Remembering the Coptic Pope

The deceased pope was much more than just an elderly religious leader.

Body of Coptic Pope Shenouda III  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Body of Coptic Pope Shenouda III
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This past Saturday, H. H. Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria and 117th successor to St. Mark, passed away at the ripe old age of 88. In the turmoil of Persian Gulf saber rattling, Syrian sound and fury and makeshift rockets falling on Israel’s southern cities, this event seems to have fallen by the wayside. This is regrettable as the deceased pope was much more than just an elderly religious leader.
Much has been written about the Coptic community in Egypt and of its long-time shepherd. A quick Google search brings up droves of articles about the helpless Christians of Egypt and their ongoing persecution by radical Islamists. Although this is true to a great extent, it is the equivalent of synthesizing two millennia of European Jewish history to “there were a lot of pogroms.” Such oversimplification does a severe disservice to us all.
The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its roots back to the 1st century CE. Before parting from the rest of the Orthodox Church in 451 over a theological dispute on the nature of Christ, it gave the Christian world the theological school of Alexandria and monasticism. Its head was granted the title “papas,” meaning “father,” later rendered “pope” even before this title was conferred on the pope in Rome.
Following Muslim occupation of Christian Egypt, a centuries-long process of arabization took place. By the late middle ages, Coptic became a ceremonial language and Islam the majority religion. This can be told (and often is) as a tale of woeful decline. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While the Christian communities of what are now Libya, Sudan, Yemen or Iraq became evanescent shadows of their former selves, the Coptic Church persevered and reinvigorated itself. Despite charges of heresy leveled at it by Constantinople and Rome and later accusations of ignorance and laziness by British and American missionaries, the Coptic Church and its members translated religious texts into Arabic, greatly affected the vocabulary and grammar of Egyptian Arabic, ran the bureaucracy of the state and remained actively loyal to their land.
Once they were allowed to serve in the military during the 19th century, many Copts volunteered and church leaders have rebuffed external offers of protection by czarist Russia, imperial Britain and the United States. Despite this long and proven loyalty in the fights against outsiders and the blood shed for their country, many Muslims have long seen Copts as a fifth column.
This unilateral loyalty to the land transcends that of a minority eager to please. It is the perseverance of a people who wholeheartedly believe in Isaiah’s words “Blessed is my people Egypt” (19:25).
Pope Shenouda III embodied the contradictions that constitute the tortured soul of the Coptic community. He ascended the papal throne in 1971 as a young firebrand eager to reform the Church and refocus on the youth from among the flock. Whereas his predecessor, following Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser’s line to a tee, used the Easter sermon to call out against Israel and praise the virtues of Socialism, Shenouda followed a different path.
Though he remained critical of Israel, even forbidding Egyptian Copts from visiting Jerusalem after the Camp David Accords (except for the monks who live there), this may just show his insight into the sentiments of the Muslim street. In all other matters, his term began with a sharp change.
In domestic matters, he responded to Sadat’s pandering to the Islamists with criticism of the regime. This tête-à-tête eventually culminated in his internal exile and a failed attempt by the regime to depose him. By 1985, Mubarak decided to release him from the monastery and officially reinstate him. Thereafter his criticism of the regime became far more nuanced. Some saw this politic step as retreat rather than compromise, but clearly he had few options.
Globally too, Shenouda went where no pope had gone before him. In 1973 he went to Rome and participated in the ecumenical efforts to end hostility and lift the mutual anathemas.
During his four decades as pope, he was the first to establish hundreds of Coptic churches abroad to accommodate the many Copts who established themselves there since the sixties, even setting up bishoprics and visiting them. I personally was able to attend his last tour abroad when he came to the Netherlands to dedicate a church.
When the Eritrean Orthodox Church turned to him in the Nineties to request autocephaly as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church had done with his predecessors, he did not shy away from conflict and used his authority and negotiation skills to convince Addis Ababa to sanction his decree. This reasserted the special status of the Coptic Pope in the Ethiopian Church.
The last few years have seen an increase in violence against Copts not only as individuals involved in some other altercation, but as members of a living church. On Easter of 2009, two young Copts were murdered outside a church and another was wounded. On Orthodox Christmas Eve of 2010 in January, Nag Hammadi became the scene of a terrorist attack at the close of services when a terrorist strafed the church with a machine gun. Just shy of a year later, New Year’s Eve 2011 saw the bombing of an Alexandria church. As chaos took over Egypt this past year, attacks became more prevalent, the most blatant being against a Coptic sit-in at Maspero protesting a church burning. The military reacted with a heavy hand and was joined by a willing mob.
The 118th successor to St. Mark will be stepping into some very large shoes. He will be elected by a group of approximately 2,000 people, both of the cloth and from among the distinguished laity. The three top names will be written down on paper and a child will choose one. Whomever this child selects by chance or divine providence will have to follow a prolific and very active and long-serving pope.
He will lead a community whose size is even a subject of debate (8 million according to the Egyptian authorities, 12 million according to the Church), in an environment that is clearly hostile toward both Christianity and the secular conception of citizenship. Adding to this, his flock will be far more vocal in its assessment of his actions.
The Coptic community is facing a difficult future. Though many will stay and weather the storm, many others are likely to seek a better future for their children abroad and as some Copts have put it, they may leave, but with Egypt in their heart.
The writer is a PhD candidate at Leiden University in the Netherlands. His research involves Coptic identity maintenance among immigrants in Europe and the United States.