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Who Will Greet Pope Shenouda?

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This place is impossible to describe because it's unique and defies imagination. Roughly speaking, it is a vast garden full of large luxuriant trees and flowers of exquisite beauty that sway in a breeze of unrivalled freshness. The garden has a round gate garlanded with flowers and in front of it stands a handsome man with a beard, wearing a gown of dazzling white and with a strange light radiating from his face. Dispersed throughout the garden are human beings showing signs of happiness and joy. From time to time, the man goes to the gate to greet newcomers.

Yesterday the man stood up to welcome Pope Shenouda III, who walked towards him, upright and sprightly. All the wrinkles were gone from his face, his back was straight, he was free of his aches and pains and his hair had turned quite black again, as if he had reverted to his twenties. The man bowed and said, "Welcome, Your Holiness. It's an honor."

The Pope looked at him in surprise and said, "Hello, my son. What's your name?"

"I'm the guardian angel."

"How did you know I was coming?"

"I know everything about our guests because I'm in charge of receiving them. Please follow me."

The guardian angel went ahead, followed by Pope Shenouda. They walked down a corridor between the trees, lined with rows of colored flowers. At the end of the corridor the pope was surprised to find four people standing smiling and waving as if they had been waiting for him to arrive. He noticed that one of them was a sheikh in a turban wearing a caftan. The Pope waved at him warmly. His hand was stronger now that he had fully regained his old vigor. The guardian angel stood between the Pope and the well-wishers, and said in a cheerful voice, "All our Egyptian guests wanted to have the honor of welcoming you. But we chose these four as representatives of them all."

The sheikh stepped forward and shook the pope's hand. "Peace be upon you, Your Holiness," he said. "I'm Emad Effat, the Azhar sheikh they shot dead during the sit-in outside the cabinet officers."

The Pope's smile spread and he shook the sheikh's hand with enthusiasm. Then a young man came forward and said, "It's an honor, Your Holiness. I'm Alaa Abdel Hadi, a student at the Ain Shams faculty of medicine. They shot me dead at the cabinet offices a few days before I was due to graduate."

Alaa stepped back two paces and a third young man came forward, bowed and kissed the Pope's hand.

"I'm Mina Daniel. They shot me in the Maspero massacre."

The Pope made the sign of the cross, and then the fourth young man came forward. "Your Grace, They ran me over with the armored car at the Maspero. My name's Michael Musaad." The Pope made the sign of the cross again, and his face showed signs of anguish. "I'm happy to be with you," he said. "Now you've learned that martyrs stay with the Lord and never die."

The angel signed to the martyrs and they sat down on a bench, while the Pope sat next to the angel on a bench opposite. Sheikh Emad smiled, "We Muslims believe that martyrs never die, but live on, sustained by the Lord."

The guardian angel smiled and said, "The martyrs here live in perpetual bliss, thank God. But I often wonder why there are so many Egyptian martyrs came up here, when Egypt hasn't fought a war for forty years."

"That's a question that should be put to Hosni Mubarak and the military council," said Michael Musaad.

They all laughed and Sheikh Emad said, "Did you know, Your Holiness, that all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, were sad when you died. I saw the cathedral this evening. It was a truly awesome sight."

"Do you watch television here?" asked the pope.

The guardian angel laughed, "Our guests here don't need television. They just need to think about something and their minds visualize it clearly. If you think about the cathedral now, you'll see it in your mind's eye."

The Pope shut his eyes and thought about the cathedral. He saw tens of thousands of Egyptians who had come to have a last look at his body. He opened his eyes and said, "God bless you all. Egypt has always been one country and one people."

"Your Holiness," said Alaa with enthusiasm, "We praise God for the comfort we live in here. But we follow events in Egypt and are saddened. The revolution for which we gave our lives is being obstructed."

Sheikh Emad nodded in agreement, "It's now been almost two months since the People's Assembly was elected. It's clear that the members are incapable of doing anything without the approval of the military council. If things remain as they are, the People's Assembly will be like Mubarak's parliament, just a talking shop, a way to numb public opinion and a tool in the hands of a despotic executive."

"What do you expect," replied Alaa scornfully, "when the speaker drives around in a bulletproof BMW while half of Egyptians live in slums under the poverty line?"

