Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Coptic Pope Dies; Reigned since 1971: Death Underscores Uncertainty for Egyptian Church

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Coptic Pope Dies; Reigned since 1971: Death Underscores Uncertainty for Egyptian Church

Article excerpt

Egypt's Coptic minority, the largest and most influential Christian community in the Middle East, already faced deep uncertainty about its future in the wake of the Arab Spring. Many Copts feel suspended between the promise of equality in a democratic state, after centuries of second-class citizenship, and the peril of an Islamic theocracy.

Now they also face a vacuum in leadership with the March 17 death of Pope Shenouda III, who for more than 40 years was the face and voice of Egypt's 10 million Coptic Christians, representing 10 percent of the national population.

Given its size and institutional footprint, Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church is seen as a bellwether for Christianity in the Middle East--and if it implodes, many analysts fear a ripple effect across the entire region.

Some Copts fear Shenouda's death may leave their church at greater risk, while others argue that it could liberate a younger generation of Christian activists to campaign directly for human rights and religious freedom, rather than taking their cues from the church's more conservative and cautious clerical leadership.

A fierce Egyptian patriot and a figure committed to ecumenism, or the quest for Christian unity, Nazeer Gayed Roufail, better known by his religious name of "Shenouda," ruled over the Coptic Orthodox church since November 1971.

Early in his tenure, Shenouda clashed with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, insisting that he do more to combat the rise of Islamic radicalism, and was sent into exile for three years until Sadat's assassination in 1981. Under President Hosni Mubarak, Shenouda steered a more cautious course, occasionally protesting explicit attacks on Christians, such as a January 2000 assault by Salafists in Upper Egypt that left 21 Copts dead, but avoiding any commentary that could be seen as questioning the legitimacy of the regime.

Shenouda never took a position on the Tahrir Square uprisings, which led some observers to see him as quietly supporting the status quo under Mubarak.

Politics aside, Shenouda enjoyed wide esteem as a spiritual and national figure.

His death at age 88 was given extensive coverage on Egypt's state-controlled television, and the army loaned a helicopter to the Coptic church to transfer Shenouda's body to the monastery where he will be buried. Both General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de facto ruler of Egypt, and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar, the enormous university and mosque complex often described as the "Vatican of the Islamic world," expressed condolences.

El-Tayeb also attended Shenouda's March 20 funeral, along with some 2,000 representatives of Egypt's religious, civil and military establishment.

Within the Coptic church, Shenouda took a special interest in education for the young, instituting courses of catechesis and faith formation even in the smallest and most remote settings. …

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