Naqib's Daughter

Naqib's Daughter
North Carolina,
November 11
Born and raised in Egypt, educated at London University, immigrated to the United States in the eighties. Author of two novels, The Cairo House, about growing up in a political family in Nasser's Egypt, and The Naqib's Daughter, about Bonaparte's occupation of Egypt in 1798. A collection of short stories, Love is Like Water, addresses in part Arab Americans post 9/11. Also published nonfiction on Islam, Egypt, women in Muslim societies, and terrorism. Have taught at university and in journalism. An editor of South Writ Large, an online magazine of stories, arts and ideas from the Global and US Souths.


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MARCH 20, 2012 1:08PM

The Dead Pope Rises: Coptic Conundrum in Egypt

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Pope Shenouda's remains sitting in state

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?





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Thanks for this. My wife's oncologist is an Egyptian Coptic, and it was good to have some insight into the diverse nature of Egyptians religion and politics. I must say, tho, it's sad that humans can't learn the lesson about keeping them separate. When religion crawls into the gutter that is politics, it does itself more harm than good.
I was a fellow resident with a coptic christian. Wafa did not dwell on the interplay of religion and politics in Egypt, but he did relate that in his opinion, Copts were second class citizens because the Sunni majority controlled everything from who became head of a hospital department - Copts were not considered - to political appointments. This career limiting effect of being a Copt was the reason he emmigrated to the U.S. To his credit, and to lend credence to his story, he did become department head in a large California hospital. This is a critical turning point for Egypt's Copts. You stated the issue well based on my own limited insight. R
Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!
News you can't get anywhere else. r
Pope Shenouda had been at the head of his flock for forty years, longer than the thirty years Mubarak had ruled Egypt, and the anguish of the Coptic mourners over the past week reflected the sense of the loss of a father figure and leader, however aged and autocratic he might have become in later years.
Pope Shenouda had been at the head of his flock for forty years, longer than the thirty years Mubarak had ruled Egypt, and the anguish of the Coptic mourners over the past week reflected the sense of the loss of a father figure and leader, however aged and autocratic he might have become in later years.
I like the fact that a child draws the name out of a jar. (Being of a suspicious mind I would want to make sure that all three pieces of paper didn't bear the same name.)

I know that the relationship between the Copts and Muslims has been rocky at times. Do you see the election of a new pope to be a point of contention now, that might cause persecution of the Coptic Christians, or just one more factor in an already unstable political system that might influence the way things go, possibly giving more power to the militant Muslims?
That's a really nice piece there in many different ways, well-deserving of the EP.
Its a tricky business being in their position, if I hope that the Brotherhood will see that Copts are so much of a part of the fabric of Egypt that to have tensions increase serves zero purpose whatsoever, and of course vice versa too.
Thank you for this informative post. I once had two Coptic students along with 8 other Muslims, all from Egypt. They were the best students I had that year, serious learners, interested in the lives of their classmates, bright, engaged, and yet I do remember some coolness between these two groups. We have so much to learn. A noble and inspired leader he must have been. The world will miss him.