Death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III

When I was in Egypt in 1988, I did the regulation tourism things: the pyramids, the Nile, the temples and the Red Sea. But my 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 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.

Their 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 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 with 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 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 until the 19th dynasty of Albanian Muhammad Ali Pasha. Ali abolished Jizya and used the Copts 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.

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. 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 and 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.

Have yourself a very Orthodox Christmas

 Minus the Western commercial hoopla of 25 December, 300 million members of the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrated Christmas today. The birth of Jesus is celebrated on January 7 according to the old Julian calendar by the Russian, Serbian, Georgian and Jerusalem Orthodox Churches and Mount Athos monasteries. Unlike the Catholic Church where the Pope in preeminent, there are 14 autocephalous churches in the Orthodox community, though the mother church is Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the “first among equals”.
Photo: Orthodox priests lead a Christmas service at the Bosnian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo (Amel Emric / AP)
In Istanbul as in many places across southern and eastern Europe, Orthodox Christian worshippers plunged into chilly waters to retrieve crucifixes in ceremonies commemorating the baptism of Jesus. Hundreds from Istanbul’s now tiny Greek Orthodox community and Greek tourists attended the Epiphany ceremony of the Blessing of the Waters. About 20 faithful leaped into the cold Golden Horn inlet to retrieve a wooden cross thrown by the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Apostolos Oikonomou, a 40-year-old Greek man, clinched the cross. “This year I was the lucky guy,” he said. “I wish everybody peace and happy New Year.”Over 5,000 gathered at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ Our Saviour including outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife Svetlana. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, called on the congregation to withstand the “cult of hasty lucre”. Archpriest Sergius Zvonarev of the Moscow Patriarchate said the day was both a solemn ritual and joyous celebration, Zvonarev said the Russian Orthodox Church remained loyal to the Julian calendar which regulated church life and traditions for centuries. “It reveres these traditions as the entire civilised world used to live by them in the past,” he said.

Orthodox Christians gathered in Bethlehem in front of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the Church of the Nativity. Barely days after a fight between Christian sects over territorial rights in the church, the Mayor of Bethlehem Victor Batarseh said the theme of this year’s celebration was Palestine celebrates hope. “Our message in these days is love and peace to all especially in the Holy Land”, Batarseh said. Over 2,000 scouts from all over the West Bank held a parade through Bethlehem with their marching bands and bagpipes.

Many in Bethlehem say the best band is the Syriac Orthodox Scouts’ pipers. Bethlehem’s Syriac Orthodox community is proud to trace its roots to the ancient Aramean peoples and are among the few people left that speak the language of Jesus, Aramaic. The scouts were established in 1958 and became internationally successful in sports in the 60s and 70s. After the Oslo Accords, their pipers became President Yasser Arafat’s military band. One former band member said they were in Gaza playing the bagpipes for Arafat when the news of Rabin’s assassination was announced. “They thought it was a Palestinian who had killed him so they would not let us leave Gaza,” he said. Today they took centre stage in Manger Square.

In Egypt, Copts nervously celebrated the first Christmas in the post Hosni Mubarak era, as sectarian violence continued. US President Barack Obama used the occasion to call for the protection of Copts and other minorities. “I want to reaffirm the commitment of the US to work for the protection of Christian and other religious minorities around the world,” he said. The call comes after the military rulers cracked down on a Coptic march in October. Coptic Pope Shenouda III commended Islamist leaders, who attended the Coptic Church service. “We all celebrate together as Egyptians,” Shenouda said.

Glenn Beck forced to backtrack after attacking religions

American far-right television personality Glenn Beck has spent the last few weeks in the unfamiliar role of backtracking from earlier positions. Beck’s provocative and confrontational views on Fox News, internet sites and syndicated radio stations have made him a hero to conservatives especially since Obama came to power. He commands audiences of 2.3 million to his cable show making him as the New York Times said “one of the most powerful media voices for the nation’s conservative populist anger.”

However he took a step too far earlier this month. On 2 March Beck told listeners of his radio show they should “run as fast as [they] can” from any church that preached “social or economic justice” because those were code words for Communism and Nazism.As Amy Sullivan wrote in Time, Beck probably thought he was tweaking a few crunchy religious liberals who didn’t listen to the show anyway. But he was little prepared for the reaction he did get. As Sullivan puts it, “instead he managed to outrage Christians in most mainline Protestant denominations, African-American congregations, Hispanic churches, and Catholics–who first heard the term ‘social justice’ in papal encyclicals and have a little something in their tradition called Catholic social teaching.”

Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a network of progressive Christians, is calling for a boycott of Beck’s Fox News program. He said Beck perverted Jesus’ message when he urged Christians last week to leave churches that preach social and economic justice. Wallis says 20,000 people have responded to the boycott. “He wants us to leave our churches, but we should leave him,” Wallis said. “When your political philosophy is to consistently favor the rich over the poor, you don’t want to hear about economic justice.”

Peg Chamberlin, President of the National Council of Churches of Christ, was one of many religious leaders outraged by Beck’s views. Writing in Huffpo she said it was nothing short of a call for his listeners to disregard central tenets of their faith because they do not conform to his political ideology. “He is advocating that they abandon the full Gospel message in favour of a hollow idol, and he is doing so for worldly gain,” wrote Chamberlin. “His statements cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.”

This time the challenges are coming from his own side of politics. Mormon scholars in Beck’s own church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said he seemed ignorant of how central social justice teaching was to Mormonism. Philip Barlow, the Arrington Professor of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, said “A lot of Latter-day Saints would think that Beck was asking them to leave their own church.”

