By Safaa Abdoun
CAIRO: As the Coptic community grapples to deal with the loss of its spiritual leader Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, the politics that was associated with his role as a de facto representative of the group the is now shaping the debate about his successor.
“As the guardian to the Coptic community the political role was imposed on [the pope],” veteran journalist Louis Greiss said.
“Even if he wished not to be involved in politics it wouldn’t leave him.”
Late president Anwar Sadat encouraged the new role of the pope before he clashed with Shenouda, recalled Greiss. In 1981, Sadat placed Shenouda under house arrest in St. Bishoy’s monastery because of his denunciation of the then-president’s growing closeness to Islamists.
The idea of citizenship and that all Egyptians are one has flourished under the reign of Pope Shenouda. “[He] has turned [the church] into a national church, emphasizing how the Copts are citizens just like their Muslim brothers and we are all Egyptians. This was reflected when he passed away; Muslims shared the Copts’ grieve and would stop them in the streets and offer their condolences,” explained Greiss.
Shenouda was a representative of the Coptic Christians in all matters of the state, and political issues in particular. He was also known for his adamant support of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
“Mubarak and Shenouda had a sound personal relationship. However, the Pope’s continuous calls for changes in legislation pertaining to building churches and Christians personal status was met with zero response from the regime. There wasn’t any political will,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Orthodox Coptic newspaper Al-Watani.
At the same time, Shenouda was able to contain any violent consequences from radicals, putting the welfare of Egypt before the welfare of the Copts in matters of sectarian rifts.
“Pope Shenouda always advised not to react to violence with violence and maintained good relations with Al-Azhar which sent out conciliatory positive messages,” explained Sidhom, noting that the strategy backfired to a certain extent, leaving Copts unsatisfied with the photo ops between Muslim and Christian leaders that lead to nowhere.
But within the community, calls for change have been getting louder, both on the political side and for reforms within the church itself. “They appreciated the role of the pope within the church, but not as a representative of them in the public sphere as he was unable to get them their political and citizenship rights,” said Sidhom.
Shortly following an attack on the Qeddesine Church in Alexandria that left 24 dead in the first minutes of 2011, the January 25 Revolution changed the rules of the game by toppling the head of the state and introducing new players to the scene.
During the 18-day uprising, Pope Shenouda publicly discouraged Copts from participating in the protests that called for the fall of then-president Hosni Mubarak and his regime.
The pope was criticized at the time for his involvement in politics — guiding Copts based on his relationship with Mubarak. The ousted president was portrayed as a protector of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East against the threat of extremists despite withholding many legal rights.
Yet, the pope’s stance during the uprising wasn’t related to politics, according to activist Evronia Azer, coordinator of the No to Military Trials Campaign in Alexandria. “It was a matter of safety, he wanted to prevent any bloodshed and detentions,” she argued.
“He was being pressured by the regime. But this was just his opinion not a papal command, which if violated there would be repercussions,” she added.
“I completely understood Pope Shenouda’s reasons; we were living the worst years for the Church. Yes he did support the regime, but at the end of the day he wanted to prevent the bloodshed. And politically he was preventing any clashes with the regime,” explained Azer, who believes in separating the state from religion. “The church must have a national role but not a political one.”
The political role of the pope is one of the main debates in the ongoing process of choosing Shenouda’s successor.
Post-Jan. 25, the message has been clear: “The pope can’t represent the Copts,” noted Sidhom.
“The pope is supposed to be the religious head, a representative of the religion. But defining all Copts into one person, is unacceptable,” said Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher with the program of freedom of religion and belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Ibrahim, who conscribes to the secular stream within the Coptic community, denounced how the pope’s opinion was taken in matters such as the appointment of a Coptic minister or state official.
“Copts are Egyptian citizens; there are activists, members of the public sphere and civil society and others who are great representatives of Copts in every sphere,” said Ibrahim, noting that also not all Copts hold the same ideologies, with some leftists and others liberals.
Accordingly, “the next pope in the current transitional period is expected to continue to communicate with the state institutions sending a message of peace but will not be politically representing the Copts,” explained Sidhom.
Greiss disagreed, saying, the next pope will have a political role whether he wants it or not. It could be imposed on him, the writer speculated.
The first step towards defining the role of the pope would be the process through which he will be selected. Ibrahim explained that the pope will be elected through the 1957 bylaws which he said are not suitable to the current time.
“The bylaws are discriminatory and classist. Seculars have proposed their amendment before, but this has been rejected by the Church,” he said, referring to how eligible voters must meet conditions such as having an annual income not less than LE 480, be an employee paying a minimum of LE 100 taxes every year, a public official or a journalist.
In addition, also eligible to vote are the Pope and bishops of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. When the bylaws were placed the Ethiopian Church was part of the Egyptian Church but they have been split since the late 1970s.
However, now may not be the time for amending these bylaws due to the current legislative state of the country.
“An amendment to the bylaws must be issued through a law, but in the current democratic transition, with the current parliament and rule of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) this is not a suitable time,” said Ibrahim.
During their meeting last Thursday, the Holy Synod discussed a new interpretation to the current bylaws.
Papal sources previously told Daily News Egypt that the clergymen expected to succeed Shenouda include Secretary of the Holy Synod Bishop Bishoy, Bishop Mousa handling youth affairs, Shenouda’s secretary Bishop Youa’nis, Bsihop Morkos of Shobra El-Kheima, and General Bishop and Shenouda’s secretary Armia.
All of these candidates have refused to comment on the political role of the next pope.