Keeping Coptic fingers crossed
Coptic Schadenfreude over the challenges they face came to the fore with Pope Shenouda's return from treatment in the US, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, author of more than 100 books, prolific columnist and public speaker, is in an unenviable position. He is expected to lead Copts both politically and in religious matters. And, both politics and religion are often inextricably intertwined.
Speculation about his health prompts intense debate about the succession to the papacy, both in private among members of the Coptic Christian community in the country and overseas. It is against this backdrop that his return on Monday spurred intense discussion about the role he plays in the country as the nominal head of Egypt's largest religious minority.
Minister of Local Development General Mohamed Abdel-Salam Mahgoub was at the Cairo International Airport to welcome Pope Shenouda home. Among the prominent public figures that welcomed the pope were MP Alaa Hassanein who heads a parliamentary committee dealing with the Abu Fana Monastery crisis -- an ongoing spat between Bedouins and Copts in Minya that symbolises Coptic frustration with their legal status and social predicaments. The pope arrived at 6am and was in seemingly good condition. He walked without an aide and appeared to be in high spirits.
The timing of Pope Shenouda's return is an astonishingly good one. Some 10,000 Copts stayed overnight at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya in the heart of Cairo to welcome the pope. "My place is in your hearts, that is where I ought to dwell," he told an enthused audience.
The malign coincidence of the pope's ill- health and the challenges facing his church reinforced the difficulties besetting Egypt's distraught Christian communities. Political weakness makes it hard to get to grips with the perils facing his parishioners. So which of these problems is the most intractable? The pope has been, unsurprisingly, reluctant to say which ones.
Others have been more forthcoming. "The most urgent issue is the promulgation of unified laws or codes for the construction of places of worship," Editor-in-Chief of the Coptic weekly Watani Youssef Sidhom told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This is the top priority for Copts," Sidhom explained.
He stressed that no request for constructing a Coptic church that reached President Hosni Mubarak's desk was rejected. All such requests were gladly received and granted by presidential decree as the law currently proscribes. However, for a request to reach President Mubarak personally is often extremely difficult, almost impossible. In most cases it is the security forces that sit on the request and delay it from being conveyed to the president," he extrapolated.
He cited the specific example in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city and chief port. "A typical example is the request to construct a Coptic church in the Maamoura suburb of Alexandria, with a large Coptic community. The request for constructing a church has been with the security personnel for over three decades. We do not understand the reason for the delay even though the governorate of Alexandria has issued its approval. The security forces are still reviewing the case, and there are numerous such cases all around the country. Requests are not turned down, but are delayed indefinitely for no apparent reason," Sidhom concluded.
Sidhom noted that MPs Mohamed Goweiliand Maher El-Dreibi, both Muslim, had championed the cause of unified construction laws for houses of worship of the different religions to no avail even though Speaker Fathi Sorour has in principle approved the promulgation of fairer new legislation. "El-Dreibi, the head of the parliamentary committee for administrative affairs and 14 other MPs have lobbied on our behalf. We have not yet seen any tangible results."
"The question of constructing new churches and renovating existing ones is preoccupying more Copts in Egypt than you might think," Sidhom said. It was a subject that cropped up during the 36th anniversary of Pope Shenouda III's consecration earlier this year. The pope judged correctly the gravity of the situation and has spoken out on this particular problem.
The Coptic pope's return to Egypt comes at a deciding moment in the church's history. There are several issues that desperately require his immediate and full attention. Chief among these are unofficial discriminatory policies against Copts that are hard to verify or substantiate, court rulings against Coptic citizens and the legal barring of Muslim women from marriage to non-Muslims including Coptic men. "Many of these problems stem from the legal system in Egypt which identifies the religion and Sharia laws of Islam as the principle source of all Egyptian legislation," explained a Coptic layperson who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officially, the Coptic Church does not disapprove of Islamic Sharia law being the source of Egyptian legislation, even though many Copts feel that the legal system itself is discriminatory. Whether, given his fragile health, the pope is in a position to deliver is questionable.
He is quite capable of carrying out his duties including ecclesiastical matters -- that much is widely acknowledged. But what about playing a political role? Is he permitted to play such a role? Many Copts question the eligibility of a diocesan bishop for the post of Coptic pope and they believe their spiritual leader should refrain from engaging in active politics.
Contenders to the Coptic Patriarchy are many. Church bylaws, promulgated in 1957, stipulate the selection process and eligibility of future popes. The ailing 85-year-old head of the Coptic Church, was pronounced fit and well by church officials upon his return from Cleveland. Yet, three names are usually mentioned as possible successors -- Anba Bishoi, a close associate of the current pope; the popular Anba Moussa, the bishop in charge of youth; and the youngest contender Anba Yoannis ordained generally bishop in 1993, a graduate of Medical College at Assiut University who joined the monastic order in 1986.
The Church Reformation Congress, a secular Coptic institution, is concerned about the challenges facing the church. Moreover, most senior clergy in the church are in favour of church reform. Anba Baphnutheous, for example, the author of The Necessity of Developing Ecclesiastical Reform, outlined the main issues at stake and put forward three recommendations to effect change.
In the past, there were the so-called Arakhena, the rich and influential family that bequeathed large sums of money to the church and had a strong say in the running of ecclesiastical affairs.
Pope Shenouda himself is a highly-cultured and educated clergyman who matriculated at the University of Cairo, receiving his BA in English and history in 1947. He represented the Coptic Church at numerous ecumenical forums abroad, even though he remained deeply attached to monastic life. He was appointed personal secretary to Pope Kyrollos VI in 1959 and later became Bishop in charge of Education. In effect, he was a bishop without a parish, but one who was well known and much-loved by his parishioners who account for 95 per cent of the country's Christian population of roughly 10 million.
Then there is the controversial question of Coptic émigré communities -- the two-million strong Coptic Christian community overseas in North America and Australia in particular. "Émigré Copts are bound to play an ever-increasing role in promoting greater religious freedom," Nabil Abdel-Fattah, author of The State of Religion in Egypt report and research fellow with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly.
It is not as if the Coptic Church has suddenly awoken to the challenges facing it. There is still a lot to be done.