Egypt: What chance for the Copts now their champion is dead?
copublished with Lapido Media
By Jayson Casper
Thousands of Coptic Christians swarmed the Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo last Tuesday, bidding farewell to the man who presided over a church of 11 million members.
Pope Shenouda’s body, in clerical garb, was set in state upon the papal throne.
Church officials did not prevent a spontaneous outpouring of affection as scores of ordinary Copts entered the church by force, following the service, to take one last look, and obtain blessing by touching his chair.
Then the pope’s remains were whisked away for burial, as dozens of dignitaries exited quickly, including members of the military council, leading presidential candidates, and senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Their presence at the funeral belies the deep ambivalence within Egypt over the extent that Pope Shenouda mixed religion with politics. His death has sparked speculation as to whether his successor should continue to represent Coptic political interests.
Revd Rifaat Fekry is an outspoken Protestant pastor in the heavily Christian Cairo neighborhood of Shubra. He sees the pope’s death as adding to the troubles of the nation post-revolution.
‘After the revolution, we have been functioning in a fog,’ he said. ‘Egypt is lost. We are searching for both a president and a pope – bringing an even bigger crisis to the church.’
Fekry believes that as Copts celebrated Shenouda’s role in defending Christians against sectarian tension, they ceded more and more of their voice to the church.
‘The problem of Christians in Egypt is that they looked to the church to tell them who to vote for. But Christians have the right to enter any party and to vote for whoever they want, and the church has no right to select what it thinks is “the voice of the Copts”.
‘We are not one bloc, nor should we be.’
Sameh Saad is a Coptic revolutionary activist who agrees the church overstepped its bounds. Nevertheless, he offers justification and praise for Pope Shenouda.
‘I do not want the church to speak into politics, but this was not his choice. It was forced upon him.
‘There was no one else who could represent the Copts, and there is still no one within the political or social realms.’
Saad does see hope on the horizon in terms of greater individual Coptic participation in politics, but remains worried concerning the challenges of a still-autocratic state and Islamist trends.
‘In the coming years Copts will enter politics and this will enable the church [as institution] to return to its spiritual role.
‘But during Shenouda’s 40 years God used him like a rock during times of sectarian tension throughout the days of military rule.
‘We have lost his wisdom. Many challenges will come our way and I fear there will be no one to contain the Copts’ anger.’
Yet the idea of withdrawing the church from politics is also encouraged by Islamist trends, many of which also praise Pope Shenouda.
Mahmoud Ghozlan is the official spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood and believes Saad’s fear is misplaced. He told Lapido:
‘The fear Christians have of the Islamist currents was manufactured by the old régime in an effort to sow tensions between the religions.
‘Pope Shenouda stated publicly the sharia is just for both Muslims and non-Muslims, since it allows Christians to govern their internal affairs by their own laws.
‘The role of the church throughout history was spiritual. It was only under the dictatorial old regime that it was pushed to enter politics to represent the interests of Christians.
‘Rather, the church should push its people to end their isolation and enter the political arena, civil society, and all of their institutions.’
Revd. Fawzi Khalil is a pastor in Kasr el-Dobara Presbyterian Church near Tahrir Square, the largest Protestant church in the Middle East. His denomination participated recently in a friendly exchange of visits with the Muslim Brotherhood. Even so, he believes the Orthodox pope is a necessary bulwark against them.
‘If the pope does not represent Christians, who will?’ Khalil wonders. ‘Right now we see religious trends emerging in politics, so why should the church withdraw and not represent Christian interests?’
Ramez Atallah is director of the Bible Society of Egypt, which is the fifth largest in the world. He agrees with Khalil the pope must maintain a political role because of the culture.
‘Middle Eastern politics is not like in America. Success depends on who you know and how you relate to them.
‘When Egyptian leaders made decisions about Christians they took into consideration the opinion of Shenouda, not only because of his position but because they were friendly with him.
‘If Pope Shenouda had lived longer he would have built relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood.’
Egypt’s Christians are mourning a beloved and unifying leader, whose deft handling of politico-religious challenges sets a benchmark for his successor to follow.
Jayson Casper is an associate journalist withLapido Media, a researcher with Arab West Report, and blogs regularly at A Sense of Belonging. He is an American living in Cairo with his wife and three daughters. Follow him on Twitter at@jnjcasper