It must have been Good Friday nine or ten years ago when I walked out of the service, absolutely famished in a wave of very hungry Copts, to find a large table set up in the foyer of the church soliciting congregants to join the Conservative Party of Canada. Behind the table stood a middle-aged uncle holding a clipboard with forms on it in a bid to gather people’s information. While many ignored him as they made a beeline in pursuit of the strong aroma of ta’ameya (falafel) and soy shawarma sandwiches, a significant number of people got in line in front of his table. I remember feeling a strong sense of discomfort that evening. I may have even spent the car ride home venting to my parents about the experience.
Since then, the barrage of political propaganda disseminated on church WhatsApp groups, in youth group meetings, and even from the Sunday pulpit has made one message loud and clear: good Copts vote Conservative. After all, haven’t you read St. Basil’s writings On Carbon Tax and Federal Childcare Subsidies? Or St. John Chrysostom’s Homily on the Impacts of Foreign Property Investment on Local Housing Affordability? No? Neither have I.
For many years, I have grappled with the place of politics in the Church. During the week as a political science student, I spent hours and hours elbow-deep in complex political issues. By the time the weekend arrived, I couldn’t wait to sink myself into the warm, comforting arms of my Church. The world outside is such a messy place, but here, we were supposed to leave that messiness at the door. Growing up, I learned from my parents that the Church is an ark protecting us from the world’s fickle and violent waters. But that first time I walked into the church and found a huge Conservative party sign beside the front desk, I felt like someone had punctured a hole in the ship’s hull and the water was quickly rushing in. If you ask me, we’ve been slowly sinking ever since.
This is not to say that Copts are not political people or that the Church is an inherently apolitical institution, because that is certainly not the case. Instead, I am asking: is it appropriate for the Church and her leaders to promote any set of specific political views? What does it mean for churches to be a political spaces? Who benefits when the Church and her leaders promote a worldly political view as being compatible with Orthodoxy? Who is harmed? Is it possible for clergy to publicly espouse political opinions while separating themselves from their role as spiritual leaders of the people?
In the months prior to the 2019 Canadian Federal Election, myself and two other university students approached the servants of my church’s youth group to ask if we could run a politically neutral information session in order to provide accurate information on major party platforms. Initially, I struggled with the idea of contributing to the politicization of church space, but I figured that if it was fair game for these politicians to campaign here for their own gain, then it was certainly fair game for me to make sure that people were equipped with accurate information. While one servant seemed fine with the idea, it wasn’t long before another protested saying, “We need to support our candidates. What if you do the presentation and they go vote for someone else?” Of course, “our candidates” only referred to those with the Conservatives, nevermind any Copt who was involved in another party. Nevertheless, I had expected this kind of comment. I was pleasantly surprised by how openly undemocratic he was being. This is usually the kind of blatantly sinister underlying belief that people adamantly deny holding. But here it was, for the first time, just plainly said, what if they are given accurate information and they vote for someone else? Honestly, the response was refreshing. For years I had been saying that these politicians benefit from our people’s political ignorance in order to pad their pockets and vote counts. They relish in taking advantage of our very real fears and traumas in order to advance higher on the echelons of power. But everyone told me I was exaggerating. And just like that, he admitted it. It didn’t matter whether people were making informed voting decisions based on accurate information. What mattered was that they voted in a specific way. So I told him, “if being informed means that people don’t end up voting for these candidates, then maybe these candidates don’t deserve our votes.” The presentation was held and ended up going wonderfully, with lots of important questions and discussions being had. The section of the church where we presented was full and a tant (aunt) asked if we would be doing an Arabic session for the older adults. I remember at the end, someone came up to me and said, “I’m still gonna vote Conservative you know, but now I know why.” For me, that was success.
For a lot of people, especially first-generation immigrants who speak Arabic as a first language, navigating the huge amount of political information and propaganda can be extremely confusing and overwhelming. So, I completely understand why many lean on the Church, their mother, to guide them in making this very important decision. If it were up to me, Copts would develop separate civic organizations to engage politically outside of the Church context. But if the congregation really insists on leaning on their churches for political guidance, then the least the hierarchy could do is help people become well-informed democratic citizens by developing resources to provide them with accurate, party-neutral information. When the Church and her leaders take up specific political views, at best it is a well-meaning, albeit inappropriate, attempt to make it easier for people to navigate a complex political landscape. At worst, such a political stance is a deliberately undemocratic manipulation of some people’s political ignorance and spiritual convictions to secure power for a particular few who view Copts as nothing more than a convenient and malleable voting bloc.
*Note: “my church” does not refer to a single parish but refers to various parishes that I have attended throughout the years in the Greater Toronto Area and surrounding region.
** The faces of all private citizens in this photo have been concealed to protect their identities.
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Carol Markos is a Master’s student in the Migration and Diaspora Studies program at Carleton University. She has a B.A. in Indigenous Studies and Political Science from McMaster University and is also a Wilson Scholar. Carol is fascinated by the everyday dynamics that may be taken for granted and hopes to pursue community-based participatory research in Coptic diaspora communities around the world.