The significance of Pope Shenouda III

By Michael Marten
18 Mar 2012

Pope Shenouda III, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, the single largest church in the Middle East, died on Saturday 17 March 2012 aged 89. He had suffered from various health problems in recent years, though he had continued working and was in good spirits even just a short while ago, as Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros has reported.

He became Pope in 1971, and will be remembered as a tremendously influential figure who sought to develop a revival of the church that his predecessor, Cyril VI, had rather tentatively begun.

His early career was marked by two significant influences. Firstly, his period as editor of the Coptic Church’s Sunday School journal (1947-1950) formed his understanding of the importance of successful media communications tailored to specific audiences; this was undoubtedly one of the key factors in the church revival he presided over, which developed the use of modern technological communication in numerous ways, including in more recent years, a strong online presence.

His editorship of the journal also impacted on the church hierarchy: most of the senior bishops under him began their careers as journalists under his editorship. Secondly, his background included a period as a monk: monasticism, founded in Egypt in the early centuries of the Christian Church, has undergone a tremendous revival in Egypt in the latter part of the 20th century. Shenouda was both a product of the early stages of this revival, and a great supporter of it. The importance of the spiritual life formed the core of the message he sought to communicate in encouraging Copts in both Egypt, and the growing communities abroad, especially in North America.

In pursuing this revival, one of his aims had been to try and ensure that Copts were more closely integrated into Egyptian society, and to that end he tried to revive certain practices that Muslims might also recognise – such as public prayer and fasting – thereby making the church appear less alien to its Muslim neighbours. Of course, this process of church revival took place in a context that also saw a particular form of Islamic revival, led in part by movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whereas the latter have sought to impact directly on political processes in the context of their revival movements, the Coptic church under Shenouda III sought to pursue what might be called an inner revival of the church, working to develop liturgical, spiritual and pastoral work as much as possible, and thereby then also impacting on domestic politics, albeit less directly.

Tremendously charismatic, Shenouda was also a somewhat controversial character. Some of his decisions within the church were viewed with scepticism, such as the prohibition on Coptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For centuries Copts went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but Shenouda prohibited pilgrimages on the basis that the sites Copts would want to visit are illegally occupied by Israel. The penalty was excommunication: readmission to the church required a public confession in the press.

Although President Sadat objected to this policy after he made a peace agreement with Israel, it was a very clear instruction from Shenouda that also earned him a certain level of respect from Muslims in Egypt and beyond. Over the years there have been a significant number of excommunications – but also re-admissions – as many Copts went on pilgrimage despite Shenouda’s prohibition.

Shenouda was also widely criticised for his closeness to former President Hosni Mubarak, overthrown last year. Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, had had Shenouda placed under house arrest in a desert monastery in 1981. Sadat had memorably described himself as “a Muslim president for a Muslim people”, and Egyptian Christians found it hard to forget this; placing Shenouda under house-arrest can be seen as an attempt to appease Islamist factions in Egypt – a futile attempt, as evidenced by the Islamist assassination of Sadat shortly afterwards.

Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, sought to allay Christian fears somewhat: he released Shenouda in 1985, who returned to Cairo to celebrate Christmas Mass in front of thousands at St Mark’s Cathedral.

Perhaps Mubarak’s releasing of Shenouda was one factor in Shenouda’s reluctance to speak out against him during the 2011 revolution: only two days before Mubarak was removed from power did Shenouda openly distance himself. It is important to note that this reluctance to challenge the ruling powers is also a reflection of the message that Christians have repeatedly been given throughout the Middle East – that their continued security as a minority community of some kind is dependent upon the protection offered by the regime (some argue that we are witnessing something similar happening in Syria at the moment).

Despite releasing Shenouda, Mubarak, like Sadat, instrumentalised the Christian-Muslim relationship in an attempt to strengthen the army’s rule and his own position as President. For example, immediately prior to what is generally regarded as the beginning of the 2011 Egyptian revolutions, the December 2010 bombing of Church of the Two Martyrs in Alexandria was almost certainly the work of Mubarak’s Ministry of the Interior – but perhaps to the surprise of the regime, most Egyptian Muslims stood in solidarity with their Christian neighbours at this time, completely horrified by the carnage.

Similarly, memorable images from the Tahrir Square protesters engaging in prayer especially on Fridays and Sundays, with Christians protecting Muslims and Muslims protecting Christians, appear to demonstrate the futility of attempts to further divisions between ordinary adherents.

The revolution may have removed Mubarak, but the army continues to control Egypt through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Shenouoda also co-operated with SCAF, at one stage even going so far as praising the military leadership for helping to rebuild churches that were burnt throughout the country. However, last October soldiers brutally broke up a Coptic protest killing at least 26 people and wounding over 300. Shenouda promptly condemned the military, blaming them for the violence and describing the dead as “martyrs.”

Despite these more controversial aspects to his character, it seems likely that in the longer term Shenouda will be remembered particularly for his essential role in furthering the revival of the Coptic Church in the contemporary era, especially the key role of the monastic communities, the spread of the Coptic Church overseas, and the phenomenally successful usage of communication tools in spreading the Church’s message.

His funeral is likely to take place in the next few days, and is expected to draw huge numbers. It seems probable that Bishop Pachomious of Beheira will take on the role of Pope for an interim period of two months, by which time it is expected a successor will have been appointed.

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© Michael Marten is Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling and an Ekklesia associate. He is is also one of the organisers of the Christians in the Middle East network (http://www.cme.stir.ac.uk) and a contributor to the Critical Religion project (http://www.criticalreligion.stir.ac.uk/blog/). More on Dr Marten's work, background and publications history is summarised here

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