Coptic Resilience and the Future of Religious Freedom: An Interview with Archbishop Angaelos

Even as several watchdog agencies have reported a spike in intolerance towards minority faiths and in violations of religious freedom since the initial breakout of the pandemic, faith communities have stepped up, some in an interfaith capacity, to support their religious and local communities.

His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London, spoke with Religion & Diplomacy about how the Coptic community’s historical persecution has shaped the diaspora’s response during COVID-19, and how COVID-19 has influenced the prospects for religious freedom and interfaith cooperation.

His Eminence is widely known for his extensive involvement in advocacy work and initiatives related to international religious freedom, interfaith cooperation, and development work. Additionally, he is frequently called on as an expert voice in human rights and civil liberties, particularly in relation to situations in the Middle East and North Africa.

This interview was conducted by Jael Espinoza-Tischler, Master of International Affairs Candidate at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service, and intern with U.S Dept. of State Strategic Religious Engagement Unit. What follows is a transcript of her conversation with Archbishop Angaelos, lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

 

Religion & Diplomacy: On August 17, 2020, you tweeted the following quote from former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, “Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with an outstretched hand of generosity.” How has the Coptic community, both in the West and in the Middle East, worked towards addressing bigotry and isolation especially during this challenging time of pandemic and lockdown?

Archbishop Angaelos. photo credit: © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

Archbishop Angaelos: I think our role is predominantly pastoral. First internal and then to the external. What we’ve tried to do since COVID, ever since February when there was the overall lockdown in the UK, is maintain weekly services. So liturgically we maintained broadcast of weekly liturgy and mass from every parish that was accessible through livestream to everybody. Just before lockdown, we had virtually taken the whole church online. We had youth meetings, Bible studies, and the Teams platforms ready to go. So, it was easy to shift all of it very suddenly. We hosted mass and church services according to regulation in the UK, which calls for a maximum of two people; a deacon and priest to pray. At the same time, we had response groups set up. We set up a disaster response group that looked at how to deal with three major areas. First, the spiritual needs. This consists of liturgies and services. The second was the social need; people needing medication to be picked up, or shopping to be done, or even the provision of digital know-how to set up technology at home. Third was the emotional and psychological need to make sure people had access to resources. These are the three pillars we bent our resources towards at the time.

We had response groups within each parish that would go out and help elderly people in the surrounding communities as well. Also, we had financial aid for people in the community. We even set up a relief fund at the parish level. So, if anyone needs something, we can support them as much as possible, because we understood that people could lose their income and may not get to work anymore. In the beginning of July, we were able to hold services with a limited capacity. We set up in the interim a sophisticated church reservation system for liturgies so people could reserve to attend liturgies and we could make it as widely and fairly available as possible. Since then, we’ve been updating guidelines and guidance to make sure no one feels alone. It was important to make sure that despite the fact that they were geographically separated, they felt close and not emotionally or spiritually separated.

R&D: Do you find that the Coptic Church’s perseverance through historic persecution and lack of state support contributed to your community’s resiliency during COVID-19?

Archbishop Angaelos: It did, but quite strangely. Our resilience contributed to it, but we’re a community where if a church were bombed in Egypt, it would be full the following day. To ask people not to go to church in a time of crisis when they would have typically gone to church and prayed was very counter-cultural. We delivered the message that said staying away for now was about our resilience and faithfulness not being about ourselves, but about how we care for everyone else in society. It’s our responsibility to do that. So, that was a little different. If it was just a matter of persecution, and needing to fill the churches, that comes instinctively, but to tell people that we have to stay away and can’t go to the church was very confusing at the beginning.

I think our situation in the UK is different because a vast majority of our community is mixed, so we didn’t have to work as hard to convince people of this concept. From the very outset, we were careful to provide a culture where people could come together and journey through this together. We had emergency response groups, medical groups, clergy, and everyone bought into idea that we would go through this together. We also issued regular guidance and that allowed people to come to terms with everything better.

R&D: Do you see any differences between the Coptic community’s approach to COVID-19 relief efforts and other faith communities in the Middle East?

Archbishop Angaelos: I haven’t really compared. I think we just do what we have to do and know to do. Everyone is trying do what they can to the best of their ability. That will look different in some cases. It will take different routes and means, but I haven’t compared. I have a respect for every effort that has been made across the board. We’ve been trying to use our own networks, experiences, and people as real assets to provide to everyone.

R&D: How have you seen COVID-19 impact interfaith cooperation?

