- Life Style
The death of Pope Shenouda III on Saturday night struck a blow to the Coptic community in Egypt. They lost a spiritual leader and guardian who guided them for 41 years, but his passing has also sparked fears over the fate of the minority group in a country witnessing the hasty ascent of Islamic political groups to power.
Hundreds of thousands of mourning Christian Copts poured into the streets surrounding the Abbasseya Cathedral on Saturday night and Sunday, to pay their last respects to Pope Shenouda as his body lies in repose for people to bid him farewell. He died after a long fight with kidney failure at the age of 89.
Pope Shenouda’s charisma won the hearts of most Christians. The beloved patriarch led an educational and cultural revival in the church, transforming it into a full-fledged institution and a social hub where members of the Coptic community can mingle and develop close ties. This insular culture, though, added to a sense of isolation and protectionism in the community amid a rise of sectarian sentiments in Egypt.
“He was the godfather of poor people like us. We are nothing without him,” said Karim Saad, 29, who works in a clothes factory to provide for his wife and son.
Living in the area of Imbaba, Saad witnessed the violent sectarian clashes that took place last year when hundreds of ultra-conservative Salafis set fire to two churches in the poor neighborhood, demanding the church release a woman they said had converted to Islam.
For years, Pope Shenouda played a pivotal role in containing angry reactions of Egypt’s estimated 10 million Christians in the face of sectarian violence and discrimination.
“He was our idol; his word always had great weight and we all followed him. He used to control and contain any sectarian violence when it erupted,” said Saad, who added that his family is in mourning and his wife has been wearing black since the news broke out. “We can’t even smile.”
Pope Shenouda assumed the responsibility of both containing and protecting the youth of the church.
“He was able to contain all the youth into the church’s activities in order to avoid a flaring up of sectarian sentiments in society during the rise of Islamists in the 1970s under the reign of former President Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat,” Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher with the program of freedom of religion and belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told Egypt Independent.
With Pope Shenouda’s loss, Copts are skeptical that any successor will be able to fill these shoes, despite their common belief that the coming pope will be God’s choice.
Although potential successors will not be officially elected for a few months, three clerks are expected to compete for the position, namely Bishop Bishoy, the metropolitan bishop of the Holy Metropolis of Damietta; Bishop Moussa, the general bishop and administrator for the bishopric of youth affairs; and Bishop Youanis, who holds the post of assistant bishop and patriarchal secretary at the Patriarchal Residence in Cairo.
In the elections, one of the three finalists’ names will be drawn by a blindfolded child, which Copts believe is ultimately the holy choice.
“We always felt we that we have someone to support us, talk on our behalf and defend us. Of course God is our protector, but the pope was very wise, resourceful, intellectual and compassionate,” said tearful Afaf Wahba, a housewife in her 50s who lives in Dokki.
“We fear that the next pope won’t have the same capabilities. I am afraid no one will be as compassionate as him and the way he united us all together,” she added.
Some Copts particularly fear persecution now that Pope Shenuouda is gone and Islamists are ascending to power after they secured a majority of parliamentary seats.
“I am afraid that some extremists might exploit the transition period to plan plots against us like they always used to do by burning up churches,” said Mariam Makram, an e-marketing and business executive at a multinational corporation.
“In the coming few months, I don’t feel safe. I don’t trust the political leaders who until today still haven’t punished those responsible for the Maspero attacks and who might not be able to secure the pope’s funeral on Tuesday,” added Makram, expressing her concerns about possible decreasing religious tolerance among Muslims. At the Maspero state TV building in October, a march of mostly Copts was attacked by army soldiers and 27 people were killed. State television broadcast the news live but purported that Coptic men were attacking the army and that honorable citizens should come to the army’s aid.
Saad also expressed his alarm about Islamists being in power.
“Most of the Islamists are ex-detainees who now control the country. This will only mean more discrimination against us because they will seek revenge. They always talk badly about Copts and make us feel as if we are not human beings like them,” said Saad.
But Pope Shenouda’s containment strategy didn’t go without criticism. Some Copts complain that the isolation of Coptic community further contributes to the flaring sectarian sentiments.
Michael Aziz, 25, who just graduated from medical school, believes that the church’s role as the sole protector of Copts’ rights around which they can gather, in addition to the sectarian discourse adopted by the former rulers, has done nothing but feed the sectarian fires.
“I don’t think that the coming pope will adopt a different strategy from [Pope Shenouda] because all these potential popes were practically raised under Pope Shenouda’s teachings,” said Aziz, who lives in Shubra, an area with a large Christian population.
Although Pope Shenouda’s religious leadership was unquestionable by Copts, his passive and sometimes supportive political positions toward the toppled Hosni Mubarak regime were criticized in youth and activist circles.
The only and last time he adopted a confrontational rhetoric was during Sadat’s time, when the former president put him under house arrest in 1981 in a monastery in Wadi al-Natrun. He was released almost three years after Sadat’s assassination and Mubarak’s rise to the power.
Nowadays, many Copts agree that the role of Pope Shenouda’s successor should be an entirely religious and spiritual one, rejecting any kind of guardianship on people’s political choices.
“I don’t want the coming pope to interfere in politics because his opinion has a huge effect on people, and they obey him, but we shouldn’t be cowed. Everyone should make his own political decisions independently,” said Wahba.
According to Ibrahim, a civilian Coptic leadership, shaped in the past couple of years, will represent Copts in various political parties and civil society organizations. The group will take over the political role that has long been played by the church.
In the meantime, Pope Shenouda’s funeral is set for Tuesday, while Bishop Pachomius is temporarily filling the post until a successor is chosen in the coming months.