That’s what popped into my head as I stood in front of a group of Abounas, or Coptic priests and taught them the basic principles of Human Rights with a particular focus on Freedom of Religion or Belief. I had begun teaching them the day before at a retreat center in the desert between Cairo and Alexandria. My friend, the Saydna (Bishop in the Coptic tradition) had asked me to come teach this course to a group of Coptic youth from his diocese. Expecting to be met with youthful, shining, and smiling faces, I was a bit confused when my students turned out to be men with long black beards, long black cassocks and black skull caps or hoods. They were sitting very sternly with their arms crossed in front of their chests, their dark eyes boring into me. None of them were smiling.
“I’m sorry,” Saydna told me, “but none of my Abounas would allow their youth to be taught a controversial subject like this, and certainly not from a Westerner without first investigating themselves.” The topic certainly was controversial. In pre-Arab Spring Egypt the term Human Rights would be looked at with suspicion by the authorities and those talking too loudly about it risked a free vacation hosted by the state security. The Saydna and I agreed that we would tell everyone except the participants that I would be teaching a course on creation theology.
By the second day of the course the Abounas were sitting more loosely. I felt a sense of camaraderie and connection. They asked questions, engaged in stimulating discussions, and genuinely looked to be learning and enjoying themselves. Their smiles were infectious. But now came the tough part. We had discussed the challenges the Copts and other religious minorities faced in Egypt. We agreed that the Copts and other minorities should be treated fairly, justly and equally with the majority.
Now it was time to challenge them. And that’s why I was thinking of the Oxford and Harvard professor of Philosophy, John Rawls. In his famous thought experiment he asked his students to think about the original position and what type of society they would like to see if they could be responsible for organizing the structure of society. But the experiment entailed that after the new society was created each of the participants would be, in a sense, reborn, but none of them knew who they would be: rich or poor, member of the powerful or the powerless, man or woman, etc. In essence each person would be asked to create a society whilst they found themselves behind a veil of ignorance.
With this resonating in my thoughts I asked the Abounas to imagine that tomorrow morning when they woke up the Copts would be in the majority. Their smiles got even bigger. Then I asked to how they would treat the new minority. Would they treat them with justice, fairness and equality? Would they allow their children to change religion if they so wanted without punishment? Would they allow equal access to community goods?
They crossed their arms. They became silent and their eyes bored into me. Their smiles faded. I’ve repeated this challenge to many groups through the years and inevitably the responses are very similar. Everyone wants justice for themselves and their group when they are vulnerable. They want to be treated equally and with dignity and in a position of weakness. Nevertheless, so few are willing to afford the same rights to others if their own group gains power.
The Abounas did eventually see the point that in order to not be hypocrites they needed to change their attitudes, and agreed that even if they were to come into power or become the majority, they must treat the minorities fairly. The next time I visited the desert retreat to teach the same course, I was met by a group of smiling youth.