Why Pope Shenouda's Death Matters to Egyptian Protestants
Pope Shenouda, the controversial yet beloved head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, died Saturday after 40 years of leading and reforming the ancient Christian communion. His death complicates the uncertain position of Orthodox believers—who represent 90 percent of Egyptian Christians—now that Islamists have surged to leadership following Egypt's revolution last January.
Coptic Protestants respected and appreciated the pope.
"Shenouda was a pope of the Bible," said Ramez Atallah, head of the Bible Society of Egypt. "We are the fifth-largest Bible society in the world because [he] created a hunger for the Scriptures among Copts."
Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, described Shenouda's commitment to interdenominational understanding. "I have known him since before he was pope, and we served together on the Middle East Council of Churches. He would meet with us for hours and listen to our views."
Mina al-Badry, a young Protestant pastor in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya, admits tensions with the Orthodox Church but echoed praises of Shenouda. "He was a wise man who cared for the whole Egyptian church [including Protestants and Catholics]," said al-Badry. "Yes, there were times of denominational fanaticism on both sides, but he was the celebrated picture of all of Egypt's Christians."
Shenouda was particularly appreciated for his handling of sectarian tensions, according to Ashraf Atta, a Pentecostal pastor and teacher of theology. "[He] had the wisdom to resolve conflict during times of persecution," said Atta. "He was always willing to forgive and walk the second mile."
Yet the biggest challenge facing the church today is in the realm of politics. Shenouda provided leadership for Egypt's Christians, representing them on the national level.
"The choice of successor to Pope Shenouda is even more important than the choice of Egypt's next president, because it affects the people's faith," said Emad Azmi, head of the Alexandria School of Theology.
Rifaat Fekry, a Protestant pastor in the heavily Christian Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, agrees. "After the revolution, Egypt has been functioning in a fog," he said. "Egypt is lost. We are searching for both a president and a pope—bringing an even bigger crisis to the church."
This crisis is also internal. Especially after the revolution, Shenouda faced criticism for assuming a political role throughout his reign.
"The problem of Christians in Egypt is that they looked to the church to tell them who to vote for," said Fekry. "But Christians have the right to enter any party and to vote for whoever they want. The church has no right to select the voice of the Copts.
"We are not one bloc, nor should we be," he said.
Yet one Egyptian who might naturally sympathize with this position sees it differently. Sameh Saad, a youthful Coptic revolutionary activist, maintains a note of resignation despite his defense of the pope.
"There was no one else who could represent the Copts, and there is still no one within the political or social arena," said Saad. "In the coming years, Copts will enter politics and this will enable the church to return to its spiritual role.
"I do not want the church to speak into politics, but this was not [Shenouda's] choice," he said. "It was forced upon him."
Knowing well the revolutionary frustrations that young Copts have with the church, the state, and Islamists, Saad is pessimistic.
"We have lost [Shenouda's] wisdom," he said. "Many challenges will come our way, and I fear there will be no one to contain the Copts' anger."