03/21/2012 12:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Replacing Pope Shenouda III Entails, And The Difficult Task Of Representing Egypt's Coptic Christians


Sacred art from the Monastery of St. Bishoy, Wadi Natrun, where Pope Shenouda will be laid to rest.

Pope Shenouda III, who presided over Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church since his ascension to the patriarchal throne of St. Mark in 1971, died on 17 March at the age of 88. News and deeply moving images of tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of mourners amassing outside of the Coptic Cathedral in the Cairo district of al-'Abbasiya have since steadily streamed out of Egypt. It is clear that the Coptic Orthodox community is now experiencing a profound sense of loss, mingled with heightened anxiety for their future.

This is all happening, of course, as Egypt continues to undergo a period of distressing socio-political upheaval, with no end to the turmoil in sight. In light of all this, the loss of Pope Shenouda and the appointment of his eventual successor are certain to highlight key issues of the Coptic plight in the coming months, but few of them will be as important to the Copts' long-term prospects as that of their representation in broader Egyptian state and society.

Given his dedicated conservatism and his failing health in recent years, it may be hard for many to imagine that Pope Shenouda was in many ways a "patriarch of the youth." The period of his leadership, in fact, was one of astounding revitalization to the Coptic community. Before he was patriarch, the young man then known as Nazeer Gayed played a crucial role in the "Sunday School Movement" in the 1930s and -40s, which helped to forge a newly reinvigorated sense of identity among upcoming generations of Copts. Under his vision for the Church, monasteries -- an institution that the Copts introduced to the world 1600 years ago -- found themselves overflowing with novices for the first time in centuries, even as hundreds of new churches were planted overseas to represent the Copts' quickly expanding diaspora. He even reached out to the Coptic youth by personally leading a weekly Bible Study and Q&A session at the cathedral in al-'Abbasiya, which remained wildly popular until his declining health prevented him from continuing.

It is also important to note that all of this growth within the Church took place against the backdrop of Egypt's struggle with Islamic extremism, which erupted in the late 1970s and reached its culmination in the mid-1990s. This growth persisted despite Egypt's infamous and deepening political corruption and authoritarian order, which only partly fell in 2011. And it continued to thrive despite the Copts' persistent struggle with discrimination, outbreaks of anti-Christian violence, and growing tensions with an increasingly conservative Muslim majority and an unsympathetic (at times complicit) regime. The worst of this has been most evident in the last several years, and the revolution has so far only exacerbated rather than alleviated these harsh realities.

Pope Shenouda's time in the See of St. Mark was not without its controversies, of course. He banned his Coptic Orthodox followers from going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem as long as it remained occupied by Israel, a decision that raised eyebrows abroad while mostly garnering praise at home. For that pronouncement and other political stances, he incurred the wrath of Anwar Sadat during the latter's spiral into political paranoia and repression, for which the Pope was put under house arrest in 1981 at the Monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi Natrun (where he is to be laid to rest).

Pope Shenouda also drew criticism for his acquiescence to the Mubarak regime, a charge that only intensified in 2011 when he refused to endorse the uprising that eventually overthrew Hosni Mubarak. He firmly resisted calls for the legitimization of divorce, a singular but divisive issue among some Copts who have argued for a reversal of the Church's stringent tradition. Finally, his same vision for the Church that brought significant renewal also presumed him to collectively represent all of Egypt's Copts, and he often spoke on their behalf despite the considerable diversity of their political perspectives.

In a sense, then, Pope Shenouda came to personify the collective struggles of the Copts -- and so his death has likewise been felt especially deeply by the community as a whole. And yet, with considerable and genuine respect to his memory and legacy, it is exactly the tacit approval of this close identification of confessional leadership and collective identity that must now change as the Copts close this chapter of their history and tradition and forge ahead into largely unknown territory.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is now tasked with choosing its new leadership, and all of Egypt's Christians face an uncertain future in light of the nation's still-suffering state of public security, its rule of law deficit, and the rising authority of Islamists in Egyptian governance. It is clear that the Copts now need to unite more than ever. But it is also imperative that they seek greater rights, and not as a community that clings to an outdated sectarian order, held over from the Ottoman millet system and thrust upon them by Egyptian state and society. Instead, the Copts must demand, with every means at their disposal, a new order based on full and equal citizenship under a revised constitution. Egypt's existing socio-political order already consistently deal with the Copts as a collective entity, permanently conceived as an internal "Other"; it will be impossible for this to change as long as the Copts themselves -- and their leadership -- continue to willingly surrender to this status quo.

The Copts' real hope does not lie in the maintenance of such a collective order that allows one ecclesiastical head to speak for all, regardless of the capabilities of the new patriarch. Rather, an improvement of their lot will only come through their effort as a community comprised of individual Egyptian citizens, unified by their faith but steadfast in their demands to be recognized as full and equal Egyptian citizens, with legal rights, personal liberties, and civic responsibilities identical to those of their Muslim compatriots.

Islamists may yet pull Egypt into a state dominated by the application of a rigid version of sharia, and the Copts will fare far worse under this if they begin such a future resigned to remaining second-class members of a dhimmi collective rather sharing in the national project as Egyptians. It's quite enough that most Islamist members of Egypt's new parliament -- particularly those who do not ascribe to the wasitiya (centrist) movement's more tolerant approach to citizenship -- would already choose that submissive role for them.

May the next patriarch to assume the throne of St. Mark over the Church of Alexandria come to preside not over a group of Copts merely obligated to live in Egypt, but rather over a community of full Egyptian citizens who are also proud to call themselves Copts. And in light of this, may Pope Shenouda's passing serve as a reminder to his followers: "Hold your head up high, you are a Copt!"