To Egypt’s Embattled Christians, Pope Was Seen as Protector

March 18, 2012 - 4:43 PM

Coptic Pope

In this Monday, May 20, 2002 file photo, Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, speaks to reporters following the opening session of the 14th General Conference of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's state news agency says Pope Shenouda III, head of Coptic Christian church, has died.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Cairo (AP) –At the last Christmas service he presided over, Pope Shenouda III praised the unusual guests seated among the faithful at his Cairo cathedral. Leaders from the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, generals from the ruling military.

"For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt," Shenouda told the gathering. "They all agree ... on the stability of this country and in loving it, and working for it and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt."

The moment typified the approach taken by the longtime leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church toward the increasing Muslim conservativism that many in his flock feared. During four decades as the patriarch, Shenouda sought to appeal to the country's powerhouses, quietly largely behind the scenes to press concerns of the Christian minority.

Shenouda's death on Saturday at age 88 comes at a time when those worries are higher than ever among Egypt's estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, the main Christian community in the Muslim majority nation of 80 million. The fall a year ago of President Hosni Mubarak has brought increasing power to Islamic movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafis, who together won more than 70 percent of parliament's seats in elections.

Christian fears have been stoked by a series of recent attacks, starting with the suicide bombing of an Alexandria church during New Year's Mass in 2011 that killed 21 people. Since Mubarak's fall, several churches have been attacked by mobs, stoked in part by hard-line Islamic clerics warning that Christians were trying to convert Muslim women or trying to take over the country.

Christians accused security forces of doing little to find or punish those behind the attacks. There was a further uproar in the community when troops harshly put down a Christian protest in Cairo in October, killing 27 people.

The patriarch, known in Arabic as "Baba Shenouda," was viewed by many Copts as their guardian, a charismatic leader known for his sense of humor. His smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the work, tracing its founding to St. Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st Century during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero.

The Orthodox Christmas services in January were aimed in part at overcoming the ill feelings from the past year since Mubarak's fall. For the first time, several prominent figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and generals from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed forces attended.

Throughout his papacy, Shenouda sought to back Christian rights through a a conservative balance. He gave strong support to Mubarak's government, while avoiding pressing Coptic demands too vocally in public to prevent a backlash from Muslim conservatives.

Still, a sector of Christians – particularly among youth who supported the revolution against Mubarak – grew critical of Shenouda, saying his approach was not doing enough to stem what they saw as growing anti-Christian violence and discrimination against their community. They argued that Christians were only becoming more ghettoized by moving more into the embrace of the Church.

The pope, who rose to his position in 1971, clashed significantly with the government once: In 1981 then-President Anwar Sadat sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo, after Shenouda accused the government of failing to rein in Muslim extremists. 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.

But the incident illustrated the bind of Egypt's Christians. When they press too hard for more influence, some in the Muslim majority accuse them of causing sectarian splits. Many Copts saw Mubarak as their best protection against Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood _ but at the same time, his government often made concessions to conservative Muslims to keep their support.

During the 1990s, Islamic militants launched a campaign of violence, centered 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.

Shenouda largely worked to contain anger among Copts. But in one 2004 incident, he stepped aside to allow Coptic protests in an effort to win concessions from the government.

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.

While Copts protested, Shenouda isolated himself at the Saint Bishoy monastery north of Cairo until the government intervened to ensure Constantine returned home. She was later quoted as saying she converted to Islam because she wanted a divorce from her husband, which is banned by the Coptic Church.

For other Coptic demands, Shenouda has preferred back-channel efforts with the government _ but has met limited success. Copts have pressed for a greater representation in government, but their numbers remain small.

At the same time, Christian emigration has increased tremendously, fueled chiefly 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.

At home, 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 has kept a strict line on church doctrine – including the ban on divorce, except in cases of adultery.

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 Shenouda.

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.