However Sarah Pulliam Bailey warns against getting carried away by the size of the reaction against Beck. Writing at Getreligion.org, she calls it a “sweeping generalisation” and said many conservative Christians were comfortable with Beck’s remarks. She said media were making out there was a wide chorus of criticism “when in reality (drumroll please) Jim Wallis is calling for a boycott,” she said. “I can’t help but wonder if we’d ever see a headline like “Christian Leader Calls for Rachel Maddow Boycott.”

One of the few voices of support for Beck was from fellow extremist Jerry Falwell Jnr, an evangelical leader in the mould of his controversial father. Falwell said those pastors who preach economic and social justice were “trying to twist the gospel to say the gospel supported socialism. Jesus taught that we should give to the poor and support widows, but he never said that we should elect a government that would take money from our neighbor’s hand and give it to the poor,” Falwell said. “If we all did as Jesus did when he helped the poor, we wouldn’t need the government.”

Social justice is a tenant of mainstream faiths promoted by respected religious scholars. When this was pointed out to Beck he issued a “clarification” on 12 March. He began by conflating social justice with big government and then launched an attack on his critics “They always change and confuse the language. Political correctness comes from the progressive movement,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who say ‘social justice’ and some people don’t mean Marxism. But others do, and you need to know, which is it?” But the criticism hurt. As Amy Sullivan said Glenn Beck has discovered the dangers of publicly practicing theology without a licence.

Atheism is apparently not anti-evolutionary after all

Last week The Times splashed a claim new research by a British psychologist found belief in God is intuitive and may be hardwired by evolution. The article included quotes from Bruce Hood, professor of developmental psychology at Bristol University, who said his research “shows children have a natural, intuitive way of reasoning that leads them to all kinds of supernatural beliefs about how the world works.” The article claimed human tendency towards supernatural beliefs explains why many become religious as adults, despite not having been brought up within any faith. It claimed scientists believe the durability of religion is partially because it helps people to bond. (pic adapted from original by stuartpilbrow)

The article was something of a simplification, not least with the words of Bruce Hood. Writing on his own blog two days later, Hood said he was misrepresented. Hood’s point, which he told The Times, was humans are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. “That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist,” he said. But Hood’s statements did not fit in with the “Born to Believe in God” angle the paper was pushing. His words were twisted and The Times’s angle was repeated by the Mail Online and the Telegraph.In the rush to prove religion was hardwired by evolution, the media glossed over what Hood actually said. He did not say humans evolved to believe in God. Instead, he agrees with Richard Dawkins religion is a cultural construct. However he doubts supernatural beliefs can be eradicated by education. The power of beliefs is strong and often is a positive force. Life is a balancing act between trusting our beliefs enough to act on them without being so certain about them that we could never ditch them. That predisposes the idea we act on fallible beliefs. For instance, we cannot wait for all the evidence to come in before we act on global warming.

Nevertheless belief is predicated on assumptions about how the world operates. This construct is central to all major religions and has been so ever since humans prayed for rain or sunshine. Absence of belief has been around just as long even if atheists were usually treated with scorn, or worse (the term comes from the Greek “atheos” meaning “deserted by the gods”). Dawkins says we have all deserted the ancient Gods and atheists have simply gone one God further.

But evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson believes atheism is a stealth religion. He dubbed Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens “the New Atheists” and said the movement forming around Dawkins in particular was a religion without supernatural agents. For the new atheists, faith is a heresy that must be stamped out. They are part of an old tradition that goes back two hundred years to when atheism split between those primarily concerned with the pursuit of truth and those driven by contempt of the faithful. For the latter the fact that citizens could worship their gods in peace supported by the state was an indefensible concession to superstition and prejudice.

Some Christians have gone on the counter-attack and have attempted to demolish atheism’s intellectual credentials. Among the best known is Alistair McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. McGrath’s book defines atheism not as a suspension of decision but as a principled decision to live and act on the assumption there is no God or any spiritual reality beyond what we know. He says it was inspired by Protestantism which encouraged people to think of a world in which God cannot be experienced. Atheism thrives when Christians get into power and abuse it. But says McGrath, the 20th century godless world of the Soviet Union eroded the imaginative potential of atheism.

Such arguments are unimportant to secular societies like Australia. The nation’s census doesn’t ask about atheism but the numbers of those who admit to “no religion” are low. From 1901 to 1971, the figure was almost negligible. It is rising steadily and is now 18.7 percent. Just 20 percent of adults participated in religious or spiritual groups or organisations in 2006. Materialism rules in this country though people may not admit it in census questions.

One category not on the census list is “soft cock atheist”. This odd category is what the author “Godless Gross” chose to describe himself in when writing in yesterday’s newly revamped National Times (though unnamed, it is reasonable to assume the writer is male). Gross said he represented a “wishy washy” strain of atheism easily swayed into theism if the right faith came along. The author also claims we are “a religious species” with 86 percent of people worldwide believing in some kind of God.

According to Max Wallace, head of the National Secular Society, the defining characteristic of secular government is separation of church and state. He says despite the US’s predisposition for creationism (noted again today by a new British film about Darwin which cannot find an American distributor), its government has a better separation than the constitutional monarchy of Australia. Religions get tax exemptions but atheism does not because it is not a form of supernatural belief. Wallace reminds us our government is a soft theocracy “but with a secular twist according to political contingency.” So which is worse, a soft theocracy or a soft cock atheist? God only knows.