TRIBUTE TO HIS HOLINESS POPE SHENOUDA III OF ALEXANDRIA AND THE PATRIARCH OF THE COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH.
BORN 3 AUGUST 1923 | DIED 17 MARCH 2012
PAPACY BEGAN 14 NOVEMBER 1971 | PAPACY ENDED 17 MARCH 2012
EGYPT is enduring tumultuous times: revolutions, economic collapse, escalating attacks against the Coptic Christians – and, now, the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Although his death has overwhelmed all Egyptians and Coptic Christians, many other populations throughout the world have also been saddened. People throughout Africa and the Middle East have been particularly distressed at the loss of His Holiness. And, even in Australia, almost fifteen thousand kilometres away, seventeen Federal Members of Parliament offered their condolences during parliament.
But the anguish was strongest in Egypt, where His Holiness’ funeral attracted one of the largest crowds ever witnessed for a funeral. According to a few estimates, more than one hundred thousand people attended St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, to farewell their beloved pope; however, hundreds of thousands more attended the two days of viewing, prompting many media outlets to call it the “funeral of the century”. This huge display of grief can be attributed to his numerous ministries, which touched and changed the lives of countless persons.
Teacher, preacher, poet, reformer, peacemaker – despite all these accolades, which the people bestowed on His Holiness, his favourite title was servant. He served all his people, especially the youth. In a famous quotation, he said, “A church without youth is a church without a future; moreover, youth without a church is youth without a future.” And despite his hectic schedule, His Holiness still managed to serve his people and the youth by conducting a meeting every Wednesday night at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. These weekly meetings attracted thousands, and the Church blossomed under his pastoral care. Yet this achievement is even more remarkable, considering the hostility to Coptic Christians in Egypt.
His Holiness the reformer helped the Church flourish on every continent. At the start of his papacy, there were three dioceses and seven churches outside Egypt, including two churches in Australia; now, there are more than twenty-five dioceses and four hundred and forty churches outside Egypt, including fifty churches in Australia. But His Holiness the reformer also enhanced the ministry of women within the Coptic Church and established an order for Deaconesses. Because of his reforms, female servants now teach in the Coptic Institute and the Biblical Institute, while thousands of others instruct catechism at Sunday school.
His Holiness the poet wrote more than one hundred and forty books about spirituality and Christianity, the majority translated into English, French, German, Italian, and other languages. Even while exiled (1981–1985) by presidential decree for protesting against the mistreatment of Copts, His Holiness used the opportunity to serve the best way he could and he wrote sixteen books.
His Holiness the preacher received the 1978 Browning Award for the Best Christian Preacher of the Year. And, because of his scriptural and theological knowledge, he was also awarded eight honorary doctoral degrees from internationally renowned universities in Europe and the United States.
His Holiness the peacemaker received the 2000 UNESCO-Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Non-Violence. Alluding to the scriptures, he said, “There is a way you can overcome your enemy: it is by changing your enemy into a friend. We need to win friends everywhere … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Gentleness and meekness are needed to have peace.”
Although His Holiness was a peacemaker, this never prevented him from defending the rights of his people, the Coptic Christians. And on 3 September 1981 he paid the ultimate price for protesting against the maltreatment of Copts by fundamentalist Islamic groups, when the Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat issued a presidential decree exiling His Holiness to the Monastery of St Pishoy. A month after the decree, however, one of the fundamentalist Islamic groups, which His Holiness was protesting against, assassinated President Anwar El-Sadat. Yet it took another three and a half years, and countless appeals from within and without the Coptic Orthodox Church, for the succeeding President Hosni Mubarak to release His Holiness from exile. This finally happened on 2 January 1985.
Even after being exiled, His Holiness never hesitated from defending his people. On 2 January 2000, Muslim extremist mobs massacred twenty-one Coptic Christians in Kosheh, a village in Upper Egypt; though, less than a year later, a criminal court in the Sohag Governorate released without bail all eighty-nine defendants who were charged with the massacre. His Holiness disputed the verdict and said, “We want to challenge this ruling. We don’t accept it.” But as the sentence could not be appealed, he embraced his belief in pacifism and said, “We revise this sentence by God.”
However, some of the worst atrocities against the Coptic Christians happened during 2011 – and, as usual, His Holiness publically supported his people. The following excerpt about the 2011 Maspero Massacre is taken from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2012:
On October 9, 2011, at least 26 people were killed, mostly Coptic Orthodox Christians, and more than 300 injured in downtown Cairo after armed men confronted and attacked peaceful protestors. The demonstrators, both Christians and Muslims, were marching to the Maspero state television station to protest the September 30 destruction of a church in Aswan, Upper Egypt. Egyptian state-owned media incited the violence when broadcasters urged Egyptians to go out into the streets to protect security forces from attacks by Christian protestors. Responding to the violence, Egyptian military forces used live ammunition and excessive force, including armored vehicles that deliberately crushed and killed at least 12 protestors. Dozens of suspects have been detained and interrogated. In December, a Cairo court decided to release, pending further investigations, the remaining 27 Coptic Christian detainees arrested in connection with the violence. The investigation reportedly is ongoing.
Despite his deteriorating health and the countless threats, His Holiness presided over the funerals of the 2011 Maspero Massacre victims, rather than defer the duties to other bishops. Thousands of mourners attended the funerals at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, and the scenes were terrifying as the families tried to grasp the tragedy’s enormity. This was clearly the most blatant massacre of Coptic Christians by the Egyptian State. Yet the incident was just one of many recent attacks.
His Holiness was also a vocal defender of all Christian people, of Christian unity, of Christian solidarity. In an address given during the International Week of Prayer in 1974, he said, “The whole Christian world is anxious to see the church unite. Christian people, being fed up with divisions, are pushing their church leaders to do something about church unity, and I am sure that the Holy Spirit is inspiring us.”
Perhaps, this is the most important lesson that His Holiness the teacher wanted his children to grasp: although these are tumultuous times in Egypt and in other lands, Christians standing united have nothing to fear. And Egypt’s Copts, with the support of all Christians, are heeding this lesson and praying for a leader who will continue to shepherd his Church and community during the uncertainty.
The Australian Coptic Movement Association
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