Coptic swan song
Speculation is rife on who succeed to the See of St Mark, reports Gamal Nkrumah
Pope Shenouda III
A nagging question bedevils Copts: What will happen to the Coptic Christian community after Pope Shenouda III?
The Church has officially denied rumours that octogenarian Shenouda is suffering from serious health problems, insisting that his trip this week to the United States is for a routine medical check-up. Such statements, predictably perhaps, arouse rather than quell suspicion.
Last week was rife with allegations that Anba Youanis, Shonouda's right hand man, had expressed in personal diaries his ambition to succeed to the papacy. The Pope nevertheless, allowed Youanis to accompany him to the US dispelling any notion of foul play.
Mixed signals have crept into the much-hyped thaw in relations between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state since the incarceration of Pope Shenouda III by late President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981. Relations between the Coptic Church and the Egyptian state have periodically been clouded by Coptic anger over the alleged mistreatment of Copts and charges that a couple of Coptic women have been coerced into converting to Islam.
It is the question of the alleged conversion and forced marriage of Coptic girls to Muslim men that elicits the greatest passions. In July alone three separate incidents received much publicity in the press. Pharmaceuticals student Rania Tawfik Asaad was ostensibly abducted in Giza and forced to marry a Muslim. Two other cases, those of Marian Bishai, Amira Morgan and Injy Basta, also hit the headlines. Pope Shenouda, aware of the sensitivity of the topic and the strong feelings it provoked among Copts, issued a public statement on the subject as long ago as 1976.
"There is pressure being exerted for Coptic girls to embrace Islam and be married against their will to Muslim husbands," the Pope then lamented. He reiterated the same frustration on television more recently. Yet despite such statements many Copts feel the Pope remains too accommodating in placating the powers that be. It is the oldest Coptic parlour game of all, and often the most futile. Now many Copts are asking themselves whether Shenouda's successor will be equally accommodating.
The Church is first in line of fire as far as irate Copts are concerned. Critics contend that the past few decades have been characterised by policy blunders and regulatory negligence as much as by mistakes by individual clergymen and renegade priests.
As Copts create a new ethos, they must also redefine the role of the Coptic Church. This is not the first time Copts have questioned the Church's mandate.
"We have set procedures for the election of a new pope based on ecclesiastical and ritual considerations. They have nothing to do with politics," Coptic Bishop of Helwan, Anba Basanti, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that it is not appropriate to discuss succession while Pope Shenouda III is alive and well.
Critics have become ever more impatient with the Church's inertia.
"The Church must stick to ecclesiastical matters and not interfere in politics. We, as Coptic laypersons, must struggle for greater participation in the decision- making process," Coptic journalist and activist Karima Kamal told the Weekly. "Far from being secular, the state increasingly poses as being religious. It is against this backdrop that the Church is adopting an ever more defensive posture. Now if the Church is unwilling or incapable of defending the citizenship rights of Copts, then it should not dabble in politics."
Kamal says recent statements by Pope Shenouda on the question of succession to the presidency were inappropriate. "Most Egyptians love Gamal Mubarak and they will vote for him ahead of any other candidate running against him in elections -- that is if they find anyone to run against him," Pope Shenouda, a staunch supporter of Mubarak, was quoted as saying in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Yom. He also stated on ON TV that no person in Egypt was better qualified to run for the presidency than Gamal Mubarak.
Prominent Coptic public figures beg to differ. Georgette Qellini, a card-carrying, Coptic member of the NDP and presidential appointee to the People's Assembly, warns that the Coptic Church has the right to tackle thorny issues and that naturally its position on several questions courts controversy.
"Copts should be more sympathetic to the difficult situation the Church finds itself in. They should try and understand the breadth, depth and complexity of the problems the church is facing," explains Qellini.
Talk of Pope Shenouda III's ill-health has sparked speculation that a power struggle will ensue following his death. Shenouda, the 117th Coptic Pope since Mark the Evangelist, was enthroned as head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1971. A graduate of the Coptic Theological Seminary, he is highly respected in Coptic circles. Shenouda, however, has his critics among the Coptic clergymen and laypersons. One of the most contentious charges was that made by the dissident clergyman Maximus, who accuses Shenouda of "throwing fuel on the fire of sectarian violence in Egypt by inciting Copts to take up arms and retaliate when attacked by Muslims". Shenouda has dismissed the allegation.
Others accuse the Coptic Pope of turning the Coptic Church into an appendage of the ruling National Democratic Party.