Beirut (AsiaNews) - The death of Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Church for more
than 40 years, leads me to take stock of the life of this Church, its relations
with other churches, with Islam and Egyptian policy .
Shenouda III, born Abnub, Asiut province on August 3, 1923, named Nazir Gayyed
Rufa'il, studied history and archeology at Cairo University
and theology at the Faculty of Theology until 1946. He taught there for several
years, and in 1954 entered the monastery of Suryani (Dayr al-Suryan) which is
in the Nitria Scetis desert, about 120 kilometers from Cairo on the road to Alexandria.
This monastery is linked to that of Deir Anba Bishoy (Monastery of Abba
Bishoy). As Patriarch, Shenouda went on to choose all the bishops of the
dioceses of Egypt
from these two places.
In 1962 he was appointed Bishop
of Ecclesiastical Studies by the 116 ° Patriarch Cyril VI, and he took the name
Shenouda. Finally, 14 November 1971 the synod elected him patriarch of the
Coptic Orthodox Church, a year after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in
September of 1970.
In fact, the patriarch in the Coptic Church is always a monk, as well as a
bishop. And when choosing a layman to be a bishop, he must spend a few months
in a monastery, before being ordained a bishop.
As patriarch, Shenouda governed both under Sadat and Mubarak. During these
years he has given a very strong spiritual impulse to the Coptic Church through
his weekly general audiences which lasted for almost 40 years. Every Wednesday
there was an audience for more than an hour with questions and answers, and
discussions with the faithful. Each time there were several thousand attended.
Later, these were recorded on video and cassette and broadcast by the mass
He is also the author of 50 books
that touch on all religious questions, from a spiritual angle. He was a monk
who knew the tradition and the Bible by heart. He could quote chapter and
verse. He knew the spiritual literature and monastic life of the saints,
drawing on them in abundance in his sermons and writings. It was not a
theologian, with an advanced research in the fields of dogma, but he made a
major contribution to spirituality.
He also contributed to a renewal of the dioceses, founding many new ones and
downsizing exisiting ones. This allowed the bishops to have more daily contact
with the faithful for a more effective ministry. At the same time, some people
think that this was a move to elect and consecrate several bishops who were his
supporters for a majority in the Coptic Synod.
His fame as a bishop was already
great, it then grew with his election as Patriarch ("Baba Shenouda").
I met him when he was bishop: we worked together in the World Council of
Churches for Middle East (MECC). We always had a very good relationship, even
if we did not agree on everything. I was also in charge of the "Ecumenical
Youth Service" (YES) for young people of different denominations
The Patriarch loved to come for all occasions. To the very end, our
relationship was direct and friendly. He would say to me: "You are young,
you're like my son, hear what I have to say ...". He had great respect for
my studies on the history of the Church, though - he said - "we should not
implement everything that is in the tradition."
His views were constructive, very respectful of the difference between us.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that I did not belong to the Coptic Orthodox
Church. Within his won community, however, he was known for his authoritarian
This policy has however led to a
strengthening of the formation of the faithful in Egypt. Having consecrated very
young and learned bishops (35-40 years) all his disciples, he could spread his
vision across the country.
With the laity the situation was more delicate. Shenouda was conscious of
having the responsibility of all the Church and thus some of the laity were
his patriarchate vocations to the priesthood and religious life multiplied. He
expanded the pastoral care of students, asking young people to always have a
spiritual director, and to practice confession. The practice of communion was
also widespread, but only after confession. Sometimes there were priests who
before giving Communion to a young person, would ask him whether he had
confessed and with whom ... He has done so much for spirituality and devotion
in the Coptic Church, increasing the practice of the Sunday liturgy.
There were also conflicts with the laity, and differences of views with other
brothers in the
Relations with other Christian Churches
Relations with other churches were more problematic. He was never very warm
towards the Protestants. He said that "we must learn from the Protestant
Bible study," but was always wary
of collaboration. His relationship with Catholics was better.
