Pope Shenouda III: Four decades of Coptic history

Sherif Tarek , Tuesday 17 Mar 2015

Ahram Online reprints its report on the life and struggles of the late Pope on the third anniversary of his death

Egypt's Coptic Pope Shenouda III (Photo: Reuters)

Having been pronounced dead on Saturday afternoon at 88, Pope Shenouda III ended an exceptionally hectic tenure that impacted Copts in many ways over more than four decades.

Named Coptic pope of Alexandria on 14 November 1971, Shenouda's first ten years in charge of the Coptic papacy were the most eventful of his lengthy stint, due to disputes and disagreements with late president Anwar Sadat over domestic and foreign affairs.

Shenouda's stature among Egypt's Coptic community was imposing, although he faced occasional waves of criticism for his positions taken under Mubarak, with whom he was constantly on the same page – even when the former regime openly discriminated against Egyptian Christians.

For the 15 months following last year's revolution, Shenouda also never grew critical of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), despite Coptic displeasure with the military rulers widely believed to be maintaining Mubarak-era policies.

Throughout his career, including the past year, Shenouda proved instrumental in alleviating the combustible sectarian tensions in Egypt, one of the main reasons for his popularity.

As his demise came as a blow to Egyptian Muslims and Christians alike, Ahram Online takes a brief look back at his history as Coptic pope.

Struggling under Sadat

Almost nine months after the death of Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria, Shenouda succeed him to become the 117th pope of the coastal city. Not long afterward, he began falling out with then president Sadat.

The first spark was arguably Shenouda's objection to the 1971 constitution, declared only a few days before his ascension to the papacy. The charismatic patriarch had reservations about Article 2 of the national charter, which is still active today and which stipulates that Islamic Law is the primary source of jurisprudence. The constitution also prevented Copts from taking up many high-profile governmental positions.

Tensions between the two men escalated nearly a year later, when the Bible Society headquarters, situated in the Qalyubiya governorate's Al-Khanka City, was set ablaze by unknown assailants after several Copts sought to turn it into a church without official permission.

A large number of Coptic priests and citizens marched the next day to what was left of the burnt Bible Society premises and recited prayers there. In return, however, a group of Muslims embarked on a counter-protest later the same day. Angry at their attitude, a Copt – named Ghaly Anis – allegedly used his licensed gun to terrorise them, which prompted the Islamists to set his house on fire and instigate other arson attacks on Coptic properties.

It was rumoured that Shenouda had been the one who called for the priests' march in the first place. Although he denied the allegation, he did very little to quash claims that authorities had paved the way for the perpetrators to attack the Bible Society, with some maintaining that firemen had deliberately let the building burn – an accusation later refuted by a fact-finding committee headed by MP Gamal El-Otefy.

"I did not issue directives to organise any marches. What really happened is that priests went to see the burnt building in cars and buses. The police stopped them one station earlier [so they had to go the rest of the way by foot]. No one would have seen them had they reached the place by vehicles," Shenouda said at the time.

A subsequent meeting between Shenouda and Sadat cleared the air for some time. More importantly, Egyptian national unity during and after the 1973 war against Israel left little room for spats or divisions.

Shenouda's relationship with Sadat sustained the most damage when the latter paid his historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977 and the iconic pope refused to accompany him, for he was always anti-Zionist and against the normalisation of relations with Tel Aviv for the sake of Arab nationalism. He also banned Copts from performing pilgrimages to Israeli-occupied Jerusalem and never made a secret of his rejection of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty.

In the late 1970s, sectarian violence in Egypt soared, and many were convinced that Sadat was actually behind it in order to punish Shenouda for his rejectionist stance. One of the most notorious sectarian clashes took place in June 1981 in the impoverished district of Al-Zawia Al-Hamra, north Cairo, which saw Copts and Muslims fight each other for days over a parcel of land, without interference from security forces. Dozens were killed as a result.

For his part, the outspoken patriarch lambasted the autocratic president, accusing him of using Islamists to counter the more powerful leftist opposition.

Shenouda's bravery was undeniable, but caused him to be put under effective house arrest at the Monastery of St Bishoy in the Nile Delta's Beheira governorate. A month after his arrest, Sadat was killed when Islamic extremists sprayed him with bullets during a military procession on 6 October 1981, which was part of celebrations held to mark the eighth anniversary of the victory over Israel.

New page in Mubarak era

A year later, Shenouda was released at the hands of Mubarak, Sadat's successor, and in 1985 he regained his full papal authority. Since then, he had turned a new page and had close relations with Mubarak and the Egyptian authorities.

Shenouda even supported Mubarak in Egypt's first contested presidential election in 2005, although it was blatantly rigged in order to maintain the 83-year-old in power.

