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The anti-gay agenda of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church Open in fullscreen

Bård Kårtveit

The anti-gay agenda of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church

The Coptic Church condemns homosexuality with reference to both Old and New Testament texts [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 October, 2017

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Comment: As the Coptic Orthodox Church pushes Sisi's homophobic policies, young Copts in Egypt are orienting themselves towards Europe and North America, writes Bård Kårtveit.
In Sisi's Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church has stayed silent in the face of growing human rights violations and suppression of dissent. 

When it comes to the government's anti-gay crackdown, the Church plays an active part. Among Coptic Church leaders, homosexuality and calls for its acceptance represent a moral danger that must be contained.  

On September 22, Mashrou Leila, a Lebanese Indie-band whose lead singer is openly gay, held a concert in Cairo. During the concert members of the audience waved the rainbow flag in support of LGBT-rights, and footage of the incident spread on social media.

Egyptian Authorities acted resolutely.

In the following days, Mashrou Leila was officially banned from playing in Egypt, and according to government sources, at least 12 concertgoers have been rounded up by the police. On 26 September, one of those arrested was tried and sentenced to six years on charges of "debauchery", and others are facing similar sentences.

According to Amnesty International, six of those arrested will likely be subjected to forced anal examinations with the aim of determining whether or not they have engaged in homosexual activity. These arrests are all part of a broader crackdown on homosexuality under the rule of President Sisi.

Since the summer of 2013, more than 274 LGBT people have been targeted by Egyptian authorities because of their sexual orientation. Some have been detained, beaten and tortured, some have been sentenced to years in prison based on trumped up charges. In one of the most well-known cases, 11 people were sentenced to between three and 12 years in prison on suspicion of homosexual activity.

 Mashrou Leila are now officially banned from playing in Egypt [Getty]

While homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited in Egypt, gay men can be arrested on draconian charges of "sexual deviance," "debauchery" or "insulting public morals," as is the recent case against concertgoers.

In general, these crackdowns appear to enjoy broad popular support, and are commonly viewed as necessary means to shield the moral fabric of society from the harm caused by "deviant behaviour".

So, where do Egyptian Copts, and the Coptic Church fit into this?

Homosexuality is broadly condemned in all sections of society, and Egyptian Copts are no exceptions in this regard.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has proven resistant to modern pressures and demands for greater individual freedoms, stressing the importance of patriarchal authority, female chastity, and the sanctity of marriage as an institution.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has proven resistant to modern pressures and demands for greater individual freedoms

Among other things, the Coptic Church is uncompromising in its rejection of divorce, accepting only infidelity or conversion to another religion as grounds for divorce. Characterised by traditional social mores, Egyptian Copts tend to view homosexuality as sinful, unnatural and as a threat to family stability.

As a religious institution, the Coptic Church condemns homosexuality with reference to both Old and New Testament texts.  

News about a planned Coptic Church conference on how to combat homosexuality fits well into this picture. Announced on September 27, this conference seems designed to demonstrate support for the government's anti-gay crackdown.

Read More: Egypt, Mother of Nations but not of all Egyptians

Entitled "Volcano of Homosexuality", the planned conference has become the butt of numerous jokes on social media. However, the conference itself, with its focus on "raising awareness on how to achieve a 'speedy recovery' from homosexuality" reflects long-held perspectives within the Coptic Church.

The official position of the Church, as stated by its current leader, Pope Tawadros II, is that homosexuality violates natural instincts and the heavenly laws, and that it may be either a disease that needs treatment or a sin that needs repentance. 

The notion that homosexuality can be 'treated' or 'cured', through prayers and firm spiritual guidance holds some currency among Coptic clerics

The notion that homosexuality can be "treated" or "cured", through prayers and firm spiritual guidance holds some currency among Coptic clerics. This idea is widely shared among lay Copts as well.

In general, many Egyptian Copts, also young, well-educated people, express faith in the power of prayer and spiritual counsel to address marital conflicts, medical problems, economic problems and other issues. As such, high trust in the church as an institution, and in the power of clerical guidance allow people to believe that the servants of their church can be capable of curing homosexuality as well.

While viewed as a treatable disease, leaders within the Coptic Orthodox Church have expressed concern over the moral dangers associated with homosexuality. These concerns have been strengthened by what they see as growing international acceptance, and even the extension of marital rights to homosexual couples.

In 2003, the former leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda led a meeting attended by representatives of all the churches in Egypt. These church leaders issued a joint statement in which they opposed international efforts to promote acceptance of homosexuality, as well as marriages between homosexuals. International developments in the following years have served to further strengthen those concerns.

On controversial issues such as homosexuality, the Coptic Church finds itself dramatically at odds with international trends

In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, effectively legalising gay marriage in the USA, home to the largest Coptic community outside of Egypt.

Coptic Church leaders in Egypt were horrified, and one of them, Bishop Rafael, responded by issuing some strongly worded statements. Bishop Rafael's words seemed to resonate among Egyptian lay Copts as well.

At the time, young Copts turned to social media to express their opposition to same-sex marriage and to offer a passionate defense of "traditional marriage". Some even organised their own social media campaigns in opposition to the US Supreme Court ruling, partly trying to rally Christians in the US as well.

In early September 2017, Pope Tawadros II made a 10 day visit to Australia, which is also home to large Coptic communities. During his trip, the Pope commented on an ongoing national referendum on the legalisation of same-sex marriage, encouraging Australian Copts to vote against it.

On controversial issues such as homosexuality, the Coptic Church finds itself dramatically at odds with international trends, as western societies and several western churches move towards greater acceptance of same-sex partnerships, even facilitating same-sex marriage ceremonies in churches.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest church in the Middle East, young Copts are orienting themselves towards Europe and North America.

In this context, the issue of homosexuality, along with a general weakening of traditional values, is seen as representing a challenge and a treat to the moral fabric of the Coptic community.

This is part of the context in which the Coptic Church not only supports the government's anti-gay crackdown, but chose to join it on its own terms.

Bård Kårtveit is a researcher focused on nationalism, state-minority relations, identity and migration in the Middle East. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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