When I was in Egypt in 1988, I did the regulation tourism things: the pyramids, the Nile, the temples and the Red Sea. But the one thing I regret was the thing I did not do which was to take up an offer. At Aswan a Coptic taxi driver befriended me. I cannot remember his name but I do remember he asked would I go home and meet his family. I turned him down either out of suspicion or because I wanted to spend more time at the poolside bar.
It was a shame because I would have learned a lot more about Copts and their Orthodox Christianity inherited from Pharaonic Egyptians. I had blithely assumed Egypt, or officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, was a Muslim country but as my taxi driver reminded me, 10 percent were not. He also told me the leader of that 10 percent, some eight million Copts, was a Pope, just like the more famous one in St Peter’s.
The leader was Pope Shenouda III and he died on Saturday in Cairo after 40 years on throne, aged 88. Shenouda will be buried at St Bishoy Monastery of Wadi al-Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent time in exile. President Anwar Sadat banished Shenouda to the Monastery in 1981 after he criticised the Sadat government. Shenouda was an outspoken critic and a thorn in Sadat’s side. He berated him over his handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Shenouda was the 117th pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Tradition says the Church was founded by St Mark but its history is traced back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The ‘Chalcedonian Definition’ defined Jesus as having a separate manhood and godhood. Still central canon to the Catholics and most Orthodox Churches, it was rejected by Alexandria. It was also in Alexandria where the concept of a “pope” first developed, long before Rome stole the idea. Deriving from the Greek word πάππας (pappas), the first man to carry the title was Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Heracleus who died in 249.
In 451, the Egyptian population followed Pope Dioscorus in rejecting Chalcedon and the Coptic Church was born. Coptic was the language they spoke, grammatically close to the hieroglyphic Late Egyptian. The Copts were hated by the Byzantines who saw them as heretics. There was a brief interregnum of Persian conquest by the Sassanids before the Muslims conquered Egypt in 642. The religion was left undisturbed on condition they pay Jizya to the new rulers. The new tax slowly took its toll though conversion to Sunni Islam would take three centuries.
Copts became second class citizens suffering petty discrimination in their own country until the 19th dynasty of Albanian Muhammad Ali Pasha. Ali abolished Jizya and saw their value as an administrative caste. Ali emulated the British divide and conquer strategy of raising the profile of a despised minority. The Copts thrived and started their own schools of education. A 20th century Diaspora took the faith to every continent.
Nazeer Gayed Roufail was born into the faith on 3 August 1923, the youngest of eight children. He grew up in the ancient Nile settlement of Asyut, the Egyptian city with the highest Coptic concentration. Here, a traveller in 1918 wrote, “the wealthy Christian families have built themselves palaces and made gardens by the river side – The domes of the Coptic Cathedral and the minarets of the Mosques may be seen in the distance”.
Roufail was active in Sunday School and went to Cairo University, graduating in history and later the Coptic Theological Seminary. He retreated to the Nitrian Desert where he joined the ascetic life of the Syrian Monastery under a new name of Father Antonios el-Syriani. The Monastery had already supplied one Coptic Pope in the 15th century and from the early days el-Syriani was marked out as a special candidate to repeat the feat. For six years he lived as a hermit before being ordained as a priest.
In 1962 Pope Cyril VI made him bishop of Christian Education and President of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. Cyril also gave him a third name: Shenouda for St Shenoute the Archimandrite, the most renowned saint of the Copts who died aged 118. The modern Shenouda revolutionised the seminary and tripled the intake of students. His influence ruffled Cyril’s feathers causing a reprimand when Shenouda argued bishops should be elected. It would not be his last fight over democracy.
In March 1971, Cyril VI died and Shenouda was enthroned pope on 14 November. A year earlier Anwar Sadat had inherited political power of Egypt and was keen to flex his muscles. The Six Day War with Israel in 1967 halted Coptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a situation that lasted for 11 years. When Sadat brokered the Camp David agreement with Carter and Begin, he hoped the Copts would lead the return of Egyptian travel to Israel. However Shenouda decreed a papal ban on Coptic visits to Israel in 1979. “From the Arabic national point we should not abandon our Palestinian brothers and our Arabic brothers by normalising our relations with the Jews,” he said.
Shenouda’s inconvenient pro-Palestinianism irked Sadat as did his support of suicide bombers. In 1981, Sadat sent Shenouda back to the Nitrian Desert where he had lived as a hermit. Sadat was assassinated later that year and on 2 January 1985 his successor Hosni Mubarak reversed the decree. Pope Shenouda came back to Cairo to a hero’s welcome celebrating the Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Shenouda expressed forgiveness to those who wronged him. “All Copts open their hearts to their brothers, the Muslims,” he told the congregation.
However more extremist Muslims were not prepared to open their hearts to their Christian brothers. In the predominately Christian village of El-Kosheh in 2000, sectarian riots led to a shoot-out in which 21 Christians were killed. When the judge blamed Coptic incitement and acquitted most of those accused, Shenouda spoke out in rare public criticism. “We want to challenge this ruling. We don’t accept it,” he said. But Copts were on the outer losing positions of influence with only one percent of MPs.
Worse came after Mubarak was overthrown in the Arab Spring. For all his faults, Mubarak was a sometime protector of the faith and allowed them religious freedoms including the right to repair their churches to live broadcasts of Easter services and he punished Islamists who persecuted them. When he was deposed, over 100,000 Copts fled Egypt, mostly to Canada. The killing began with a church bombing during a 2011 New Year’s Eve mass that left more than 20 dead and dozens wounded, followed by another deadly attack during the Coptic Christmas a week later. Islamists called them infidels and accused them of being Western spies and traitors stockpiling arms to secede from the country.
Shenouda was the peacemaker, and regularly met Muslim leaders to ease tensions. He was revered among Copts and popular among many moderate Muslims who respected him as a survivor. But the strain eventually told. He flew regularly to the US this year for medical treatment and died on Saturday of lung and liver complications.
His death is a massive blow not only to eight million Copts but the 80 million Egyptian Muslims he leaves behind. A strong voice of moderation in a troublesome time, his absence will leave a huge void and may exacerbate the trend of Copts to leave the country. The loss of Egypt’s Copts would not only be tragedy for the millions of refugees, but also one for those left behind. Like my taxi driver in 1988, the Copts form much of the nation’s professional and business class. The loss of their expertise could be a fatal blow to Egypt’s faltering economy.