Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is flanked by high-ranking military personnel as he address soldiers at a checkpoint in El-Arish Aug. 10. CNS pho to/Egyptian Presidency handout via Reuters

Church spokesman gives cautious welcome to moves by Egypt's president

By  Michael Gunn, Catholic News Service
  • August 16, 2012

ANTAKYA, Turkey - A spokesman for Egypt's bishops gave a cautious welcome to President Mohammed Morsi's reshuffling of top military officials.

Fr. Rafic Grieche, spokesman for the Egyptian bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service that Morsi's decisions were "positive in the sense of politics, but we have to see how he uses these new powers."

"In his first month of office, we still haven't seen anything positive. He did not implement any law that would please Christians," said Grieche, referring to long-standing demands to reform laws regarding personal status and the right to build churches.

After President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, an Egyptian military council assumed broad powers, and Morsi was not the military's favoured candidate in presidential elections earlier this year.

On Aug. 12, Morsi deposed two top generals and cancelled a constitutional decree issued by the military that had stripped the presidency of much of its powers — just before he took office June 30. Morsi replaced that decree with one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and seemingly brought an end to the military's 60-year dominance of Egyptian politics.

"In the time of Mubarak we couldn't say Christians were fully protected," said Grieche. He said that since the revolution began Jan. 25, 2011, there have been "several incidents between Copts and the military."

"Christians were not very happy with the army, either," he said.

Many Egyptian Christians blame the military for the killing of more than 25 Christian protesters in front of Cairo's state TV headquarters last October.

Grieche said Morsi's mid-August changes made little difference to worshippers at his Melkite Catholic Church of St. Cyril in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Heliopolis. The parishioners already were worried by the political gains of Islamist politicians they are convinced have long-term plans to transform Egyptian society.

The priest said many parishioners were "anxious," and several with the means to do so were moving to places like the Netherlands or the United States.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of Christian weekly newspaper Watani, admitted that there were serious concerns about Morsi's changes but added that the situation was more nuanced.

"The grave scenario (some believe) is that Morsi dealt a blow to the military in order to try and adopt his Islamist agenda," Sidhom told Catholic New Service.

But the president's retention of two key military leaders as advisers and his choice of replacements did not suggest a "drastic change" in terms of the makeup of the military, Sidhom added.

"Giving a civilian president full powers was remedying a sick situation. It was a step in Egypt's favour toward democracy," Sidhom said.

"It is true that in the absence of parliament, Morsi has more powers than he had, but this also means he may be forced to speed up elections. We might see these in three months if he is sensible and avoids further legal clashes," Sidhom added.

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