In its full papal uniform, the body of late Pope Shenouda III remains on display at the Saint Mark Cathedral in Abbasseya so that mourners can bid farewell to an exceptionally influential patriarch, under whom the Coptic Church sought to remain the sole political and religious authority for Egypt’s Coptic minority.
In the midst of tears and weeping, a pressing question arises: Will the next pope be capable of filling the same role despite the brewing discontent that rocked the Coptic community in Shenouda’s last two years over the Church’s unwillingness to criticize a state that is widely viewed as “discriminatory” against nearly 8 million Christians?
“It is a moment of crisis for the Church,” said Georges Fahmy, a political expert with Arab Forum for Alternatives, a think tank in Cairo. “There is a turbulent political situation, and the Church has problems with the youth who rebelled against it.”
If the new pope does not endorse some elements of the discourse of Coptic revolutionary groups, “the Church will end up being isolated,” according to Fahmy.
With the renewal of sectarian tensions after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, some youth-led Coptic groups came into being to promote a revolutionary and confrontational discourse on Coptic rights and demands. The emergence of such groups has been seen as an act of rebellion against the clergy’s decades-long tradition of avoiding confrontation.
Throughout Mubarak’s tenure, the Shenouda-led church adopted a quiescent attitude with regard to the government, despite the recurrence of sectarian incidents that left dozens of Copts killed and many churches burned or destroyed and discrimination in the distribution of public sector jobs.
The late Pope swore allegiance to the deposed president and his ruling National Democratic Party. In the meantime, the Church had promoted within Coptic circles the argument that any regime change would lead to the rise of Islamists with anti-Christian views.
This logic stopped resonating with many Copts after January 2010, when six Copts were killed in a drive-by shooting in the Upper Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi. The attack marked a turning point for many lay Christians, who accused Mubarak’s government of complicity in sectarian attacks. In the meantime, they began hinting criticism of what they perceived as the Pope’s soft statements on the government.
By the end of the year, hundreds of Copts clashed with Central Security Forces who tried to halt the construction of a church in the poor neighborhood of Omraneya. The incident left one Copt dead and set the first precedent of violence between Mubarak’s police and Christians.
Coptic outrage reached its peak less than two months later when a bombing claimed the lives of at least 21 people outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers were coming out of the New Year’s Eve’s mass. For the first time, Copts took to the streets denouncing Mubarak’s rule, a clear deviation from the Church’s guidelines. During the January 2011 revolution, many Coptic youths pursued their rebellious approach by violating the Church’s orders not to engage in protests, which was held as an indicator that the ailing Shenouda was losing his political control over the Christian community.
The Pope’s loyalty to Mubarak continued until the end. During the 18-day uprising that unseated the dictator, Shenouda spoke on state-owned television expressing his full support for the regime.
Despite the disillusionment with the Pope’s performance in such crises, observers hold that the Pope’s charisma and long history kept even the most revolutionary Copts from turning fiercely against the highest religious authority.
“Shenouda had a long history. So there was always a red line that nobody could pass,” said Fahmy.
It might be more difficult for his successor to hide behind the same red lines.
“[Shenouda’s] disappearance will change the whole picture, no matter how much his successor is loved by Copts,” said Karima Kamal, a Coptic columnist and writer.
“The Pope had a long relationship with Copts that lasted through crises for more than 40 years...He had a unique prestige and he was very loved by Copts,” Kamal said, adding that not all potential candidates enjoy the same character traits.“The next pope will not have the same influence or control.”
Besides his charismatic character, Shenouda had derived further legitimacy from his imprisonment under former President Anwar al-Sadat. After he was ordained in 1971, Shenouda had adopted a critical discourse vis-a-vis Sadat's regime, which had empowered Islamist groups. In response, Sadat put him under house arrest in 1981 in a monastery in Wadi al-Natroun, as part of a larger crackdown on hundreds of political opponents.
The deceased Pope was not released until January 1985, almost three years after Sadat's assassination and Mubarak's rise to the presidency. Although he ceased taking similar critical positions against the new president, some experts hold that his persecution under Sadat had always boosted his heroic image and earned him the sympathy of most Copts.
On Saturday, Shenouda, 89, passed away after a long struggle with kidney problems and diabetes. While the Coptic Church’s bylaw states that any Coptic Egyptian over the age of 40 years old who has already led a monastic life for at least 15 years may hold the office of pope, there are speculations that three veteran clerics might compete for the post. Potential contenders are Bishop Bishoy, the Metropolitan Bishop of the Holy Metropolis of Damietta, Bishop Moussa, the general bishop and administrator for the bishopric of youth affairs and Bishop Youanis, who holds the post of assistant bishop and patriarchal secretary at the Patriarchal Residence in Cairo.
Besides Coptic rebellion, the new pope will be required to address Copts’ issues in Egypt’s turbulent transitional period, which has witnessed a steadfast rise of Islamist groups.
According to Fahmy, Copts expect the new pope to take firm stances against the new government, which might be predominantly Islamist.
Most Copts already feel alienated by the parliamentary results that showed the sweeping victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups. In the meantime, at least three potential Islamist contenders are engaging in the presidential race scheduled for May. At least two of them are perceived as holding anti-Christian inclinations.
“[Islamists] will not give the new pope the chance to hold a quiet tone. The new pope will have no other option but changing the Church’s quiescent discourse,” argued Fahmy.
Kamal held that the Church should not take any firm political stances but rather cease interfering in politics and play a purely religious role and let lay Copts fight for their civil rights by engaging in secular political parties and groups.
For years, Kamal has been one of many Coptic intellectuals who echoed demands that the Coptic Church cease meddling in politics on behalf of Christians or dictating certain political positions to worshippers. These intellectuals had always held that a full engagement of Copts in politics with fellow Muslims would ease sectarian tensions.
Yet, some other Coptic intellectuals do not expect the Church’s pervasive role to change until the social and political context do.
"I do not expect any radical change in the role played by the church," said Sameh Fawzy, a Coptic political commentator. "There were objective reasons as to why the Church had that role."
Fawzy cited the state's relinquishment of its social and economic duties as the reason why most Copts fell back into the Church for social safety networks. In the meantime, he held the autocratic nature of previous regimesas the main factor that led to Copts’ disengagement from politics and reliance on the Church for political orientation.
"If these variables are not addressed, the Church will keep playing the same role, no matter who is in charge," he concluded.
In the meantime, he held that the Church should not be expected to take radical stances vis-a-vis the government.
"Like any religious institution, the Church should be building consensus," he said. "It is only secular political leaders who can have an aggressive tone."
Bishop Bakhomious, the Beheira and North Africa Bishop was chosen by the Coptic Church’s Holy Senate to serve as the the Church’s Charge d’ Affairs until the 118th patriarch is elected.