, a spiritual state that does not have a regular army like the other states, spares no effort in praying for Christians and non-Christians all over the world, especially when natural catastrophes afflict them or when they live in painful and difficult conditions.

Recently, the Holy Father mentioned the tragic incidents that the Church's followers in Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan are experiencing, and asked that everyone be united with him in prayer for them. He also asked those responsible in these countries to pay more attention to and care for their subjects. This request is not considered as interference in the internal affairs of the mentioned countries, but a message of love and support to advocate the help of the man oppressed and hurt by his human brother.

ZENIT: Could you comment on the decision of the highest authority of Sunni Islam, Ahmad at-Tayyeb of Al-Azhar Mosque, and the Cairo-based Research Council of the University of Al-Azhar, to freeze dialogue with the Vatican in protest of Benedict XVI's statements on religious freedom following a Jan. 1 attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria?

Bishop Zakaria: I think that this subject needs more patience, time, and mutual dialogue so that the two sides understand each other.

Now, I see that the insistence on resuming the dialogue in any possible way does not serve this desired dialogue. I also think that some statements issued from here and there about this issue, and explained by the media according to their interests and policy, are more of harmful than good to improving relations between the Holy See and Al-Azhar Mosque.

With all due respect and appreciation to everyone, I want to explain that the desired dialogue is not a dialogue between the Holy Father Benedict XVI and Al-Azhar's Grand Imam Dr. at-Tayyeb, but it is a dialogue between the Holy See in all what it represents of a profound Christian spiritual heritage, and Al-Azhar in all what it represents of authentic Islamic liberality.

I hope that the two sides will communicate quickly, and the dialogue will be resumed soon, because severing the ties and putting an end to the dialogue harm both sides and do not do them any good.

ZENIT: After the meeting between Benedict XVI and Egypt's minister of foreign affairs, Nabil Al-Arabi, who has since been elected the secretary-general of the Arab League, what is the status of Vatican -Egypt relations?

Bishop Zakaria: After the Copts' martyrdom in the Saints church in Alexandria, the Holy Father Benedict XVI denounced this terrorist act, and called the Egyptian government and the Middle Eastern governments to pay more attention to the protection of the Christian minority in this country.

Unfortunately, the former Egyptian government did not understand the Pope's message and considered it as interference in the Egyptian internal affairs. And in protest at this interference, the Egyptian ministry of foreign affairs called the Egyptian ambassador to the Holy See back to Cairo for consultations.

Meanwhile, most of the world's leaders denounced the attack on the church in Alexandria, and called the Middle East's governments to protect the Christian minority. But there was no reaction from the Egyptian government as happened with the Holy Father.

After the return of the Egyptian ambassador to continue her mission to the Holy See, and after Mubarak's overthrow, and the change of the Egyptian government, the Egyptian minister of foreign affairs visited the Holy See, met the Holy Father, and discussed with him the way to promote close bilateral relations between the Arab republic of Egypt and the Vatican state. He also informed him of the latest developments on the Egyptian scene after the youth revolution and the regime's change in Egypt. Thus, the relations between the Arab republic of Egypt and the Holy See returned to normality, and the two sides understood that was happened was a result of misunderstanding and a sensitive situation.

After the Egyptian minister of affairs visit to the Holy See, and the visit of the secretary of the committee of dialogue between Christianity and Islam in the Vatican to Al-Azhar's Imam in Cairo, dialogue was supposed to be resumed between the two sides. But unfortunately, after a meeting of the senior scholars in Al-Azhar, Al-Azhar's Grand Imam declared the postponement of the dialogue's resumption between Al-Azhar and the Holy See.

ZENIT: Two decades ago, Samuel Huntington talked about the clash of the civilizations that breaks out due to religious reasons. Is the change from the "Arab Spring" to the "Fundamentalist Spring" the fulfillment of this man's prophecy?

Bishop Zakaria: After the fall and failure of the Communism, the Soviet Union's disintegration, the liberation of the countries of Eastern Europe, the dissolution of Warsaw pact, and the end of the Cold War between the East and the West, western countries had to find an alternative for competition and conflict in order to spread the political influence and show their military might. The East-West clash began with an increase of terrorist acts committed by some Islamic groups, which led to the war to liberate Kuwait, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. These wars that aim at eliminating international terrorism are still considered by some people as a war between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Others see that this war is the clash of civilizations that breaks out due to religious reasons, as Samuel Huntington wrote in his book about "the clash of the civilizations".

I hope that this youth revolution against the injustice and corruption of dictatorships, the start of the Arab Spring's revolution, and the bloom of the freedom's flowers, lead to fulfill the dream of a civilian democratic country, and build the ideal society based on love and peace, a society that gathers all the citizens without any religious or denominational discrimination, and in which all of them are brothers who love and help each other for the good and well-being of their country.

ZENIT: Finally, between pessimism and optimism, what is your feeling? And what is your advice for all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, in this turning point through which Egypt is going?

Bishop Zakaria: As an Egyptian citizen who studied thoroughly the Egyptian history of civilizations that extends from past centuries until now, I feel optimistic about the power of the Egyptian people with all its members and categories, all its Muslims and Christians, to overcome all the crises that hinder the construction of the modern and developed Egyptian state, so that it reaches a position among the civilized and modern world's countries.
As the Egyptian civilization has excelled and overcome all the difficulties and pains through its long history, which extends over thousands of years, and as the Egyptian's renewed genius has succeeded in triumphing over all the powers of occupation, injustice and oppression, in this delicate period in history, Egypt will triumph and improve, thanks to that Egyptian spirit deep-rooted in all Egyptians' hearts, and thanks to the courage and enthusiasm of all its citizens.

And as a Christian who believes in hope, and lives by the power of love and faith, I tend toward optimism.
It is optimism, though it is associated with caution due to the difficulty of the freedom's path, and attention to what hinders the construction of the modern state, and the achievement of a better life and a bright future for all Egyptians.

My advice for all my compatriots is to cooperate in the work of constructing Egypt's future, put aside what separates us, and seek to establish a society of love and peace.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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