Later, in 2009, Shenouda even endorsed a presidential bid by Mubarak’s younger son, Gamal, dubbing the latter the "most suitable" successor to the presidency. More controversially, the patriarch was among those who backed Mubarak during last year's January 25 Revolution, going so far as to try to dissuade Copts from going to Tahrir Square, the uprising's epicentre.

But in spite of the pope's long honeymoon with Mubarak, many Copts were anything but happy with several aspects of the former regime.

One of these issues is divorce, which Shenouda virtually prohibited among his congregants until his last days. Even in cases when a civil divorce is granted by a court of law, the church would not allow divorcees to remarry since it would not recognise the divorce in the first place, barring cases when one of the partners commits adultery.

Another matter was the tough restrictions imposed on church building. It was serious to the extent that the now-defunct State Security was in charge of authorising the erection of Christian houses of worship. Shenouda never pushed hard for a unified building code for houses of worship, despite repeated calls for such a law.

Sectarian strife under Mubarak reignited a few years after the appointment of interior minister Habib El-Adly, currently serving 17 years in prison for corruption.

El-Adly was accused of deliberately ratcheting up sectarian hate to widen the gap between Muslims and Christians, many believe, to pre-empt unity between both sides, as this would threaten the continuity of Mubarak's rule – a scenario more or less realised during the 2011 uprising.

On 31 December 1999, violence in the Sohag governorate's Kusheh Village erupted as a result of a fight between a Coptic trader and a Muslim patron, leaving at least 20 Copts dead in unprecedented violence.

Other sectarian flare-ups took place later on, as Shenouda used his authority to keep Copts from retaliating. In November 2010, however, Copts resorted to atypical violence, locking horns with Central Security Forces (CSF) that tried to prevent them from building a church in Giza's Omraniya district. At least two were killed and dozens injured in the ensuing melee.

As Shenouda demanded justice for victims of the Omraniya incident, the Two Saints Church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year's Eve 2010/11, causing the death of 21 people and the injury of many others.

The disaster was blamed for a while on the Palestinian Islamic Army. Following the January 25 Revolution that led to the ouster of Mubarak, however, ex-interior minister El-Adly was accused of plotting the attacks.

For many Copts, the incident was regarded as the straw that broke the camel's back. Thus, thousands of Egyptian Christians hit the streets when the January 25 Revolution erupted less than a month later, ignoring Shenouda's pleas to give Mubarak a chance to reform.

During the 18-day uprising, scenes of Muslims and Copts protesting side-by-side against the regime substantiated the notion that sectarian violence had been largely instigated by the Mubarak regime itself.

Keeping peace with the SCAF

Mubarak was eventually deposed on 11 February 2011 after relinquishing power to the SCAF. After thinking highly of the interim junta, many Egyptians reversed their stance on the military rulers, including many Copts.

Copts seemed to have suffered more in the ongoing transitional period than under Mubarak, but Shenouda nevertheless maintained friendly relations with the SCAF – exactly as he did with the toppled president for 30 years.

In terms of civil rights, Egyptian Christians felt more persecuted under military rule. They held out hopes that the political upheaval would bring them equality with Muslims, but were first disillusioned upon the March constitutional declaration that maintained the status quo and the contentious Article 2 of the constitution.

Sectarian fires were lit again in May when Copts and Muslims exchanged gunfire, Molotov cocktails and stones as two churches were set ablaze in Imbaba by extremist Salafists, following rumours that a convert to Islam, Abeer Talaat, was being held captive in Mar Mina Church. The ensuing violence left at least 12 dead and some 240 injured.  

Infuriated by the incident and lack of punishment for the perpetrators by the government, led by then-PM Essam Sharaf, Copts staged a sit-in in Cairo's Maspero district.

Adding insult to injury, thugs with bladed weapons systematically attacked and injured dozens of Coptic protesters at the sit-in. According to eyewitnesses, CSF and army forces deployed around the sit-in – supposedly to protect demonstrators – had deliberately allowed the hooligans to assault protesters.

Shenouda, meanwhile, coaxed protesters into ending their sit-in following tentative steps by the interim government aimed at appeasing Coptic rage, including a promise to introduce a unified code for building houses of worship.

Similarly, Shenouda successfully talked Copts into standing down after 27 were killed during the infamous 9 October confrontation, known as the Maspero Massacre, when military personnel opened fire and ran over Coptic marchers after their protest was attacked by unknown assailants.

In line with his penchant for keeping the peace, Shenouda strongly opposed more extreme members of the so-called Coptic Diaspora when, in the wake of the Maspero incident, they called for Western intervention to protect Egypt's Copts. "If foreign intervention is necessary to protect Egypt's Copts, may they die so that Egypt can live," the pope famously asserted.

* This story was originally published on 17 March 2012

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