On 17 March Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Church, left us after a long illness. How is the Coptic community coping with this event?
It is a great moment of sadness not just for the Coptic Orthodox Church, but also for the other Christian communities of the country and for the Muslims too. Obviously it is the Coptic believers in the first place who are mourning, for they are the ones who have lost their religious guide. They have been gathering for two days around the body of the deceased pope in St Mark’s Cathedral near the Abbasseya Cairo district. The funeral is planned for tomorrow (Tuesday 20 March) at eleven. It will be attended by more than 2000 personalities representing the religious, civil, and military authorities, including the Shaykh of al-Azhar.
What has been the reaction of the civil authorities and of the Muslim institutions?
On Egyptian television the death of Pope Shenouda III was presented as the main news item. The satellite channels, including the non-Christian ones, placed the photo of the Pope in the background and continually showed different images of the chapel of rest and of the people waiting to spend a few moments with his body. All the speakers and journalists wore black jackets or black ties as a sign of mourning. The military authorities, represented by the chief of the army, granted special permission for the transfer of the body to the Convent of St Bishoy ¬¬¬where the Pope will be buried – placing a helicopter at the disposal of the Coptic Church. General Tantawi delivered a eulogy of the Pope and offered his condolences to the Christians. The Shaykh of al-Azhar declared that it represented a great loss for the whole Egyptian people.
Is it possible to make an assessment of the papacy of Shenouda III or is it still too soon for that?
Shenouda III had been in office since 1971 and so he had reigned over the destiny of the Egyptian Coptic community for more than forty years. His term of office saw highs and lows. However he had the great merit of having strengthened the position of the Copts in Egypt, and in particular their sense of Christian identity. He established catechetical course for priests, bishops, and the laity at large, while encounter groups were organised for young people, women, and children even in the smallest villages. He also trained priests and bishops to lead the Coptic communities of the diaspora in Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia.
What was his reaction to the revolution?
He refused to take up positions that were too clearcut or too radical. He was afraid that the young would be the ones to suffer the violence of repression. Consequently he chose to stay out of it all and refused to make public statements on the question.
How do you personally assess his stature?
He had a very charismatic personality, he was a fine-looking man. As I have said, he took great pains to improve the level of the Coptic community and especially in the field of education through Sunday schools. He strongly emphasised the fact that the Church must provide charitable services. He built a great number of convents, not only in Egypt but also in America and Germany.
Everyone – supporters and detractors alike – acknowledges the greatness of his achievement. His powerful personality compelled the respect of one and all, Christian and Muslim, and he was often invited to appear on television, especially at times of conflict between the communities, when he frequently played the role of pacifier and mediator.
How will the choice of his successor be made?
Two days after the official funeral the succession procedure will be commenced. It is a rather complicated one: the Egyptian Copts, like all the Eastern Churches including the Catholic Church, hold a synod of bishops tasked with electing a Patriarch. The bishops who have an eparchy (diocese) can vote but they cannot be elected. On the other hand, bishops who do not have eparchies (those having the oversight of a monastery) can be elected, as can priests or monks. For example, the predecessor of Shenouda III, Pope Cyril VI, had been a simple monk.
To begin with, there will be a meeting of the Synod with a committee made up of laypersons, Christian clerics, and individuals from among the Coptic intelligentsia. They will begin to collect ideas and suggest candidates. Following this they will proceed to elections. Finally, the three candidates who have obtained the largest number of votes will gather to celebrate mass together, and in the course of it a child will choose one out of three tickets bearing their names, and that one will be proclaimed Patriarch of Alexandria. Thus the choice made by the child will have expressed “the will of God”.
Is the procedure a long one?
That depends. The last election took eight months. But this time the process is expected to be over more quickly.
What functions and what effective authority will the future Pope have?
The Pope is invested with all possible and imaginable functions, in the best meaning of the term. He is not merely a religious and spiritual guide, he is also a moral and legal authority. His authority is not merely honorific, it is very real and concrete.
Are there favourites?
There are three or four persons who have worked in the entourage of Pope Shenouda III and who might be favourites, but nothing is decided. We must also take account of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Does the loss of Pope Shenouda mean even more pain for a Coptic Church that is already extremely stressed?
The Coptic Church is living through what must surely be a historic turning point. It is a moment of great disorder and uncertainty on account of the general situation in which Egypt finds herself and the particular situation of the Christian community. The loss of such a charismatic figure makes everything even more dramatic.
The next pope will bear a great responsibility. Shenouda III’s powerful personality and formidable presence enabled him to appoint the members of the Synod himself, but the future Pope will be called to work collegially with all the representatives of the community, both clerical and lay.
What is the role of the Egyptian civil authorities in the election of the Pope?
Once the new Pope is elected, the President of the Republic issues a decree confirming the nomination of the Coptic Pope. For this reason it is hoped that the election of the successor to Shenouda III will be completed before the presidential election, so as to allow the greatest freedom in the choice.
Can you give us a general overview of the present position of the Copts?
The greatest aspiration of the Coptic community, which is made up of ten million or so Egyptians, has always been to acquire full citizenship rights and to prevent its members from being considered second-class citizens. There are still far too many discriminatory laws that have never been abolished despite many promises. For example, the Copts have been waiting 32 years for laws that would permit them to build churches.
With the loss of Shenouda III they feel deprived of the representation they had with the government, for it was he who dialogued with the military and civil authorities. Moreover, with the rise of political Islam, the need to have a strong Pope will become all the more pressing. But at the same time it will be necessary for the new pope to take up positions that are more emollient than intransigent.