March 17, 2012: Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church who led Egypt’s Christian minority for 40 years during a time of increasing tensions with Muslims, has died at age 88. Shenouda passed away after battling prostate cancer that spread to his colon, liver and lungs. “The Coptic Church prays to God that he rest in peace between the arms of saints.”
The patriarch, known in Arabic as Baba Shenouda, headed one of the most ancient churches in the world, which traced it founding to St. Mark, who is recognized to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st Century during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. Shenouda was born Nazeer Gayed on Aug. 3, 1923, in the southern city of Assiut.
After entering the priesthood, he became an activist in the Sunday School movement, which was launched to revive Christian religious education. At the age of 31, Gayed became a monk, taking the name Antonious El-Syriani and spending six years in the monastery of St. Anthony. After the death of Pope Cyrilos VI, he was elected to the papacy and took the name Pope Shenouda III in 1971.
He is an author of many books, and over the past three decades he has kept the custom of giving a Wednesday lecture. Throughout, he insisted on the Copts’ place in Egypt, where they lived before the advent of Islam. “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” he often said.
Egypt’s estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, found Shenouda to be a religious thinker and a charismatic leader, also known for his sense of humour. Many Copts saw him as the guardian of their minority living amid a majority Muslim population in Egypt, a country of more than 80 million people.
Pope Shenouda III clashed with the government in 1981 when he accused the government of failing to rein in Muslim extremists. President Anwar Sadat sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo. Sadat, who was assassinated later that year by Islamic militants, accused Shenouda of fomenting sectarianism. Mubarak ended Shenouda’s exile in 1985, allowing him to return to Cairo.
Many Copts saw Mubarak as their best protection against Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood but at the same time, Mubarak’s government often made concessions to conservative Muslims to keep their support. During the 1990s, Islamic militants launched a campaign of violence, centred in southern Egypt, targeting foreign tourists, police and Christians until they were put down by a heavy crackdown. Pope Shenouda managed to contain the Coptic community’s anger over the killings. During the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Shenouda gave strong support to his government, while avoiding pressing Coptic demands vocally in public to prevent a backlash from Muslim conservatives.
After Mubarak’s fall in 2011, Christians grew increasingly worried over the rising power of Muslim conservatives. Islamic extremists carried out a string of attacks on churches and their clerics alleged that Christians were hoarding weapons and seeking to take over the country.
In the past six years, Muslim-Christian violence has escalated. On New Year’s eve of 2000, sectarian battles killed 21 Copts and a Muslim in the southern village of el-Kusheh. The northern city of Alexandria twice saw sectarian bloodshed in 2005 when Muslims rioted over an anti-Islamic play put on in a church and again in early 2006 when Christians rioted over a series of knife attacks at Coptic Christian churches.
Christian anger over the violence further escalated when troops violently stopped a Christian protest in Cairo, killing 27 people. In an unprecedented move aimed at showing unity, leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood along with top generals from the ruling military joined Shenouda for services for Orthodox Christmas in January 2012 at Cairo’s main cathedral. A sector of Christians who supported the revolution against Mubarak were critical of Shenouda, claiming his conservative approach was provoked the escalation of anti-Christian violence and discrimination against their community.
Shenouda preferred back-channel efforts with the government while Copts have pressed for a greater representation in government, but their numbers remain small. Shenouda largely worked to contain anger among Copts. In a 2004 incident, he stepped aside to allow Coptic protests in an effort to win concessions from the government. While Copts protested, Shenouda isolated himself at the Saint Bishoy monastery north of Cairo until the government intervened to ensure Constantine returned home.
The protests were sparked when Wafa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic priest, fled her home to convert to Islam. Many Christians accused police of encouraging Christians to convert or even kidnapping them and forcing them to do so. She was later quoted as stating she converted to Islam because she wanted a divorce from her husband, which is banned by the Coptic Church.
Shenouda has been challenged by secular Copts who call for reform in the church and reducing the role of clergymen in Christians’ life. Many secularists argue that the clergy’s dominance over every single aspect of Christians lives has fed their sense of separation from Egypt’s Muslims, just as Islamic clerics have on the other side of the divide. Shenouda kept a strict line on church doctrine including the ban on divorce, except in cases of adultery.
Christian emigration has increased by the growing influence of conservative Islam in Egyptian society. Coptic immigrants in the United States, Canada, and Australia number an estimated 1.5 million, and the number of Coptic churches abroad has grown from two to more than 100, according to the pope’s official Web site.
With the death of Pope Shenouda III, a church insider stated that an internal power struggle has been looming over the church, between two of the top archbishops and close assistants to the pope: Archbishops Bishoy and Johannes; both of them are rallying supporters to win more votes in the election of the new Pope.