Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

In memoriam

Michael Adel attends events marking the first anniversary of the death of Pope Shenouda

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Shenouda III’s death on 17 March 2012 marked the end of 41 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Pope Shenouda was born in the village of Salam in Assiut governorate on 2 August 1923. As Nazeer Gayed Rofail he graduated from Cairo University in 1947 with a degree in literature and history. He taught Sunday school and became involved in politics, joining the Wafdist Bloc Party led by Makram Ebeid Pasha and working on Mustafa Al-Nahhas’s election campaign.

On 18 July 1954 he became a monk, taking the name Antonious Al-Siryani [the Syrian], and spent a decade without leaving his monastery. He became the personal secretary of Pope Kirolos VI in 1959 and was appointed bishop of religious institutes and church education. On 30 September 1962, he became the first bishop for Christian studies and dean of seminary school.

Pope Kirolos died on 9 March 1971. His successor was elected on 13 October, officially ascending to the papal seat as Pope Shenouda on 14 November 1971.

President Anwar Al-Sadat clashed with Pope Shenouda after the latter denounced the Camp David treaty and Coptic expatriates organised demonstrations during Sadat’s visit to the US. These were followed by clashes at Al-Zawya Al-Hamra. Soon afterwards a decree was issued halting the pope’s weekly lessons. Shenouda not only refused to comply but halted Christmas celebrations in protest and stopped receiving state dignitaries and officials. He was then sent into external exile, placed under house arrest at the Bishop Bishoi Monastery.

Although relations between Sadat and Shenouda had begun cordially enough, they degenerated to the extent that he was falsely accused by the regime and its media apparatus of seeking to trigger sectarian strife in Egypt, and many statements were falsified in his name.

When Hosni Mubarak became president on 14 October 1981 he ended the pope’s internal exile though little changed in the manner in which Coptic question were dealt. The pope went into seclusion four times under Mubarak: first after the Kosheh attacks; after the Wafaa Constantine incident; after clashes at Nagaa Hammadi; and finally after events in Omraniya.

Pope Shenouda III was a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause. Under his leadership the Church was often ahead of Islamic religious institutions in its positions on Palestinian rights. He banned Copts from visiting Jerusalem announcing: “We will not go to Jerusalem unless we are holding hands with our Muslim brothers”.

The pope’s position on Israeli occupation was crystal clear, and earned the respect of Yasser Arafat who would visit Shenouda in Abbasiya whenever he was in Cairo. The pope held a large public meeting at St Mark’s Cathedral in 2002 when Arafat was placed under house arrest in defence of the Palestinian cause.

On the home front Pope Shenouda was keen to participate in all national celebrations. He visited the frontline several times before the 1973 October War, meeting with commanders and soldiers and attended the celebrations on 19 March 1989 as the Egyptian flag was raised over Taba.

It was during his tenure that the Church began hosting national unity Ramadan Iftars.

Shenouda staunchly opposed those Copts seeking to establish a Christian political party, insisting political groupings could not base their membership on religion.

His sermons often contained a message to his expatriate flock not to listen to false rumours about the condition of Copts in Egypt, leading to accusations that he acted as a Muslim apologist.

Shenouda founded seven Seminary branches inside and outside Egypt. He was the first pope to head and publish a weekly magazine, to be a member of the Press Syndicate and to give three lessons every week in Cairo or Alexandria. He broke with 15 centuries of precedent when he visited the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, and oversaw the expansion of the Orthodox Coptic Church in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

To mark the first anniversary of his death the Church in Egypt held several events, including a photo exhibition of his life at the Patriarchal Museum inside the Coptic Cultural Centre. A new annual prize was launched in his name. The first awardee is American physician Martin Schreiber who supervised Pope Shenouda’s medical treatment.

Pope Tawadros II led a memorial service at Abbasiya Cathedral attended by bishops of the Holy Synod and which included a performance by boy scouts. Meanwhile, thousands of Copts continue to flock to Bishop Bishoi Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun where Pope Shenouda is buried.

A new book, Lover of Egypt’s Soil, has been published to celebrate the late pope’s life and achievements. He was, says Bishop Moussa who headed the book project, the quintessential teacher pope, opening seminaries, allowing women to become students and teachers, overseeing specialised institutes and giving weekly lessons which Bishop Moussa argues are a landmark in the history of the Coptic Church. Shenouda, says Moussa, was a charismatic figure in educational circles and Pope Tawadros is continuing on his predecessor’s path.

Bishop Rafael, the secretary of the Holy Synod, said the late pope was shy, gentle, polite and soft spoken. He never used harsh words and championed the weak and poor throughout his life.

Away from the festivities the Church has been occupied with the sensitive issue of the arrest and torture of hundreds of Egyptian Copts accused of proselytising in Libya. One Egyptian was beaten to death and an Egyptian church in Libya burned to the ground. In the face of these attacks the Egyptian government has remained mostly silent.

Copts have been demonstrating outside the Libyan embassy in Cairo since last week, and a meeting between Pope Tawadros and the Libyan ambassador to Cairo has already taken place.

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