As I was entering the old Cathedral of the Ethiopian Church, I felt my heart pounding out of fear that my mission would fail. Two days before, I was contacted by an Egyptian Bishop asking me to conduct an interview with his Holiness Paulos, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church. The main objective was to soften the man’s attitude towards the late Pope of Egyptian Orthodox Church, his Holiness Pope Shenouda. After a while of discussions and argument, I agreed to take the mission on the condition of having two Egyptian diplomats (the press attaché and a member in the African Union Secretariat) with me during the interview. Having the Egyptian Church both in my heart and mind, I, the Muslim, felt a massive weight of responsibility leaning over my shoulders.
The irony was that I kept reciting verses of Holy Quran praying that God would help me succeed in what this man of God, the Egyptian Copt, entrusted to me. As I climbed the stairs headed for the Patriarch quarter, I was thinking about the absurdity of many people back home talking about the necessity of tolerance, when Egypt doesn’t have one tenth of the religious discrimination that many other countries greatly suffer. I thought to myself, since what I’m just about to do is not meant to be part of my professional C.V, then definitely it is out of tolerance, nothing else. There is no third explanation in light of the over sensitive nature of the issue, except being crazy, which I am not.
After a few minutes, the two Egyptian Copt escorts and I were in the audience of Patriarch Paulos, Head of the Ethiopian Church. The man was very welcoming and started by asking me about my journalistic background, then encouraged me to start asking the questions.
In order to avoid going into areas of conflicts, I decided to start by a question about an uncontroversial issue, which is the glorious history of the two Churches. The man didn’t fail me and started off with an emotional response about the bond that has tied the two Churches for 16 centuries in an almost chronological order. The more his Grace came closer to the troubled present, the more nervous I felt. Arriving at -the then present 2004 – Patriarch Paulos’ tone of voice suddenly became sharp. After he finished what came across to him as infringements on his status as Head of the Ethiopian Church from the late Egyptian Pope, I had to resume the interview.
Before I asked further questions, I appealed to his Holiness, however, in a firm way stating that there should be a sort of code of reference. “Since everyone in this room addresses your Holiness with the spiritual title you rightly earned then, with all due respect, I will not accept anything less for his Holiness Pope Shenouda; no one has the right to talk about him without using his much deserved and rightly earned spiritual title before his name”, I told the Head of the Ethiopian Church. “Also, it is pointless to use such harsh language when talking about the successor of Saint Mark. Both of you have been chosen by God to occupy the highest spiritual positions you already have, let alone the hearts of hundreds of millions of Christians in your two countries and in many other countries as well,” I added.
I was relieved when I saw a smile on the man’s face before I started talking about the greatness of the relations between the two Churches and the necessity of regaining it as such.
“Okay, how can you justify His Holiness Pope Shenouda’s move when he presided over the enthronement ceremony of a Patriarch to the Church of Eritrea back in 1994, separating that Church from its mother Church of Ethiopia? He had no right to do so” he angrily said.
I could clearly see the anxiety on the faces of my two Egyptian Copt diplomats.
“Your holiness, maybe you have the right to be angry. However, the Ethiopian Church was the daughter to the Egyptian Church for almost 16 centuries until it decided to secede and become independent back in 1950. By the same token, don’t you see that the Egyptian Church had the same right to be angry? Why did you give yourself a right, and then deny it from the others?” I asked.
“Good argument”, the Patriarch said with a smile on his face. Yet, his smile quickly faded before he started a new offensive.
“But Pope Shenouda treats me as if I am of a lesser status. I stand on equal footing with him and I should be treated as such. Our Churches are as sisters, not as a mother and daughter. Ethiopia had known of Christianity before Egypt,” he protested.
“Indeed, you stand on equal footing. However, I totally disagree with what your Holiness has just said about which was first to know Christianity and embrace it. History tells us that the two Egyptian brothers, Frumentius and Aedesius, were the first to introduce Christianity to Ezana, Emperor of Ethiopia in 320 A.D., and managed to convert him from Judaism to Christianity and that’s when and how Ethiopia became Christian,” I said. “Now, if Ethiopia had embraced Christ before Egypt, there would have been no reason for the two Egyptian brothers to preach to the emperor,” I attested.
