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Egypt strengthens influence in Africa through church

The Egyptian government is working through the Egyptian Orthodox Church in Africa, especially in the Nile Basin countries, as part of a soft power strategy to boost its influence in light of the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
An Ethiopian Orthodox priest wafts incense during a prayer inside Bole Medhanialem church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on June 20, 2021.

Egypt is taking advantage of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church's charitable and development projects in Africa to boost its influence on the continent, especially in the Nile Basin countries.

On Sept. 27, the patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, promised Burundi Ambassador to Egypt Sheikh Rashid Malachi Nyirajera that the Church would continue to provide educational and health support to the Burundian people.

During a meeting with Nyirajera at the papal headquarters in Cairo, Tawadros said he hopes “the projects carried out by the church in Burundi will remain effective and beneficial to the Burundian people,” noting “the church supports the Egyptian state in Burundi and all African countries.”

Nyirajera, for his part, expressed “the Burundian government's appreciation for the services provided by the Coptic Orthodox Church in the name of Egypt to serve the Burundian people in terms of health and education.

He pointed to “the success of the technical school established by the Coptic Church in Burundi,” expressing his hope to build more schools and establish a hospital as well.

The Egyptian government has resorted to the Coptic Orthodox Church to promote the Voice of Egypt in Africa initiative launched by the Ministry of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs back in May.

During a meeting on July 5 with Father Anba Joseph (Egypt's general bishop in Africa, specifically in Namibia, Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe), Minister of Immigration and Egyptian Expatriates Affairs Nabila Makram praised the role of the church in Africa in advancing the Voice of Egypt in Africa initiative to boost Egypt’s influence and role in the continent.

The initiative, she says, is based on using Egyptian soft powers such as the church in Africa in parallel with existing diplomatic efforts made by the Egyptian government to achieve these goals.

In March, Tawadros appointed Joseph as the general bishop of Africa and representative of the church in Africa in a move aimed at increasing the church's presence on the continent.

Meanwhile, it seems the government is aware the role of the Coptic Church in Africa is not limited to the spiritual and religious aspects only but rather extends to establishing development projects, hospitals and schools.

In Burundi, for example, the Coptic Orthodox Church established a hospital, shelter and nursing home. During his meeting in December 2017 with Father Daoud Lamei (the ecclesiastical official for the Coptic Orthodox Church service in Burundi), Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza praised the role of Egypt and the church in supporting the health and education sectors in the country.

The Egyptian parliament also praised the role of the church in Africa during a December 2018 meeting between head of the African Affairs parliament committee Tarek Radwan and Tawadros, who said “the Egyptian Church plays a major role in Africa, and it provides services in Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, as well as limited ecclesiastical services in a number of other countries, not to mention the medical services the Egyptian church provides extensively in many African countries.”

The church is also keen on sending medical convoys four times a year to Burundi, most recently in February 2020.

In Kenya, the Coptic Orthodox Church launched in November 2020 a project dubbed “Raha Kids” to serve street children and children who were subjected to domestic violence that led them to resort to the street.

The church also established a number of medical centers, vocational training centers and a nursery in Nairobi in February 2019.

In South Sudan, the Egyptian Orthodox Church inaugurated a development center to teach trades as well as a nursery for children and a free clinic to treat the poor in January. In March 2017, the Egyptian Orthodox Church opened St. Mark's Primary School in South Sudan.

In April 2019, the church inaugurated the Coptic Hospital in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, which is one of the largest hospitals in the country. Then-Zambian President Edgar Lungu stressed that “the hospital is an achievement for everyone in Zambia and will improve access to the best quality medical services,” praising the church’s contribution to improving the health sector.

In South Africa, the Egyptian Orthodox Church owns a number of medical projects, such as the Coptic Center in Johannesburg, in addition to several development centers throughout the country.

In Sudan, the Egyptian church owns 23 churches in and around Khartoum, Omdurman and Atbara, in addition to four high schools and several elementary schools, libraries and clubs.

Amani al-Tawil, an expert on African affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “The government uses and cooperates with all the soft powers that have influence in African countries, most notably the Coptic Orthodox Church.”

She added, “The Egyptian church and its projects in Africa and the Nile Basin countries facilitate the work of Egyptian diplomacy in implementing Cairo's plan to restore its role in Africa.”

“It is difficult for soft powers such as the church to directly intervene in the crisis of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), despite its strong influence in the Nile Basin countries. However, the church's popular influence may make the peoples of those countries more inclined to support the Egyptian position," Tawil said.

Tawadros told the press on Sept. 19 that “the church plays an important role in clarifying the Egyptian position on the GERD crisis and the nature of the Nile River, but this issue has now taken a political dimension entirely.”

Meanwhile, Tawil stressed, “The government must coordinate and partner with all soft powers such as the church and Al-Azhar to increase their projects and activities in African countries.”

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