EgyptVotes correspondent in Qalyubiya observes and analyses these visits.
Salafis: We're visiting to offer reassurance about the jizya
Before the Christmas season began, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan Abdel Salam, a candidate on the Salafi Nour Party list, visited Mar Girgis church in the town of Qalyub. During his visit, he met with the church's pastor Bishop Stephanos Boutros. When asked the reason for his visit, the candidate responded, "My aim was to reassure Copts against rumours about having to pay the jizya (tax levied on non-Muslims) or about Copts emigrating abroad because they're afraid of Islamic rule." The Sheikh denied that the elections had any bearing on his visit, since although he visited shops owned by Copts and sought their support for his party, he recognises that he will not be winning their vote.
The visit is a blessing but the Church is neutral
Meanwhile, journalist Maryam Halim, party-list candidate for the Wafd party in south Qalyub, visited the church at a time when the Wafd was seeking church support. Yet Halim told EgyptVotes, "I didn't visit the church because of the elections. My visit has nothing to do with that. However, when I enter an area, I have to get the church's special blessing there, so the church has basically nothing to do with elections."
Halim rejected the statement by Qalyubiya's Wafd Party Secretary Mustafa al-Baqli that the church is providing instructions to voters. "Al-Baqli is wrong. The church doesn't give voting instructions to anyone, and it has nothing to do with politics. These are the teachings of His Holiness Pope Shenouda himself."
Meanwhile, Eskander Samir Eskander, an independent professional candidate in Qalyubiya's third district, said after his visit to the church, "I wish the church would give instructions. No one would lose out that way. The priest in my area told me, 'Throughout the elections, when you want to pray, pray in the church affiliated with Cairo; don't pray in my church.'" This was in response to Eskander's request to hold a conference in the church to raise political awareness. He pointed out that not every Copt has to back him, but he was trying to get his message out to everyone. Eskander said he did not involve the Church, but wanted people to know he was holding a conference. Whoever wanted to go hear him was welcome to come, and whoever did not want to, was free not to go.
The church is like a mosque – a place for mass meetings
Independent professional candidate Mustafa Abdel Shafi admitted without embarrassment that his visit to the church was part of his campaigning. "When I find a large gathering of people, I like to go to them and introduce myself. My visit to the church is like going to a mosque; I'd like to introduce myself to Copts." Shafi added, "I wouldn't go into the church during mass. I go directly to the priest's office. I have many Christian friends. Whoever claims that Christians are another class of citizen is sowing civil strife. They're exploiting religion and they want to destroy the country."
On the other hand, Ahmed Hussein, candidate at the top of the Nasserite Party list in Qalyubiya, rejected such visits, just as he rejected Islamists mixing of religion and politics at mosque pulpits. Hussein thinks churches should not be used in a similar way. He said those visiting churches at this time were trying to benefit from the Egyptian Church's position, with its known influence on Copts. Hussein believes the church's instructions in the first phase of elections did a disservice to the Egyptian Bloc, causing it to lose a lot of votes. While it is fine to visit churches outside of any election contest, Hussein believes visiting them with a slogan that says "I'm an alternative to the Islamists" is a big mistake.
For his part, Bishop Stephanos, church pastor in Qalyub, welcomed candidates' visits. In his view, the church's doors are open to everyone. He denied that this might have an impact on the church's role, as the church preaches impartiality toward every side.
*Uncredited pictures provided by journalist.