Archbishop Angaelos: I think it’s been very positive in many respects. Interreligious dialogue, even ecumenical dialogue, between churches is sometimes susceptible to a bit of tribalism. In relation to my work with Evangelicals and others, we have fostered very good relationships working on a day-to-day basis. What this has done in certain areas is galvanized these efforts because needs are across the board. Even if they haven’t worked together in the past, they can start now.

So yes, I think in some respects it has caused people to rally together. For instance, with places of worship and religious bodies it was more effective to rally together to make sure the government opened up places of worship again. In somewhere like England, where there are lots of Christians, the Church very much took the lead. The other faith communities were able to help as well and we collaboratively worked to deal with how to bring people together for things like funeral services and weddings. We found that if we maintained a collective voice, it would be much more effective, and it was.

R&D: You are a religious leader that has been actively involved in a number of efforts to promote freedom of religion or belief. What would you say are important factors in effective FoRB campaigns?

Archbishop Angaelos: To understand the importance of human dignity and the sanctity of life because it’s not just about advocating for our own people. It’s about us advocating of everyone equally. It’s important first to realize that if we’re just advocates for ourselves and look only at our own needs and desires, we fall short. There’s a lot of rhetoric about working together, “better together,” and the like. A lot of people say that, and when its genuine and sincere, it really makes a difference. What’s really impactful is the strength that comes from, lets’ say, my advocating for Baha’i, Uyghurs, or the Rohingya as opposed to just another Christian. Likewise, if a [non-Christian] were to advocate for Christians, it gives us much more credibility when we’re not seen as purely tribal, but actually working towards the greater good of everyone else. As a Christian, I think a very big part of who I am is to follow in the footsteps of Christ who was the chief advocate for all mankind.

R&D: Are you optimistic about the prospects for FoRB?

Archbishop Angaelos: In many respects, yes. The sad truth is we still have many violations around the world. The last statistic I saw reported 80% of all acts of religious discrimination and persecution were against Christians—so it is our reality. The promising thing is that more people are talking about it. Although it’s still happening, it’s visible and covered to a greater extent. I suppose this is partly because of social media. There is less capability of media blackouts and control, so things are always out there. Now, there is an onus of religious freedom and a greater awareness of responsibility among religious leaders to advocate for each other—otherwise they lose their religious legitimacy.

As a whole, I think we have proved the strength in standing together. Unfortunately, there are people are still very tribal and sectarian and who will just advocate for their own. However, I think they lose credibility in the public eye.

The Coptic Cathedral of St George in Stevenage, England. (Wikimedia Commons)

I felt this as a very personal calling for the past 10 years I’ve been doing this, but I wanted to go beyond myself. So, we’ve set up an advocacy office here as an advocacy arm of the church in the U.K. Before the name change, it was the Coptic Orthodox Office for Advocacy and Public Policy, but that wasn’t very catchy. After rethinking it, we came up with Refcemi—the Coptic word for advocate. So, it means that this office, while being an arm of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is advocating for all, because that’s where our strength is. At the beginning of the second millennium, we saw aggressive Islamism throughout Egypt looking to eradicate Coptic culture. During this time, the Coptic language stopped being used and people were being heavily penalized, sometimes brutally, for using it. So here we are in the 21st century where we’re using a Coptic language word, that still exists, to advocate for everyone else out of our own experience. It’s empowering because it doesn’t put us into a framework of being victims. Instead, we use our own understanding and experience of pain and persecution to stand for an advocate for others.

R&D: How has the Coptic community’s history of persecution played into the resilience of your efforts today?

Archbishop Angaelos: It’s the faithfulness of witness over centuries. It’s interesting that Coptic Christians are largest Christian community in Middle East now representing 80% precent of Christians in the Middle East, which means we’re mostly all that’s left. We’ve never taken up arms or been violent. Loving and forgiving and reconciling—that’s the nature and power of it. For us to just continue reminding ourselves that it’s our ethos and to continue in Christ’s footsteps is the most empowering thing we have. As I said, pain and persecution can turn into either a mindset of victimhood, or something that prompts us to do things for other people. And I think we have taken the latter path not the former.

One of the most ironic events of the 21stcentury has been the execution of the Coptic martyrs on the beach in Libya. I think that embodied strength and resilience, turning oppression and violence into strength and witness. That is absolutely key and the foundation of everything we do now. It’s not just for us, but for the whole Christian church, and even for non-Christians.

 

Featured image: Archbishop Angaelos speaks at a Coptic New Year celebrated in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey. (photo credit: The Coptic Orthodox Church Centre UK)