Just over 3 million people, about 8% of the population of Egypt, data that goes back to 1986, the last census furnished by the Egyptian Authorities, on the presence of Coptic Christians in the country of the sphinxes.
On the basis of Baptism registers, the Coptic Church estimates its presence at about 11 million faithful out of a total of 54 million inhabitants. In any case, a minority and very ancient presence, which for two thousand years lives in a land which at times is hostile.
The persecutions are like a specter, which every now and then returns to agitate over the head of Egypt’s Christians, as happened last December 11, when a suicide attack resulted in 27 victims in Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.
Last February 6, the bishops of the Patriarchal Church of Alexandria of the Copts — in the Vatican on their ad Limina visit –, also spoke about the situation that the Christian community in Egypt is living. ZENIT caught up with His Beatitude Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts, to talk about the subjects at the center of the conversation with the Pontiff and of the atmosphere that is breathed among Christians in Egypt.
ZENIT: Your Beatitude, how were your conversations with the Holy Father?
Patriarch Sedrak: There was a very cordial atmosphere in more than an hour of conversations. As he has demonstrated on every occasion during his pontificate, the Holy Father has had the capacity to make us feel his hospitality and human and spiritual closeness.
ZENIT: Were you accompanied by Egyptian faithful or did you come alone?
Patriarch Sedrak: As requested for these occasions, the Synod of the Coptic Catholic Church came alone, made up of eight Bishops.
ZENIT: Where did you lodge during your stay in Rome? Did you meet with representatives of the Coptic Community in Italy?
Patriarch Sedrak: We lodged at the Domus Romana Sacerdotalis, on via Traspontina. We celebrated Holy Mass, on Sunday afternoon, February 5, with the Coptic Community of Rome. At the end of the Mass, we spent time with the faithful.
ZENIT: What topics did you discuss with the Pope?
Patriarch Sedrak: We discussed primarily the pastoral work in our Church, particularly the itinerary of formation to undertake to meet the new challenges of our time.
ZENIT: What is the state of mind of Christians in Egypt today? After the attack of last December 11 at the Orthodox Cathedral of Cairo, were other violent episodes registered …
Patriarch Sedrak: There was a very violent terrorist attack in the Orthodox Cathedral during prayer. The fact that women and children were affected increased our grief and dismay in all the Egyptian people. However, the reaction was one of absolute civility and showed the true unity of the whole population. The Lord sustained the grief of each one of us and especially of the relatives of the victims. Now it can be said that everything has returned to normality, although we can never be completely tranquil, as the rest in every part of the world up to today. But we put all our trust in the Lord.
ZENIT: In any case, are encouraging signs emerging for Christians in Egypt on the part of President al-Sisi?. Is it easier for you to build churches today?
Patriarch Sedrak: The President is a very open and attentive person to Christians’ situation. He has given and continues to give signs of closeness and care for all the social realities and, in particular, for minorities. Hence, we are grateful to the Lord for having given us such a President. However, the political situation finds it difficult to open up, because of bureaucratic slowness and little clarity. This concerns also the building of new churches.
ZENIT: How are ecumenical relations between Catholic and Orthodox Copts?
Patriarch Sedrak: In recent times, great steps forward have been taken in relations between Catholics and Orthodox. The new Coptic-Orthodox Pope Tawadros II is a man very open to dialogue and encounter. However, we cannot deny that at the level of practical recognition, especially in what concerns the Sacraments, there is still a long way to go. We walk with confidence towards unity, knowing that it is indispensable to be credible witnesses of the Gospel.
ZENIT: What are the greatest needs of the Christian community in Egypt? What are the pastoral priorities?
Patriarch Sedrak: As every Christian community, we are in need above all of spiritual gifts, necessary to be able to incarnate the Gospel in our time and in our beloved land of Egypt. As we were saying earlier, what we need in the main is the search for unity in diversity of the Confessions and Traditions present in Egypt. The pastoral priorities are the teaching of the Catechism, the formation of the new generations, of young people, the pastoral care of needy families, as well as integration and participation in social life through schools and hospitals.