Today, as political unrest and religious tensions loom in Egypt, Coptic Orthodox Christians there are mourning the death of their 88-year-old pope, who died Saturday from illness. After a funeral at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, the pope will be buried at St. Bishoy monastery 40 miles west of the city, where he was once exiled by former president Anwar Sadat.
Shortly before his assassination in 1981, Sadat cracked down on Christian leaders who raised concerns about religious discrimination and violence being committed by extremists in the name of Islam. Shenouda also earned his ire by advocating for the rights of Palestinians and opposing Sadat’s Camp David peace accord with Israel.
During his first year in banishment, Sadat denied the pope visitors. But Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, lifted the ban in 1985, and forged a strong relationship with Shenouda. During last year’s popular uprising that led to Mubarak’s ousting, Shenouda initially discouraged Coptic Christians from demonstrating.
The leadership vacuum in Egypt since Mubarak’s toppling has left Copts, a tiny religious minority in Muslim-dominated Egypt, feeling particularly vulnerable. Early last year, a bomb killed 21 worshippers at a church in Alexandria. In October, more than two dozen Coptic Christians and their supporters died as a result of conflict with the military.
Earlier this month, leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood visited the ailing pope, who suffered from lung cancer and diabetes. It served as a sign of the respect Shenouda commanded, but also an avenue toward calming sectarian tensions. Upon Shenouda’s death, Muslim leaders were among the first to offer condolences.
"Pope Shenouda was respected worldwide for his efforts to promote interfaith harmony and for his positive outreach to Muslims,” said a statement issued by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C. “We offer our sincere condolences to members of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church and to all those who, like Pope Shenouda, devote their lives to seeking peace, justice and reconciliation.”
President Obama called the pope “an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue,” who was committed to preserving Egypt’s national unity.
Shenouda, who was born Nazir Gayed, was elected pope in 1971 and served as the patriarch of the See of St. Mark, whom Copts believe founded their church in the first century. He visited Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in 1973 and was visited by Pope John Paul II in Cairo in 2000.
Years ago, an editor at the old Milwaukee Journal sent me to cover the construction of a Coptic Orthodox Church in the suburbs. There I met many families who spoke with passion for their faith and their church's historic roots in Egypt.
They spoke with special affection for the Coptic patriarch, known fondly as "Baba Shenouda" by his flock. Sadly, his passing has been marred by three deaths and dozens of injuries in stampedes outside the cathedral where mourners are crowded.
Church members' sense of loss is no doubt exacerbated by the sense of anxiety felt by the country's political and religious turmoil. Their future in large part will be determined by the ability of Shenouda's successor, who has yet to be elected, to navigate the troubling waters.