Autumn of another patriarch


The death of Pope Shenouda highlights quandaries faced by Coptic Christians.



IF EGYPTIANS in general are frazzled by a year of revolution, the country’s Coptic Christian minority is doubly disturbed. On top of political and economic uncertainty, Egypt’s 8m Copts face existential questions about the future of their ancient community just as political Islam in the country is on the rise.

The colossal outpouring of grief that followed the death on March 17th of Pope Shenouda III, who had headed the church since 1971, reflected not only sadness at the loss of a revered patriarch. It reflected anguish at the state of the Copts, the largest Christian congregation in the Middle East.

Nassar, a young mourner who came to Cairo’s Abbaseya cathedral in his Sunday best, stood pensive at the rear of the kilometre-long queue to pay respects to the departed pope. “This is a very difficult time for Christians,” he said. “The country is changing very fast, people are emigrating, and losing a beloved pope only makes it more difficult and confusing.”

Last October the Egyptian army clashed with a group of mostly Coptic protesters, killing 25 people. The protest had signalled the emergence of a more forceful movement for Coptic rights in post-Mubarak Egypt, one at odds with the church’s reflexively conciliatory response during a period that has seen repeated attacks against Christians. The repression of the protest sent a chilling message, underlined by the failure of Egypt’s ruling generals to carry through with a promised investigation into the killings.

Egypt’s post-revolutionary lawlessness has allowed, on occasion, ultra-conservative Muslims to discriminate openly against Copts, as in a recent case of Christian villagers in the Nile Delta forced to abandon their homes after clashes between Muslim and Coptic families. Yet although many Christians are morose about their prospects, others hope that a more democratic Egypt may provide opportunities to end their community’s political isolation. Post-Mubarak politics thus far gives a mixed picture. Some MPs from the Nour Party, representing the ultra-conservative Salafi movement, walked out when parliament held a minute of silence for Shenouda. Later a spokesman explained that “a minute of silence does not exist in Islam”. The more moderate—and dominant—Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood, have been kinder. Saad Katatni, a leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the speaker of parliament, said that Egypt had lost “one of its national icons, a man who left a void in the political arena at a critical time.”Even so, the Brotherhood still refuses to accept that a Christian should be eligible for the presidency, and has been criticised, along with Salafis, for seeking to fill half of a future constituent assembly with elected MPs. This, critics say, would result in the new constitution being written by a group unrepresentative of the diversity of Egyptian society, with, as in parliament, women and minorities greatly under-represented.

It will be up to Shenouda’s successor to navigate the minefield of post-revolutionary Egypt. Three bishops will be elected 40 days after Shenouda’s death and then a blindfolded child will select the new patriarch from among the three, as ancient tradition dictates.


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