Though he had been ill for years and approaching 90, the head of Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt — Pope Shenouda III — died at a critical time for Egypt and its Christian community. The whole of Egypt is mourning the patriarch as he was more than a pope for orthodox Christians — religiously and socio-politically.
Pope Shenouda was a pivotal figure in Egyptian public life, and is credited with advancing the role of the church further than religious guidance and even delving into politics — as some of his critics argued in his life. Personal traits and developments in Egypt since he was elected to St Mark's seat in 1971 made him indispensable in the eyes of many Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike.
As he studied history at university, he became aware of the importance of preserving the values of Egyptian society from the Pharaonic era to the present. When he joined the clergy, he was among a new generation of so-called ‘educated' — i.e. those who also studied non-theological studies. That's why some writers describe him as the first patriarch to have a comprehensive vision of heaven and earth.
Assimilating true Egyptian values, he personally had a typical Egyptian sense of humour and wit combined with tolerance and rural patience. In a brief encounter in London more than a decade ago, I joked that our names appeared in the same issue of newspapers in early 1980s, he spontaneously replied "no wonder, we're colleagues" and told me that he's a professional journalist and member of Egyptian Journalists Syndicate.
Pope Shenouda III rose to the helm of the main Coptic Church after a period of strong and sound relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state. Egyptian leader Jamal Abdul Nasser was ideal for a post-independence Third World country like Egypt. As Anwar Sadat started to play the card of religion —mainly supporting Islamist movements to counter leftists — a standoff with the church was a by-product. Personal rivalries played a role, as Sadat was not at ease with the charismatic personality of Pope Shenouda. Relations between the Patriarch and Sadat exploded when Shenouda refused to join the president during his visit to occupied Jerusalem to make peace with Israel. Until his last moment as patriarch, he didn't allow his people to go on a pilgrimage to occupied Jerusalem unless it was liberated from Israeli occupation. Sadat then removed him from the papal seat and practically put him under house arrest. He was then reinstated by Mubarak in the early 1980s.
His socio-political role as leader of the Coptic Christians, around 10 per cent of the Egyptian population, has always been controversial. Some on the Muslim side would accuse him of turning the Church into a state within the state, some secularists and liberals on the Christian side would argue that he imposed a political leadership that curtailed the individual rights of church subjects to free political choice. But as the whole of Egypt was not enjoying any sort of political freedom, Pope Shenouda's role was the best way to help the Coptic cause and yet preserve the unity of Egyptian society.
He found a way of appeasing the regime to some extent and opening up to moderate Islamic trends while trying to subtly advance the cause of attaining some rights for his community. As a spiritual leader, there was a sort of consensus on his excellence and he's credited with being the first patriarch to devote effort to Coptic Orthodoxy outside Egypt. During his tenure, Coptic orthodox dioceses opened in around 70 countries. Yet, the pope was strongly against any foreign interference in Egyptian internal affairs under the pretext of helping the ‘Christian minority'.
There might not be a problem in choosing the next patriarch in Egypt, as Coptic traditions will be easily applied through the Holy Synod and other established clerical bodies. But surely there'll be a difficulty finding a pope like the deceased, who can fill the void he left not only in the Christian community but also in Egypt as a whole. Egypt now is in a very fluid state with all socio-political fabric loose and in the process of being reshaped. Pope Shenouda III would have been the perfect Coptic leader to help in that process with his spiritual and political clout. With the rise of political Islam in post-Mubarak Egypt and the polarisation of the populace along religious grounds, the successor on St Mark's papal seat will face huge challenges — let alone the need to fill the place of a towering personality like his predecessor. Hopefully, the elders of the church who worked closely with the late pope will develop his legacy of compromise, tolerance and accommodation.
Dr Ayman Mustafa is a London-based Arab writer.