So as not to forget
An exhibition on the life of Shenouda III brings to life the spirit of mercy the pope constantly called for. Nevine El-Aref
took the tour
In the Coptic Culture Centre located within the walls of Abbasiya Coptic Cathedral, an exhibition on the life of Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Coptic pope and patriarch of the Alexandria Church, is an opportunity for Christians to renew their acquaintance with his religious philosophy and thinking and for Muslims to learn something about the life of a clergyman whose career, running from the 1950s to 2012, took him from a junior monk to Egypt's head of the Coptic Church.
In March 2012 Pope Shenouda died from lung and liver complications and old age. He was born in 1923 in the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut. By the age of 16 Shenouda was active in the Coptic Sunday school movement and served as a teacher. He graduated from the Faculty of Arts in Cairo University with a BA in history and worked as an English teacher, history and social sciences in a high school and attended classes at the Coptic Theological Seminary by night.
In 1950 Shenouda resigned from secular employment to take up a full time lecturing position at the seminary. In 1953 he was appointed a lecturer at the Monastic College in Helwan and in 1954 started his monastic career and life at the Syrian monastery of the Ever-Virgin Mary. In November 1971 he was consecrated Egypt's pope and presided over a worldwide expansion of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Pope Shenouda was widely acclaimed by Christians and Muslims alike in recent years for his continuous efforts to contain sectarian tension following a number of incidents involving the burning of churches but he was also criticised for turning the church into a political entity.
Shenouda announced he would never visit Jerusalem unless he could enter with a Palestinian visa, not an Israeli. He supported Palestinian rights in the long-standing Middle East conflict which led observers to describe him as an Arab nationalist.
Pope Shenouda's relationship with former president Anwar El-Sadat was tense, starting with the 1979 Camp David accords, which he saw as ill-timed and which should have been part of a larger comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
Shenouda saw Sadat as becoming dictatorial and turning more to Islamism to counter communism. Sadat was enraged after Shenouda implied that Egyptian Christian were subjected to discriminatory treatment by authorities after Shenouda claimed that a governmental census released in 1977 underestimated the number of Christians which contradicted earlier censuses.
After a series of protests Sadat sent Shenouda into exile in the Nitrian Desert in 1981. A year after Sadat's assassination Hosni Mubarak released Shenouda after pardoning him.
Shenouda enjoyed a warm relationship with Mubarak. But he heaped praise on the revolution that overthrew the president just days after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011. Some, however, were critical of his role in the post-Mubarak Egypt. The pope was criticised by many Christians for failing to chastise Egypt's ruling military council following the infamous Maspero incident in October last year when more than two dozen Copts were killed in street confrontations with the army.
At the time of his death, Pope Shenouda III was one of the most significant patriarchs of the ancient Church of Alexandria, a well-known church father and teacher, a chief defender of the faith, and a noted Egyptian leader of the 20th and 21st centuries.
To commemorate the life of Pope Shenouda, Louay Mahmoud Said, head of the Coptic Studies Programme at the Bibliotheca Alexandria, said the director of the Coptic Museum suggested organising an exhibition on the life of Pope Shenouda in the main hall of the Coptic Museum's new wing. Minister of State for Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim began preparing to host the exhibit.
Said, however, said the Tourism and Antiquities Police at the museum rejected the inauguration fearing the excessive influx of visitors would prevent proper safeguarding of the items on display and the museum in general especially after the chaos at the Pope Shenouda's burial in Saint Pishow Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun on the northern coast, which led to the death of several Christians from a stampede.
Following three months of indecision Said said the concerned authorities decided to transfer the exhibition to the Coptic Cultural Centre at the Abbasia Cathedral.
Called "As not to forget" the museum was inaugurated almost two weeks ago with very limited promotion. The opening ceremony was attended by Ibrahim and Bishop Armeya, Pope Shenouda's secretary and head of the Coptic Culture Centre and Bishop Bakhomius, the church's acting patriarch as well as top Coptic church officials and prominent pubic figures.
Visitors to the exhibition are first introduced to Pope Shenouda's life through a documentary shown on a large screen relating Shenouda's life since his early age, the beginning of his monastic career up until he became Egypt's Orthodox patriarch and then his death.
A large photo of Shenouda in his official patriarch suit stands on a high table surrounded with lit candles to greet visitors.
Most of the pope's personal belongings are on display inside special glass showcases made in the workshops of the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) and which include almost 60 items displaying a collection of Shenouda's books, crosses, bibles and official suits that he wore when taking over official monastic positions.
His mobile phone, watch, beads, clay pot and teapot are also exhibited along with a collection of his personal photos and others showing Pope Shenouda with Egyptian and international officials and public figures such as former US president Jimmy Carter, US President Barack Obama and Arab presidents and leaders.
Awards offered to him are also on display, among which are UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence.
A Letter written by Pope Shenouda commemorating the former Egyptian grand imam of Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayed Tantawi is on show as well as another written by Tantawi to Shenouda greeting him on the occasion of the feast.
In a corner at the end of the exhibition stands a replica of the pope's cell where a visitor can find his original bed, lamp, chair and desk.