Church and State in Egypt: A Delicate Relationship Explored

Article Summary
Khaled Arab reports on a new book by Hani Labib entitled “The Egyptian Church, State and Religion Balances,” which addresses the relationship between religious groups and the state in Egypt.

The Egyptian Church, State and Religion Balances, written by Hani Labib, was published by the Nahdet Misr publishing house. The book addresses the thorny and ambiguous relationship between the Egyptian church and the state since the 1952 revolution.

The book is a continuation of a project on which the author embarked years ago with the publication of the book The Crisis of Religion Protection: Religion and State in Egypt. He followed this up with another book entitled Citizenship and Globalization: Copts in a Changing Society, for which he was granted the State Incentive Award. In his new book, he investigates the details of the relationship between the Coptic Church, as one of the most important institutions of the Egyptian society, and the Egyptian state, under whose national and political umbrella the church lies.

The book also tackles a number of controversial political issues: political pressure groups, secular Egyptian Christians, controversial issues within Christianity, controversial sectarian issues (such as the building of churches and freedom of religion) and the ambiguous relationship between Islamist and Christian citizens in Egypt. He wraps up his discussion of these issues by giving his point of view on some of the day’s relevant issues: the political participation of Egyptian Christians and the choosing of the next Pope.

The book features important testimony and commentary on the relationship between the church and the state. A number of official documents also populate its pages, many of which are being published for the first time.

The book invites us to reflect on our actions and think critically of ourselves as members of religious establishments (Christian and Muslim) and of the Egyptian state. It compels readers to review important ideas, trends and attitudes in the context of paying attention to the relations between Egyptians of different faiths. The book also pushes readers to monitor and assess the relationship between the church and state in more general terms, as well as ponder the Egyptian intellectual and political experience.

The author argues that in modern Egypt, objectivity means speaking in generalities. He says that subjectivity — or, more accurately, recognizing subjectivity — is tantamount to the highest degrees of true objectivity. He argues that this primarily applies to those trying to form their own opinion and who have the capability to produce new ideas — that is the intellectual elite, not decision makers who base their choices on these ideas. The first group focuses on the content of ideas, while the second group deals with their application.

Those who copy ideas and attribute them to themselves are excluded from this analysis. They are similar to those who translate and quote ideas without revealing that these ideas were not theirs in the first place. For these individuals, quoting becomes theft.

The book openly suggests a review of the relationship between the Church and the Egyptian state. He writes that recognizing ones own subjectivity leads to an objective outlook — it is consistent with the expression of real ideas based on real experiences. However, the rules governing the behavior of the educated elite seem to be different.

Those who admit to their own subjectivity are able to express their own stance.

The book tackles the relationship between the church and the state through true criticism of the community. This has become taboo as it often turns into self-criticism or insults. As it is now, criticism is only permissible if it is done through broad generalities. Objective and constructive criticism should be treated with utmost caution because it puts the criticizer under penalty of law for defamation, now that moderates from all intellectual, political and religious movements have become a minority in Egypt. Some Christian Egyptians have declared a "sacrifice" while certain Muslim Egyptians declared "jihad.”

According to the book, crises and sectarian tensions should be dealt with as a political and national issues in the first place, not as security issues. The author writes that this should become one of the priorities for the second Egyptian republic, which was born on January 25, 2011. In fact, the author believes that dealing with these issue from a security perspective was the reason behind the escalation of many of the country’s problems which spread across social groups. This led Egyptian society as a whole to bear the consequences of one group’s issues.

Found in: shenouda iii, sectarianism, religion and state, religion, hani labib, coptic church, church state relations

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