“I know that some argue about the Greek names of the two brothers. However, Greek names and Roman as well were common in Egypt then. Moreover, if they were not Egyptians, why did Emperor Ezana ask Frumentius to travel back to his home town, Alexandria, where the Egyptian Orthodox Church was based then, to ask its Patriarch St. Athanasius to appoint a Bishop for Axum before the latter named Frumentius himself as such, giving him the new name of Abuna Selama, in Arabic: Father Selama” I added.
“It seems that Pope Shenouda has sent one of his agents to interview me,” the Patriarch angrily said.
My two escorts were as much shocked as I was. One of them told the Patriarch that this wasn’t true for a simple fact that I am a Muslim. The Head of the Ethiopian Church looked at me suspiciously waving his head in disbelieve. Throughout the interview, it never occurred to me that the patriarch thought I was Christian. When I asked, I found out that the reason for being taken for a Christian was the fact that I subconsciously kept using the possessive pronouns of my and our whenever I referred to the Copt Church. That was the first time in my life I realized that deep in my Egyptian Muslim subconscious mind, I always felt that the Church belongs to me just as much as Al-Azhar, the highest Muslim institution in Egypt. The Patriarch was both surprised and amused after I explained to him that for many Egyptian Muslims, whenever they talk about the Egyptian Church while being abroad, they subconsciously use the possessive pronouns of my and our and that this emotional- psychological phenomenon reflects how both the Church and Al-Azhar have practically woven themselves in one Egyptian socio-cultural fabric.
“What you have just stated doesn’t change the fact that Ethiopia came to know Christianity before Egypt” the Patriarch insisted.
“Your holiness, let’s take it one step at a time. Which Church was the first to introduce the notion of “Non-Chalcedonian” Monophysite of Jesus Christ? According to unchallenged history, it was the Egyptian Church of Alexandria which did. This thing happened when the Church of Alexandria refused to follow the “two nature” doctrine decreed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Later, other Churches followed the Egyptian Church, including the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, which is the official name of your Church. That specific Tawahedo word was taken from Arabic, after it became common in Egypt, which means the one nature of Jesus Christ. That is the true discourse of the history of Christianity in this part of the world. However, that history doesn’t mean by any way that there is any lesser Church than the other; they are all equal” I elaborated.
“Then, Pope Shenouda has to know that I am Head of a Church of equal footing and that I should be treated as such. I cannot accept his temper anymore” the Patriarch said in what seemed as a good sign, in terms of being close to his accepting a standing invitation by “my” Church.
“Your Grace, his Holiness Pope Shenouda is in his 80s. He is an old man suffering serious health problems, whereas you are 13 years younger. Age and illness are what makes you think he has a temper. Cannot we respect the man’s age and appreciate his severe health problems” I passionately asked.
All of a sudden, I could see the true kind nature of the Patriarch when he said in a cracking voice that Pope Shenouda had always been his spiritual father and that he loved almost like his real father.
“Your Grace, don’t you want to see your spiritual father?” I emotionally asked.
“Indeed, I do want to see him. However, I am not willing to go without receiving a formal written invitation from him” he firmly said.
“And if you receive this invitation, will your Grace go?” I asked.
“If I publish this interview, can I use your acceptance of an invitation, when you receive it, as a headline?” I asked aiming at verifying how serious the man was.
“When I say something I mean it and never back away” he reassured me.
As we were lining up for a photo and just before the camera snapped, the Patriarch stepped out of line to face one of my escorts with a big smile on his face. “Now I know why Pope Shenouda is so strong. Even Egyptian Muslims are standing squarely behind him” the man said before we all exploded into laughter.
Since that interview, the late Holiness Patriarch Paulos visited Egypt several times, most recently in 2012, the year he passed away, whereas late Pope Shenouda made a historical visit to Ethiopia in 2007.
However, although I never published that “impossible interview” except for a small part of the story behind it in Al-Ahram newspaper on September 22, 2007, it is one of the most meaningful interviews of my career. Every time I look back at what I did, I feel very proud that I translated what Jesus says in Mark 9: “What therefore God has joined together let no man separate.” And though I know this is one of Jesus Christ’s teachings about marriage, who is to say that we Muslims, who believe Christianity to be part of our own faith, are not in reality, joined in marriage with Christians?