The leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church died Saturday, leaving the largest Christian congregation in Egypt and the Middle East leaderless at a time of rising concern over attacks against Christians and the domination of post-revolution politics by Islamist parties.
The death of Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades, threw the Coptic community into a state of mourning. Though his role in politics was controversial to some, he was beloved by Copts, many of whom saw the pope as the defender of their community while verbal and physical attacks by radical Islamists grew.
His successor will take leadership at a pivotal time for the church, as it weighs the role of the church in Egyptian politics and the growing withdrawal from public life of many Christians.
“I’m very sad because Pope Shenouda taught us a lot of things, especially how to love your enemy,” says Anton Wadea, a young Copt who plans to pay his respects to the leader at the main cathedral in Cairo today. “It's a difficult time for Christians in Egypt because the situation is very bad right now … we don't know where Egypt will go, and where the church will go after Pope Shenouda. We have difficult days, without a president in Egypt, and at the same time a church without Pope Shenouda.”
Egypt's Copts: A closer look at Coptic Christianity
Large throngs of mourners gathered at the cathedral today to mourn the pope, whose body will lie in the cathedral until his funeral on Tuesday. The Coptic Orthodox Church was established in the first century, when St. Mark is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt. The Coptic church is an independent body, separate from the Eastern Orthodox or the Roman Catholic churches. It belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches. Church leadership will elect three candidates to succeed Shenouda, and, according to church tradition, a blindfolded child will choose one of the names.
Karima Kamal, a prominent Coptic columnist and author, says the pope will be remembered as charismatic, an intellectual with a good sense of humor. He was born as Nazeer Gayed in southern Egypt, and took the name Shenouda when he became a bishop and head of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary.
He was elected to the papacy in 1971, and ten years later was sent into internal exile at a monastery in the desert by then-President Anwar Sadat. He had dared to confront Sadat, saying the president allowed militant Islamist groups to flourish. Sadat’s successor, former President Hosni Mubarak, allowed the pope to return, and his political confrontations ended. Under Mubarak, the state gave the church wide control over the Christian community, while the pope supported Mubarak's regime.
New direction for an insular community?
The arrangement saw the Christian community grow more insular, as Christians left church leaders to deal with the state on their behalf, instead of engaging in politics or society personally. Rising tension between Christians and Muslims, and a series of recent attacks on Christians including a bombing on a church in Alexandria over a year ago that killed two dozen people, also increased the isolation from public life.
In recent years, calls grew among more liberal Christians for the church to leave its political role. In the year since the revolution, as Islamists swept parliamentary elections, the Christian community has been riven by a debate over whether to leave Egypt or retreat into the church on the one hand, or engage in politics in an attempt to influence the new Egypt on the other.
The direction the church will take now depends on who is chosen as Shenouda’s successor, says Mrs. Kamal. That will happen in about two months. She says many Christians felt that Shenouda protected and defended them during difficult times. But now that he’s gone, she hopes Christians will recognize it is a new era, and seek to change the political role of the church.
“I think the coming days are going to force [Christians] to be more active, and not to depend on the church anymore,” she says. “Because even if the most beloved [successor] will come, he will not be like Pope Shenouda. So they cannot stay in a ‘ghetto’ inside the church and ask Pope Shenouda to defend them. It's over. …It's not the same anymore.”