- Tawadros spoke about the damage inflicted on the Copts in Egypt during the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule from 2012 to 2013
- Tawadros is looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia soon at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
CAIRO: It was July 21, 1969, and Neil Armstrong had just taken mankind’s first steps on the moon. In Egypt, 16-year-old Wagih Subhi Baqi Sulayman was transfixed by the achievement. More in hope than in any expectation of a reply, he wrote to the US astronaut asking for an autograph.
A few weeks later, to the young man’s surprise, an envelope arrived containing a signed, color photo of the moon landing.
Nearly 50 years later, while the hair is a little more gray, Wagih’s eyes remain very much on celestial matters. Of course, nobody refers to him by his birth name these days. For more than 100 million Egyptians, and to the rest of the world, he is now known as Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria, Patriarch of the See of St. Mark and leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
He has, sadly, lost the moon landing photo — but never the memory of those days. With a soft voice and a gentle smile that lasted throughout our interview at St Mark’s Cathedral in the Abbassia district of Cairo, he recalled obtaining Armstrong’s address from a radio program on Voice of America that encouraged pen pals to write to him.
“I sent him a letter, telling him I would love to see a color photo of him on the moon, because the newspapers used to publish his photo in black and white. I was surprised when I received the envelope.”
The teenager had assumed that Armstrong was named after the Nile River. “I was obsessed with his name. In the West, they are used to the name Neil. But here in Egypt no one would call his child Nile, although it is a beautiful name.”
The selection of Tawadros II as pope, a complex ritual, concluded in November 2012 and came at a difficult time for Egyptian Christians and the country in general. It was shortly after the collapse of the Mubarak presidency and coincided with the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of Daesh.
Our regions have been established with the existence of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The meetings that the crown prince and Saudi officials are holding are very beneficial to the nation and the Kingdom.
Pope Tawadros II
Tawadros leads nearly 15 million Copts in Egypt and a further 2 million abroad, according to the church’s registry. They practice a form of Christianity established 2,000 years ago by St. Mark, and, like most Christians and minorities in the region, have endured persecution at various times in their history.
Recently, however, the persecution has become so widespread that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for an effort to protect Christians in the Middle East. Pope Tawadros agrees the situation is alarming. “Emptying the Middle East of Christians poses a great danger to stability and peace,” he says. “Christianity is deeply rooted in the Middle East.When all our countries were established, Christians and Muslims were there, as well as Jews in ancient history.”
The pope describes events in Syria and Iraq, with the rise of Daesh, as “very painful,” and points out that Christians who had to flee and seek asylum abroad were among the most affected. However, his concerns extend beyond the plight of Christians alone, and he argues that a “weakening of Arab countries” means “the weakening of Arabs as a whole … Christians and Muslims alike.”
Nevertheless, when it comes to his home country of Egypt, Tawadros is slightly more optimistic. “If you read through history, you will find that the Lebanese emigrated three centuries ago. However, the Christians in Egypt only started to emigrate 50 years ago, and that was due to the conditions that existed then.”
Under Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012-2013, Tawadros says, “Christians feared for their lives and fled the country. When the country regained its stability, a lot of them returned to Egypt. Christian emigration rates have dropped significantly.”
Despite the pope’s reassurances, many Copts are increasingly alarmed, their fear fueled by a surge in attacks on both them and their places of worship. Indeed, Egypt was highlighted as a country of concern in a report published this year by Open Doors, a US charity that supports persecuted Christians worldwide.
Tawadros says that these attacks are painful, but insists that their target is not Copts themselves or their churches, but “Egyptian unity.”
“To be fair, these attacks also targeted the armed forces, the police, and our brothers and sisters in mosques. One year ago, a mosque in Al-Arish region in North Sinai was a target for a terrorist attack where many Egyptians died.”