After Pope Shenouda III: Experts mull future of Egypt's Coptic minority

Sarah Mourad , Tuesday 20 Mar 2012

Following death of Coptic Church's longtime leader, local observers ask what the future holds for Egypt's Christian community

Coptic mourners racing to see body of late Pope Shenouda III (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Pope Shenouda III passed away on Saturday at the age of 88 after leading Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church for four decades. His death at such a critical juncture in Egypt’s history has raised concerns among some quarters about the future of the Coptic Church and Egypt’s Coptic community – especially given the political ascendancy of Islamist movements in the wake of last year’s revolution.

According to Emad Gad, Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies political analyst, who is a Coptic MP of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Egyptian Islamist parties are struggling to create an Islamic state in Egypt by dominating the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. "If this happens, there could be an angry Coptic response that could potentially lead to violent clashes, since there’s no control from an authoritative, trusted figure like Shenouda,” he said.

"At this critical juncture, we need a wise pope; someone who knows how to rationalize matters, like Pope Shenouda,” Gad said. "Shenouda's absence will deprive Copts of leadership, especially since Bishop Pachomious – who will take his place until the church holds papal elections – isn't particularly well known."

Gad went on to point out that Shenouda would have called on Copts to vote for a particular candidate in upcoming presidential elections slated for 23 and 24 May. In the late pope's absence, however, the Coptic community will now lack a single consensus candidate.

"If the pope hadn't been around when the Maspero massacre happened in October, for instance, Egypt might have turned into a bloodbath," said Gad.

Former Al-Azhar spokesman Rifaa El-Tahtawi, for his part, also sees Shenouda's death as a "great loss," due to the latter's "patriotic and honourable" history. Nevertheless, says El-Tahtawi, Shenouda's legacy of tolerance and conciliation can be expected to survive him.

"His death, like his life, should bring Egyptians together, not drive them apart. I don’t think the Coptic community will be torn apart after his death,” El-Tahtawi explained. He went on to stress that not all Coptic Christians shared the same political agenda or ideology, noting that there were liberal, conservative, even socialist, Copts.
"Politically, they don't act as a single, monolithic bloc," he said.

El-Tahtawi, for his part, does not believe Egypt will witness the rise of an Islamic state. "The two constitutional documents – issued by Al-Azhar and the Democratic Alliance electoral coalition – both state that Egypt should be a modern, democratic, constitutional country, based on principles of equality and citizenship," he said.

He went on to point out that different Egyptian political parties – from the liberal party The Free Egyptians to the ultra-conservative Salafist Al-Nour Party – had signed off on both documents.

"I guarantee Egypt's next constitution will be a democratic one, devoid of discrimination," El-Tahtawi added. "As for radical suggestions by certain extremist MPs, these shouldn't be taken seriously."

Nabil Zaki, spokesman for the leftist Tagammu Party, meanwhile, fears the pope's death could be followed by inter-church rivalries over the papal seat. He expressed concern that Shenouda's successor might not share the late pope's "wise and conciliatory" approach, handling sectarian issues in a more aggressive manner.

Unlike El-Tahtawi, Zaki believes that Egypt's next constitution will almost certainly lead to the establishment of an Islamic state. "The parliamentary alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists points to such an outcome, with no place for women, Copts or even liberals," he said.

"This means Copts will become more marginalised, resulting in further sectarian tension," he added. "And in the absence of a wise Coptic leader like Shenouda, the situation will be considerably more dangerous, leading to potentially tense situations."

Zaki went on to say that, in light of the circumstances, the Tagammu Party had officially decided to boycott the 100-member constituent assembly, noting that the liberal Free Egyptians party was mulling doing the same.

The root of the current crisis, he went on, were the constitutional amendments made last year by Egypt's ruling military council. According to Zaki, those amendments should have been made after parliamentary elections, not before. "This is the primary reason for the current troubles we’re facing," he said.

Zaki concluded by warning that "great efforts" were being expended by 'certain' quarters to break Egyptian national unity. "And we must deal with this threat rationally and sensibly," he warned, "especially given the uneasy times we’re facing."

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