Pope Shenouda sat listening to them, without speaking. "If you don't mind, Your Grace," interjected Mina Daniel. "You taught us to be candid and brave. Would you allow one of your flock to ask you a difficult question?"

"Go ahead, my son," responded the pope.

Sheikh Emad and Alaa got up to leave but the pope asked them to stay. "You are Muslims but I am your father just like I am their father. I have nothing to hide from you. Speak, Mina, I'm listening."

"I died and many other young people died too in the Maspero massacre. Then we were surprised to see members of the Military Council, who were responsible for the massacre, coming to pay their condolences in the church. Why did you receive them, Your Grace?"

"Oh Mina, my son, the church is open to everyone because it is the house of God. And Christ also taught us love and tolerance."

"Your Grace, the military council bears prime political responsibility in the transitional period. More than three hundred people have been killed in a succession of massacres -- at Maspero, in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, at the cabinet offices and then in Port Said. Why didn't the church take a clear position demanding the military council put on trial those responsible for these massacres?"

The Pope said nothing for a moment and looked as though he were choosing his words. Then, slowly, he began to speak. "Mina, my son, when I was your age I was just as enthusiastic as you and maybe more so. But as I grew older I learned how dangerous it was to make decisions when one is angry. Do you think I didn't mourn for my children who died in all those massacres? Do you think I wasn't angry when I saw Egyptian women dragged along the streets by Egyptian soldiers? By Christ, I swear that the image of that woman who was dragged along the road, stripped of her clothes and trampled on is still vivid in my mind."

"But Your Holiness didn't speak out to demand that those responsible for all these crimes be put on trial."

"Sometimes silence is more eloquent than words," said the Pope.

"You promised you wouldn't get angry with me, Your Grace."

"Speak, Mina."

"Your Grace, you were always thanking and praising Mubarak, although he was tyrannical and corrupt. Why were you always praising his son Gamal, who wanted to inherit Egypt as if it were his father's estate?"

The atmosphere was slightly tense and the guardian angel said, "I think we should leave His Holiness the Pope now and let him rest."

The Pope raised his hand in protest, "I'm not tired. Listen, Mina. You're only responsible for yourself. You chose revolution and paid the price with your life and became a martyr. My decision doesn't just affect me. Every position I take affects millions of Copts and Muslims and the whole of Egypt. I'm often compelled to take positions I don't like but they are necessary and inescapable."

Mina jumped in and asked, "Can I assume from that, Your Grace, that you support the revolution?"

"Of course, my son, when people demand freedom and justice the church must support them." The pope stopped a moment, laughed and then continued. "Speak, Mina, I can see in your eyes that you have a question. You want to ask me why I didn't announce support for the revolution from the beginning. The answer, as I said, is that I have to weigh every word I say. Do you think I'm not aware that thousands of Copts took part in the revolution? Do you think I didn't know of the dozens of priests who joined the revolution and said mass in public squares? I knew and I was praying for your sake."

Alaa interjected, "Allow me, Your Holiness: The Muslim Brothers allied themselves with the military and have turned parliament into an impotent facade. Now, in violation of the constitutional declaration, they have taken control of half the seats in the constitutional committee and they're going to draw up a constitution made to measure for the Brothers and the Military Council. After that they'll install a president who obeys the Council. I had hoped that Your Holiness would speak frankly about all that."

The Pope laughed. "It's too late," he said. "If I spoke now, no one there would hear me."

They all laughed. "I had hoped," he continued, speaking seriously now, "that the revolution would restore to Egyptians their dignity and protect their right to life. But then I found people being killed after the revolution just as they were before. Please be optimistic and don't give in to frustration. The dead will not have died in vain. The revolution will triumph and those responsible for all these crimes will go on trial. History teaches us that revolutions are never defeated. They may be obstructed and they may lose their way but in the end they are bound to triumph.

After a moment's silence, Mina asked shyly, "Forgive me, Your Grace, if I went too far in what I said."

The Pope smiled. "I can't get angry with you," he said calmly. "God knows how much I love you. I thank the Lord that I'll be staying here with you and I'll remind you of this conversation one day soon. From here you'll be able to see Egypt as it sets out into the great future it deserves."