In 1973 he visited Pope Paul VI and even signed the first official document of
agreement between the Catholic and Orthodox Church, in which it was agreed not
to carry out mutual proselytism. Proselytizing is an accusation that the
Orthodox Churches have often made against Catholics. The agreement provided
that if there were any cases, Shenouda would call Rome, which would intervene to remedy the
Once, in Upper Egypt, near
Dayrut, in an Orthodox village 300
km south of Cairo,
forgotten for years by the Orthodox bishop, they threatened him: "If you
do not come, we'll become Muslims." But before they came to the Catholic
church in the village nearby and asked to become Catholics. The priest and the
bishop of the diocese of Asyut
discouraged them, exhorting them to remain Orthodox. At a renewed threat that they
would become Muslims, the bishop relented and sent a Catholic priest to the
village. This fact, however, caused problems between Shenouda and Rome, which led to an
agreement: the Orthodox would find a solution for the village within six
months. After this period, if nothing happened, then the faithful - at least
some of them - would enter the Catholic Church. In itself there was no desire
to proselytize, but only the desire to help these Christians, who otherwise
would have become Muslim.
Things got worse between
Catholics and Orthodox after a few years after his election as Patriarch over
the rules he imposed on mixed marriages. In the east marriages between Orthodox
and Catholics are common and do not raise problems in families because the
faith is common, despite differences in the rituals and traditions. The
traditional use, throughout the East, is that marriage is celebrated in the
church of the groom, the children follow the tradition of their father, but it
is possible that agreements are made between them. In any case, the two parts
remain in their Christian confession. Shenouda decided that if there were mixed
marriages, the Catholic party had to be re-baptized into the Coptic Orthodox
Church. In practice, the Catholic means Catholic women. His theologian, argued
supporting his position for a while, has pointed out that patristic tradition
does not provide for a new baptism, but he, stubbornly, kept this rule until
It must be said that his priests
are often more open than he. He was a conservative regarding ecumenism and did
not make much progress toward unity among Catholics and Orthodox.
In 1984 he also criticized the Syrian Orthodox patriarch, Zakkha Iwas, because
he signed, on June 23, an agreement with the Catholic Church (with John Paul
II). The joint statement that it resulted in, was very advanced: it provided
freedom in marriage, communion with one another and even shared formation of
priests, and even today many Syrian Orthodox priests study in Catholic
seminaries and theological faculties.
When Shenouda heard about this
agreement, he criticized Zakkha, for having dared so much, without first
consulting him. It should be noted that the Syrian Orthodox, Copts and
Armenians are joined by a bond because they are pre-Chalcedonian Churches. His
Beatitude Zakka told him that their churches are sisters, but independent. In
addition, he noted that the same Shenouda had signed the 1973 agreement with
the Catholics without consulting the other two churches.
Relationship with Islam
In the relationship with Islam, Patriarch Shenouda made a lot of meetings with
the Imam of Al Azhar. He knew the Koran and the Arabic language: he even wrote
poems in Arabic. He could deal with the Muslims, without cedine ground on the dogmatic
aspect, he was rather careful not to provoke Muslims.
Although attacks against churches and killing of Christians and fundamentalist
violence continued during the period of his government, he managed to maintain
cordial relations with the Muslim world, but without compromise on important issues.
Relations with Anwar as-Sadat
Relations with the State have always been very delicate. He became
patriarch under Anwar Sadat. From the political point of view, Shenouda had a
very clear position on relations between Egypt and Israel. He was always against an agreement between the
When Sadat went to Jerusalem,
he gave his speech at the Knesset and launched diplomatic agreements, Shenouda
condemned this policy. Perhaps this move had tactical reasons: the Coptic
Church is a minority (it does not exceed 10% of the population) and Muslims
increasingly view Christians as allies of the West (and Israel). His
decision allowed him to escape the cliché, in alliance with a powerful
anti-Israeli lobby, still present in Egypt.
