Staving off strife
In the aftermath of the attack against monks at Abu Fana Monastery and with Pope Shenouda III once again in the US for medical treatment, Copts are left pondering the implications, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Pope Shenouda III
Egypt's Coptic Christian community is as agitated as ever. The fracas over the land dispute surrounding the historic Abu Fana Monastery on 31 May in which four Copts, including two monks, were injured, has incensed many Copts and heightened their sense of insecurity. The incident has shaken the community and prompted Copts to ponder the precise nature of their relationship with the political establishment.
Significantly, sectarian tensions are less tangible among wealthier middle and upper class Copts who reside in urban areas than their poorer co-religionists who reside in rural areas and underprivileged urban shantytowns. Tensions are especially pronounced in Upper Egypt, in areas such as Minya governorate, where the Abu Fana Monastery is located and a majority of Copts are concentrated geographically.
As the guns fell silent in the vicinity of Abu Fana the Coptic community began to assess the challenges they face. Daggers were drawn and blood shed, but such conflicts, believe many, are all too easily reignited, and this against a backdrop in which the food and fuel crises affect poor Copts as much as they do poor Muslims. With economic woes hitting the poor and most vulnerable sections of the population hardest it is difficult to see how conflicts and tensions between Copts and Muslims can die down.
Indeed, the Coptic Ecclesiastical Council has already issued an exceptionally candid statement pleading with President Hosni Mubarak to prevent "armed attacks on monks and Coptic clergy" and to stop "insults to the cross". To add to feelings of insecurity Egypt's Copts, and their co-religionists abroad, are concerned about the failing health of the 86- year-old head of the Coptic Church. Last Thursday Pope Shenouda III underwent an operation at the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, to repair a thigh bone. His left femur was broken after a fall in his Cairo residence. He is reported to be in a stable condition. "The surgery was successful and he is recovering well," orthopedic surgeon Wael Barsoum told reporters in Cleveland. Barsoum added that Pope Shenouda would remained in hospital for one week after and is currently undergoing physiotherapy. His ailing health, predictably, has attracted much speculation.
The pope was flown to the US in a medically-equipped private jet provided by a prominent Coptic businessman who prefers to remain anonymous.
"Pope Shenouda, due to his age and the nature of his illness, frequents the Cleveland Clinic on a regular basis," Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Watani, the independent Coptic weekly, and a member of the Milli (lay) Council told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Soon after the unfortunate incident at Abu Fana Monastery, Pope Shenouda warned that the criminals responsible for the atrocities in Abu Fana must be brought to book. He said that he rejects so-called reconciliation sessions forcing the victims to sit down with their oppressors. He insisted that the victims, with the blessing of the church, would resort to the courts. Justice must prevail."
Sidhom stresses that the pope has shown exceptional courage and candidness. In the face of criticism -- especially from Coptic émigrés in North America -- that he is subservient to the regime, Pope Shenouda remains a widely respected public figure in Egypt. He has represented the Coptic Church at numerous ecumenical forums abroad even though he remains deeply attached to monastic life.
His health complications delayed a message he was expected to deliver to President Mubarak. While the contents of that message are unknown, what is clear is that President Mubarak has been anxious to follow up on Pope Shenouda's well- being.
The 117th successor to Saint Mark has long been seen as an intermediary between the Coptic community and the Egyptian state. He ascended the Coptic throne in 1971, was banished to a monastery by the late president Anwar El-Sadat and then released by President Mubarak in 1982. Since then Mubarak and Shenouda have enjoyed a cordial working relationship.
Among the Coptic community, which accounts for an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt's population of 78.7 million, there is much speculation about who will be in charge of ecclesiastical matters in the pope's absence. The head of the Ecclesiastical Council Anba Bishoi, a favourite to succeed Pope Shenouda, is thought to be behind the strongly-worded statement. He is often considered a hard- liner eager to appease the more uncompromising Copts, a charge he hotly denies.
Among Copts, says Coptic intellectual Milad Hanna, the tendency towards compromise and moderation is strong. "Copts have learned to cope with challenges and with the dynamics of socio-political change," he says. "Mind you," he adds, "that is not to say that the Coptic community will avoid having to face even graver challenges in the future."