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Why Pope Shenouda's Death Matters to Egyptian Protestants

The Coptic 'pope of the Bible' was controversial yet beloved.

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."

Hany Hanna has been labeled the "Preacher of the Revolution" for leading Christian prayers and praise songs from the stage at Tahrir Square. He sees post-revolution promise for the Orthodox Church as well as Coptic participation in society.

"It is a very difficult time because of Pope Shenouda's death," said Hanna. "But it is good for the church to engage with new leadership, as it has been hampered during the pope's extended illness."

Hanna notes that many Coptic Christians are now involved in political parties and revolutionary groups. Still, Atallah warns that those who look to resolve Coptic issues through greater Western-style political participation may be misreading the culture.

"Middle Eastern politics is not like in America," said Atallah. "Success depends on who you know and how you relate to them.

"When Egyptian leaders made decisions about Christians, they took into consideration the opinion of Shenouda, not only because of his position but because they were friendly with him," he said. "At this time, [Coptic] Christians don't feel as if they have anyone to represent them."

However, Atallah believes this will open up new leadership opportunities for Protestants.

"We will suffer from the loss of Shenouda's wisdom, but Protestant pastors will likely have more say [with the government]," he said. "They have been nurturing ties with many, especially the Muslim Brotherhood."

Baiady hopes the next pope will be able to fill Shenouda's shoes. "We pray God will elect the right man to succeed Pope Shenouda and keep the unity of the church, with other denominations and with non-Christians."

Fawzi Khalil is a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Presbyterian Church, located near Tahrir Square. He believes no comparison should be made between Shenouda and his successor.

"God has determined the times and seasons, and appointed Shenouda in his wisdom," said Khalil, whose church is the largest Protestant congregation in the Middle East. "God will not leave us as orphans, and in a few years we will speak of the new pope as was spoken of Joshua after Moses, and Elisha after Elijah. Our Lord will always raise new leaders."

Jayson Casper is a writer with Arab West Report and blogs regularly at A Sense of Belonging.

Related Elsewhere:

See also Christianity Today's article on Shenouda's life and death.

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of Pope Shenouda and Egypt's Christians includes:

Reviving an Ancient Faith | Two strong-willed reformers bring Coptic Orthodoxy back to life. (Dec. 3, 2001)
Egypt's Christians After Mubarak | They were protesting a church attack when the Tahrir Square demonstrations began. Political change likely won't undo deep tensions with Muslims. (Feb. 11, 2011)
Do Egypt's Evangelicals Get Along with the Coptic Orthodox? | More than they used to, say observers and insiders. (Feb. 14, 2011)
Church of the Martyrs | Copts thrive in the face of bloody carnage, legal restraint, and discrimination. (Aug. 11, 1997)

Christian History has more background on Egypt's Coptic church, including Shenouda's namesake, a powerful abbot famous for confronting the political leaders of his day.

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