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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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