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Egypt

The Successor Of Pope Shenouda III Must Have More Than Just Spiritual Skills

The next Copt patriarch will have big shoes to fill: not only will he be succeeding to an immensely popular pope, considered by many as a pacifier and protector, but his political role, in a context of Islamic radicalism, will be closely monitored.

Pope Shenouda III at Cairo University in Egypt in June 2009 (Chuck Kennedy)
Pope Shenouda III at Cairo University in Egypt in June 2009 (Chuck Kennedy)
Rana Khazbak

CAIRO - The death of Pope Shenouda III Saturday night struck a blow to the Coptic community in Egypt, who lost a spiritual leader and guardian who guided them for 41 years. But his passing has also sparked fears over the fate of the minority group in a country witnessing the hasty ascent of Islamic political groups to power.

Hundreds of thousands of mourning Christian Copts poured into the streets surrounding the Abbasseya Cathedral to pay their last respects to Pope Shenouda as his body lies in repose for people to bid him farewell. He died after a long fight with kidney failure at the age of 89.

Pope Shenouda's charisma won the hearts of most Christians. The beloved patriarch led an educational and cultural revival in the church, transforming it into a full-fledged institution and a social hub where members of the Coptic community can mingle and develop close ties. This insular culture, though, added to a sense of isolation and protectionism in the community amid a rise of sectarian sentiments in Egypt. Some Copts particularly fear persecution now that Pope Shenuouda is gone and Islamists are ascending to power after they secured a majority of parliamentary seats.

"He was the godfather of poor people like us. We are nothing without him," said Karim Saad, 29, who works in a clothes factory. Living in the area of Imbaba, Saad witnessed the violent sectarian clashes that took place last year when hundreds of ultra-conservative Salafis set fire to two churches in the poor neighborhood, demanding the church release a woman they said had converted to Islam. For years, Pope Shenouda played a pivotal role in containing angry reactions of Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians in the face of sectarian violence and discrimination. "He was our idol; his word always had great weight and we all followed him. He used to control and contain any sectarian violence when it erupted," said Saad, who added that his family is in mourning and his wife has been wearing black since the news broke out.

Chosen by God... and a blindfolded child

With Pope Shenouda's loss, Copts are skeptical that any successor will be able to fill these shoes, despite their common belief that the coming pope will be God's choice. Although potential successors will not be officially elected for a few months, three clerks are expected to compete for the position, namely Bishop Bishoy, the metropolitan bishop of the Holy Metropolis of Damietta; Bishop Moussa, the general bishop and administrator for the bishopric of youth affairs; and Bishop Youanis, who holds the post of assistant bishop and patriarchal secretary at the Patriarchal Residence in Cairo.

In the elections, one of the three finalists' names will be drawn by a blindfolded child, which Copts believe is ultimately the holy choice. "We always felt we that we have someone to support us, talk on our behalf and defend us. Of course God is our protector, but the pope was very wise, resourceful, intellectual and compassionate," said tearful Afaf Wahba, a housewife in her 50s who lives in Dokki.

But Pope Shenouda's containment strategy didn't go without criticism. Michael Aziz, 25, who just graduated from medical school, believes that the church's role as the sole protector of Copts' rights around which they can gather, in addition to the sectarian discourse adopted by the former rulers, has done nothing but feed the sectarian fires. "I don't think that the coming pope will adopt a different strategy because all these potential popes were practically raised under Pope Shenouda's teachings," said Aziz, who lives in Shubra, an area with a large Christian population.

Although Pope Shenouda's religious leadership was unquestionable by Copts, his passive and sometimes supportive political positions toward the toppled Hosni Mubarak regime were criticized in youth and activist circles. The only and last time he adopted a confrontational rhetoric was during Sadat's time, when the former president put him under house arrest in 1981 in a monastery in Wadi al-Natrun. He was released almost three years after Sadat's assassination and Mubarak's rise to the power.

Nowadays, many Copts agree that the role of Pope Shenouda's successor should be an entirely religious and spiritual one, rejecting any kind of guardianship on people's political choices. "I don't want the coming pope to interfere in politics because his opinion has a huge effect on people, and they obey him, but we shouldn't be cowed. Everyone should make his own political decisions independently," said Wahba.

Read the full article at Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Photo - Chuck Kennedy

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