But Shenouda's position drove Sadat to put him under house arrest in the Anba
Bishoy Monastery in the Desert (Wadi an-Natroun) for four years, from September
1981 until the death of Sadat (assassinated October 6, 1985). Sadat even imprisoned
some bishops for the first time in the history of Egypt, in a tense situation that
lasted almost a year.
In addition, in order to rule, Sadat garnered support from the Muslim
Brotherhood, increasingly tough on Christians. We can say that the whole Sadat period
was very difficult for Shenouda.
Relations with Hosni Mubarak
When Mubarak came to power, 31 years ago, the situation changed. The patriarch
supported the president and vice-versa. The two made a personal agreement that lifted
the ban on the construction of churches. In Egypt, by law, a church may
be built only if they comply with 10 rules. But they are so stringent that it is virtually impossible build any. The
pact between Mubarak and Shenouda the agreement provided for a certain number of
church buildings each year. When it was made public it was criticised by
Muslims, but nothing more.
The agreement, however, presupposed that the patriarch would support all
decisions by Mubarak. When the Arab spring broke last year, many Christians were
in Tahrir Square.
But the Patriarch was reluctant to support the movement, because it became increasingly anti-Mubarak.
The problem of Christians in the Middle East
is always this: caught between two fires, between a dictatorship and
Our situation in the Middle East has always
been weak and the Coptic Church is an illustration of this: unable to envisage prospects,
initiatives, to engage in society and politics. The Coptic Church is often
closed in on herself, living in a ghetto to protect themselves and live in
peace. They do not try to change society for fear of not succeeding, being a
In the past it was different, 50 or 80 years ago it was much more alive. Then,
becaus eof teh deteriorating conditions of freedom, we hid in our monasteries, in
prayer, in the Church's inner life. Now, with the Arab Spring, we are in a
moment that has aroused so much hope of freedom for Christians and Muslims, in
rejecting a theocratic regime. Unfortunately it seems that we are returning to
where we started from.
The other problem is the Egyptian army. The army controlled Egypt since the days of Nasser,
for at least 60 years, and does not seem to want to relinquish power. Even
now they decide everything. Egypt is at a delicate crossroads: it could become
a military dictatorship or a fundamentalist regime. Precisely for this reason, many Christians
hesitated during the revolution.
The future of the Coptic Orthodox
Among the Coptic bishops there are very good personalities, who could take over
the leadership of the Coptic Church. Among these would I exclude Shenouda's
deputy, who was an executor of his decisions, but lacking in personality.
The Coptic Church remains strong in spirituality, in liturgical prayer,
fasting. The Copts have almost 200 days of fasting a year. And their fast means
that they do not take anything, no drinks, no food from midnight until the
earlier of 3pm the next day. And their meals are very light. This fast, lived
in union with Jesus Christ, strengthens the faith and the strength of the
Copts, to be able to resist in their identity.
The Copts do not show that they are fasting, but when Muslims realize this,
they were surprised in a positive way. The food is vegetarian, then, eggs,
cheese, milk, etc are also excluded. It must be said that somehow this religious
testimony of the Copts impresses Islamic people who often delineate the West
and Christians to atheism.
After the Arab Spring, we are at a new stage that needs new choices. Within the
Coptic Church more freedom should be given to the bishop, priests, laity: they
need a united but not dictatorial voice. They also need to engage more in
society, for the common good, politics, human rights. Coptic Christians are not
opposed to this, but do not promote this. But Christians have a very important
function, especially to restore dignity and value to the woman, who in Islam are
The relationship with the Muslims should be more active and vibrant: you can
not live side by side, without asking any questions. For example, in Egyptian
society Islam is publicized on the bus, in taxi. Christians must ask Muslims to
build a society that leaves room for all.
Another dimension is mission. In Egypt there is no mission because
of sociological conditions: Islam does not allow evangelization. But an urgent
and explicit testimony that would be good is working together with other
Christian denominations. We have a few: divided we are weakened even more.
Finally, we can only pray to ask God to illuminate the Holy Synod to elect a
successor strong in faith, open to the world and its needs and attentive to the
needs of the weakest in society at large.