Pope Shenouda III, 88, head of the Egyptian Coptic Church and one of the most important personalities in Middle Eastern Christianity, died on March 17. He guided the Coptic Church since 1971, during a difficult time when Christians in Egypt faced recurring bouts of violence and the radicalization of the Muslim Brothers. For two days, Christians, but also many Muslims, paid their respect to Shenouda. The main streets leading up to the cathedral had been cordoned off by military police and officers from the central security forces. Thousands of mourners, many waving photos of the Pope – affectionately called Baba Shenouda – gathered behind crash barriers set up in the roads, while inside the cathedral some broke down in tears. More than 2000 personalities representing religious, political and military authority took part in the funeral, among them the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, the most important centre of Islamic theological studies of the Muslim world.
Born Nazeer Gayed in Upper Egypt to a devoutly Christian family, the Pope to be graduated with a history degree and later took the name of Father Antonios el-Syriani after becoming a monk in 1954. Ten years after being enthroned as the Pope of Alexandria in 1971, he had a major run-in with President Anwar Sadat, after which he was banished to a desert monastery for refusing to oversee a public Easter celebration. Throughout his reign, he worked hard to strengthen Copts’ identity and place within Egyptian society. He particularly pushed for the uplift of women and children, promoting education and on-going formation even in smaller villages throughout Egypt.
Baba Shenouda was also instrumental in uniting the Copts in the diaspora. He promoted the formation of clergy who could guide Copts communities around the world. He also encouraged the creation of monastic communities in Europe, the Americas and in Australia. Becasue of that, he was much loved by the faithful, and gained the respect of all Egyptians. Even though he was never shy in facing the government of the day and the military, he did not side squarely with one camp during the revolution that ousted President Mubarak. He feared that a sharp comment could fire back on his own community, especially against the youth.
The Coptic Church is now rudderless, exactly in a critical moment, when political decisions will certainly affect the community. The Synod will meet to discuss and propose a few names. Only monks and bishops who are not in charge of a diocese can be named at this point. When enough candidates will be proposed, only the three most voted will participate to the last step. A child will choose one of three pieces of paper where their names will be written. The chosen candidate will then become the next Pope of the Egyptian Coptic Church.
The procedure can be long; Shenouda was elected after eight months of work. This time, every one expects things to move quickly. The Coptic Church, the largest Christian community in the Arab world, needs a good leader, capable of steering the Church towards a stronger public presence. With ten million faithful, the Coptic Church is a strong minority in Egypt, yet Christians there are still considered lesser citizens. There are too many laws that discriminate against them, and they cannot even apply to build new churches. Besides, Egypt is about to elect a new president and all eyes are fixed on the Muslim Brothers to see which kind of society will they want to build. Many Christians are concerned about the advances being made by Egypt’s political Islamists.