The death of Pope Shenouda, spiritual head of Egypt’s Coptic Church for four decades, threw millions of Copts into mourning, and was marked by the Egyptian government as a state funeral, attended by top political authorities and the Muslim religious establishment, as well as foreign dignitaries. Copts were given an official three day holiday in which to mourn, and thousands took the opportunity to besiege the cathedral where Pope Shenouda’s body was displayed in state, first lying in a coffin, and then, as if risen, propped up on a throne, in his most magnificent robes and miter, looking peaceful, if ashen and close-eyed. Such was the crush to catch a last glimpse of their ninety-year-old spiritual leader that two elderly Copts suffocated to death in the crowd.
While the heads of the Azhar, Islam’s oldest university and religious authority, paid their respects, and many Muslims called their Coptic friends to offer condolences, Egypt’s Sunni Muslim majority followed the proceedings with awe and curiosity. There is no equivalent figure to the pope as spiritual leader in Sunni Islam, which, in this respect, is more akin to Protestantism. The head of the Azhar University, the highest religious authority in the land, commands considerable but by no means universal influence, and is regarded by many as a political appointee, with supporters and detractors. Nor is he seen as representing his Muslim countrymen, whereas the Coptic Pope has come to represent his coreligionists. The Azhar Shayk's funeral would be a simple affair not much different than that of any other Muslim: the body washed and wrapped in white cloth and buried as rapidly as possible, on the same day or the next. The burial would be followed, within a day or two, by visits of condolences held in one of the major mosques of the city, at which one and all would be free to stop by and present their respects to family and close friends. Typically, men would receive in one part of the mosque and women in another.
If the spectacle of the deceased pope risen and sitting up in a bishop’s chair riveted Egyptians to their screens, the election of a new pope is similarly shrouded in arcane ritual. The council of bishops casts votes amongst themselves, and the names of the three top-polling candidates are placed in a box, from which a child draws one name, presumably under divine guidance; the bearer of that name becomes the new pope. The late Pope Shenouda the third was himself the second-ranked candidate in his election.
During his forty-year reign, Shenouda expanded the political power of his office to become a national figure, claiming to represent the Coptic community vis-à-vis both the Egyptian regime and foreign governments, while tolerating little in-house dissent among Copts. He oversaw the exponential growth of the Coptic Orthodox church in America, and in general reached out ecumenically to other churches as well as to the Islamic establishment. Popular in Egypt among many Muslims as well as Copts for certain patriotic stances, he fell afoul of Sadat and was exiled for four years in the Natron Valley Monastery in Egypt’s Western desert, where he was buried today. On the other hand, he consolidated his relationship with Sadat’s successor so that, at the time of the revolution, his diehard pro-Mubarak stand put him at odds with the younger generation of his base, who saw the deposed regime as complicit in the sectarian conflict it exploited to justify its draconian police state.
Dying at the ripe age of nearly ninety, after a long reign that spanned Nasser to post-Mubarak, Shenouda III leaves the Coptic community to ponder the succession and the conundrum of his legacy: the expanded role of the Coptic pope. If he is not only the spiritual head of his community but also its ‘national’ representative, does this not marginalize the Coptic community? At a time of the rise of Islamist parties in the Egyptian parliament, does this not exacerbate the danger of a polarization of the two communities? And given the extent to which personality shapes politics, will Shenouda’s successor have the clout and charisma to negotiate Egypt’s treacherous political waters today?