Let me be personal. Aged 88, and rather unwell for quite some time, I suppose I was prepared for the death (or ‘departure’ as the press releases described it) of this towering figure who grabbed the headlines for four long decades. However, no matter how expected the death of HH Shenouda III, I still couldn't help but feel that the world lost a man of faith who always held Christ in his heart and the Cross in his hand.
I first got to know Pope Shenouda - or Baba Shenouda as he was known all over Egypt - when I was Assistant General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches in Cyprus and he was one of the four co-Presidents representing the family of Oriental Orthodox Churches.
I remember it so clearly: we were having our General Assembly in Beirut and almost all the Middle Eastern church leaders were present at this major event in the life and witness of the Church. Suddenly, Pope Shenouda showed up with his retinue of bishops and the whole atmosphere changed when scores of Copts - ordinary men and women, young or old - rushed forward to kiss his hands and lie prostrate before him.
As a young man, I remember thinking that this was either an example of ‘over-the-top’ theatrics or a depth of faith that is not easy to find in our modern world. I recall looking at our own Catholicos Karekin II of Antelias (as he still was then) and he smiled at me and simply nodded his head. That twinkling nod from the Catholicos was telling enough for me, and it affirmed in my mind that what I was seeing was a genuine display of unconditional love that I have rarely witnessed elsewhere throughout my ecumenical ministry.
In fact, the last time I met Pope Shenouda was three short years ago in London with Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, the then Primate of the Armenian Church in the UK, and the Copts who had filled the huge cathedral were all clamouring to be blessed by this man who exuded a sense of charisma despite his awkwardness and somewhat ungainly demeanour!
Most people know how Bible-centred and exegetical the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church was and how he could easily speak for hours on end to his fellow church leaders as well as to audiences who came to listen to him every week. In fact, I have assisted at one of those Wednesday sermons in Cairo when he spoke for three hours about one single verse from Scripture (John 13:34-35) and where his message was one of discipleship and love of Christ. And much as we (at least in the West) are not accustomed to such long discourses, he had a way of drawing people into the heartland of his indomitable faith.
However, few are those who might also recall the harrowing times Pope Shenouda experienced during the late Anwar Sadat's presidency of Egypt when he was banished to St Bishoy’s desert monastery in Wadi Natroun for four years because he had objected to the president’s edicts and the way they affected his flock. Yet this banishment was not such a bad thing since this man was very much a monk at heart and he often retreated into the desert at difficult moments to pray, contemplate and renew his faith. But despite the hardships of his ministry, and the huge challenges surrounding him, he always managed to preserve a sense of humour and quick wit that were so personal but also so very charmingly Egyptian.
For the past year, Egypt has been undergoing the painful ructions of an uncertain revolution let alone the grave pitfalls of unclear change, not least in terms of Muslim-Christian relations. These are difficult times for everyone in Egypt and in the wider Middle East-North Africa. Almost everyone is apprehensive of what the future holds in store for the peoples of this biblical region. Many Christians are holding their breath.
So I hope the successor to Pope Shenouda - whoever he might be, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as the secular press would inevitably describe the choice - will manage to lift up the deep-rooted Christian faith that Egyptian Copts possess and will look outward in order to help enhance the sense of fellowship all Christians ought to seek across borders and continents in this global village we quaintly call Planet Earth. After all, let us not forget that St Mark, the apostle who brought Christianity to Egypt, was referred to as “evangelist”, “witness” and “martyr”, and these are three key characteristics that I believe we Christians need to weave together with love into our own lives - not only in Egypt but everywhere else too.
Pope Shenouda often repeated publicly that “Egypt isn't a country we live in, but a country that lives within us”. Today, I simply share with you a reflection on how I perceive the loss of such a man whose faith defined a country and whose actions - no matter how we deem them - affected many Christian men and women. So I do not think I overstate the case when I suggest that our Lenten season has become even more sober and perhaps - paradoxically enough - more meaningful with the departure of this man.
Asdvadz hokin lousavoreh and may he rest in peace …
© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian ). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net