By Christopher White, National Correspondent
AL MINYA, Egypt – Two bishops, one Catholic, the other Orthodox, have remarkably different takes on how Christians are being treated in what is considered to be one of the hotbeds of Christian persecution in Egypt.
170 miles south of Cairo sits Minya, a Nile city known as the “jewel of Upper Egypt,” which includes the highest percentage of Christians in one place, roughly a third of its population of six million. The majority of the population is illiterate, which has also contributed to widespread unemployment, and Christian social service providers operate the bulk of the region’s schools and clinics.
For Bishop Botros Fahim Awad Hanna, leader of the region’s Catholics, he believes “the Catholic Church has no problems in Al-Minya.” By contrast, Bishop Anba Makarios, leader of the region’s Coptic Orthodox Church, says, “the highest percentage of Christian murders in Egypt come from Minya” and he believes the Egyptian state should look into the roots of such hostility, and not merely deal with it at a surface level.
“There is a difference with dealing with the symptoms and dealing with the root causes,” he insists.
Both bishops spoke last month to a group of Catholic journalists and educators, including The Tablet, sponsored by the Philos Project, an organization dedicated to “promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.”
Throughout the city, 18-foot tall cutouts of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi dot the landscape with various Arabic inscriptions meant to shore up support for Sisi’s security efforts.
“We are all with you for Egypt,” reads one sign outside of a popular hotel for tourists.
Yet Sisi’s focus on improved security has not come without criticism, particularly his crackdown on journalists, mass arrests, and the charge by some Coptic Christians that he has used them as political pawns – claiming to offer them greater freedom of religion, while making them dependent on the state, and his rule, for their protection.
Minya is, in some respects, a microcosm for the tensions that exist throughout the country, as it continues to reinvent itself following the aftershocks of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.
When Bishop Botros needs to interact with government officials regarding the region’s Catholic concerns, he says “I make clear it is my constitutional right.”
“It is very important that the government understands this is my right,” he says. “I don’t go humbly; I don’t go afraid.”
As a result, he says Catholic Copts are living “comfortably” and in a “state of friendship” with their Muslim neighbors.
Yet if the Catholic community is reliant on the state for their protection, the state is also reliant on the social services provided by the area’s Catholics – something that gives Bishop Botros leverage when he interfaces with government officials.
While there are nearly 2 million Orthodox Copts, Bishop Botros says there are only approximately 60,000 Catholics. Even so, the Catholics operate 22 schools in the region and one local hospital, all of which service Muslims and Christians alike. By his estimation, Catholics provide at least 60 percent of the social services in the region which benefit the local Muslim community.
“The number of Catholics is small,” says Bishop Botros, “but because of the centers, we are a powerful force.” Further, he says, most of the government officials have children in their schools, ensuring a certain degree of cooperation.
Bishop Makarios, by contrast, offers a less rosy perspective saying that there is an explicit discrimination against the Copts by a government that is unwilling to allow them full participation in civil life.
He notes that Copts are unable to serve in sensitive or high-level positions – and when the government is pressed on this, according to Bishop Makarios, they rely on the “silly” excuse that the practice of Confession could lead to Christian employees being forced to reveal state secrets.
“This is not an issue in any other country,” says Bishop Makarios. “Copts are very loyal to Egypt.”
He offers three, interconnected pieces of advice for Copts trying to navigate their place in a society in which, he believes, their future may be uncertain: Ask for your rights, do so for all of your life, and keep asking for them even if you never get them.
When pressed on why the Orthodox leader has a far bleaker outlook than the Catholic leader, Bishop Botros says that part of the reason is due to the fact that Bishop Makarios, in his capacity of representing a much larger population, has to butt heads with the government more than he does.
“He [Bishop Makarios] goes to the authorities with 25 requests. I go with 5 requests,” said Bishop Botros.
Yet along with being a minority population within the country, there is also infighting between the two communities, damaging their ability to offer a united front.
“Regretfully, I say, we suffer more persecution from the Orthodox than we do from the Muslims,” Bishop Botros says, noting that Bishop Makarios has targeted poor Catholics and provided them with assistance in hopes of converting them to the Orthodox Church.
He describes this as a “profound pain” for him “because it comes from my other.”
Bishop Makarios, for his part, is keen to downplay the tensions, saying that “we are living together, we celebrate together, and we see each other.”
“Bishop Botros is a great defender of his faith,” he adds.
As for their relationship with the president or their views about to what extent it is wise for their congregations to ally themselves with him, both leaders are quick to pivot their focus to the local region, rather than broader national concerns – effectively insisting that if Christians tend to their immediate backyards, they will strengthen their national hand.
“It’s not required for the soldier to win,” said Bishop Makarios, in describing their present situation. “But it his duty to fight until the end.”