To Egypt's Christians, pope was seen as protector

March 17, 2012 - 6:06 PM
Mideast Egypt Obit Coptic Pope

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005 file photo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, left, congratulates Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, marking the Egyptian Christmas which falls on Friday on Egypt's Coptic Christian calendar, after the Pope delivered the sermon at the midnight mass in the Abbassiya cathedral. 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. He was 88. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO, Egypt (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 conservative approach taken by the leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church in representing the worries of his minority flock in this Muslim majority nation. During 40 years as patriarch, he sought to ensure his place among the country's powerhouses and press demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check.

During the 1981-2011 rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Shenouda strongly supported his government. In return, Mubarak gave the pope and the Church wide powers among the Christian community. "Baba Shenouda," as he was known, came to be 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. A deeply conservative theologian, he resisted liberals' calls for reform in the Church.

Shenouda's death on Saturday at age 88 comes at a time when Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians are feeling more vulnerable than ever amid the rise of Islamic movements to political power after Mubarak's ouster a year ago. The months since have seen a string of attacks on the community, heightened anti-Christian rhetoric by ultraconservatives known as Salafis and fears that coming governments will try to impose strict versions of Islamic law.

"He left us in a very hard time. Look at the country and what's happening now," said Mahrous Munis, an IT worker in his 30s who was among tens of thousands of Christians who massed at the main cathedral in Cairo, mourning and hoping for a glimpse of the pope's body. "Copts are in a worse situation than before. God be with us."

Munis' friend, Sherif Sabry, interrupted. "He was our rock. God help us find someone who can fill his place."

In the past year, however, young and liberal Christians grew increasingly impatient with Shenouda's conservative approach and his reluctance to publicly confront or criticize those in power. They said his policy of sticking close to power had brought little success in stemming violence or discrimination. Moreover, they argued, the Church's domination over Christians' lives further ghettoized them, making them a sect first, Egyptian citizens second.

"This was the mistake of Baba Shenouda and his predecessor. The state wanted to deal with Christians through one person," said prominent Christian columnist, Karima Kamal.

"We want the state to deal with Christians as citizens and for the Church to step aside," she said. "Christians are increasingly dealt with just as a sect."

Mubarak's fall 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. The past yearl, 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 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.

On Saturday, the Brotherhood's political party offered its condolences "to the Egyptian people and its Christian brothers."

Parliament speaker Saad el-Katatny, a Brotherhood member, praised the pope in an evening session, calling him a "man respected among Coptic Christians and Muslims"

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.

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 in 1971 and took the name Shenouda.

Shenouda had one significant clash with the government, in 1981 when he accused then-President Anwar Sadat of failing to rein in Islamic militants. Sadat said Shenouda was fomenting sectarianism and sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo. Sadat was assassinated later that year by militants. Mubarak ended Shenouda's exile in 1985.

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

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. Muslim-Christian violence has flared repeatedly in the past decade, mainly in towns of the south and in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. Sometimes it was sparked by local disputes that took a sectarian tone, sometimes by disputes over the building of churches.

At the same time, Christian emigration has increased tremendously. Coptic immigrants in the United States, Canada, and Australia number an estimated 1.5 million, according to the pope's official Web site.

Throughout, Shenouda largely worked to contain anger among Copts.

But in one 2004 incident, he stepped aside to allow Coptic protests, sparked when Wafa Constantine, the wife of a priest, fled her home to convert to Islam. Many Christians accused police of encouraging or forcing Christians to convert. Amid the protests, Shenouda isolated himself at the Saint Bishoy monastery until the government ensured Constantine returned home. She was later quoted as saying she converted to Islam to divorce her husband, since divorce is banned by the Church.

Shenouda kept a strict line on church doctrine — including the ban on divorce, except in cases of adultery — in the face of calls by secular and liberal Copts for reform, including reducing the role of clergymen in Christians' life.

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.