“Egypt isn’t a country we live in, but a country that lives within us.” So said Egypt’s late Coptic Pope Shenouda III, in one of his better-known public statements.
After heading Egypt’s Coptic Church since 1971, Shenouda passed away quietly on Saturday, putting millions of Christians into a state of mourning. A soft-spoken man known both for his quick wit and strong sense of values, the pope was beloved by both Egypt’s Christians and Muslims.
Since the revolution, Egyptian Christians have had to struggle with relentless challenges, with their entire community feeling besieged and rampant fears for the future.
Recent years have not been kind to Egypt’s Copts, with many serious grievances remaining unresolved. Many Christians feel the pope has departed this world at the time they need him the most. And they wonder: will the new pope be able to brave these tests?
Big shoes to fill
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that will face the new pope is the fact that he will follow in the footsteps of one of the most influential Christian figures in recent Egyptian history. Shenouda, who led Egypt’s Coptic Christians for the past forty years, was a man of considerable charisma. His books, speeches and traditional Wednesday sermons at the Abbasiya Cathedral had all helped unite the Christian faithful in the face of the many obstacles seen in recent decades.
Under his tutelage, the Coptic Church became not only a regional but an international institution. He built churches across Africa, including in Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and built branches of the Coptic Church in both the US and Canada. He also founded the first Coptic Orthodox Church in South America (in Sao Paolo, Brazil), and the second in Bolivia.
When he assumed the papacy in 1971, there were only four churches in North America. There are now roughly 100.
“The new pope will face many challenges because of the instability Egypt is facing right now,” says Egyptian political analyst Sameh Fawzy. “But the biggest challenge will be finding someone who can fill this great man’s shoes.”
“Pope Shenouda had a knack for administering church affairs – not just in Egypt, but regionally and internationally,” Fawzy added. “He was able to do this due to his amazing strength of character and his ability to draw people to him. Whoever replaces him must be able to follow in his footsteps – and this won’t be easy.”
One of the issues the new pope will no doubt have to deal with is the thorny issue of divorce.
The Coptic Church only allows Christians to annul their marriage in cases of adultery. Any Christian granted a civil divorce is not permitted to remarry in the Coptic Church. And if they remarry in another Christian denomination, the Coptic Church does not recognise the union.
Despite pressure from much of its flock, the church under Shenouda had remained steadfast in its opposition to divorce, stressing that it was only abiding by Biblical injunctions: “What God has joined together let no man put asunder,” the New Testanment states in Matthew 13:44.
The church’s refusal to budge on the issue led many unhappily married Copts to convert to other Christian denominations or abandon Christianity altogether and embrace Islam, which allows divorce.
For years, the Coptic Church abided by the so called “1938 regulations,” which allowed Christians to file for divorce for nine reasons, one of which was “irreconcilable differences.” During this period, Christians desiring divorce had to wait a long time, but were ultimately granted the divorce. The law also allowed remarriage without express permission from the church.
After Pope Shenouda came to power, he immediately expressed his distaste for the regulations and quickly initiated procedures to change them. In 2008, he finally succeeded in limiting the grounds for divorce to adultery only.
The decision caused a public outcry among many Copts, who demanded that the church revert to the 1938 regulations. In April of last year, a group of Copts began a movement called “The Right to Live” to demand the right to divorce and remarry.
In September, the group took the controversial step of resigning from the Orthodox Church. According to Egyptian law, when a citizen formally leaves a religious community and does not join another, Islamic Law is applied, which in this case means that the Copts in question can obtain divorces and remarry if they wish.
“We made this decision to eliminate any pressure from the Coptic Church and leave the decision to the state,” says movement founder Ayman George.
Since then, about 4,000 Copts have left the church and filed lawsuits in Egypt’s Family Court for divorce.
“We now hope that the solution can be found in civil law through the family courts,” George explained. “However, Egyptian judges aren’t used to the idea of Christians of no formal denomination, and are still struggling to decide on these cases.”
George, for his part, hopes the new pope will adopt a more lenient position on the divorce issue.
“We never had a problem with Pope Shenouda. He was a great and wise man,” says George. “Our problem was that the church refused to grant divorce. Our only demand is that they change the law or at least revert to the 1938 regulations.”
“This issue has caused so many divisions within the Coptic Church,” he added. “It’s the reason why several Coptic women converted to Islam. It’s a huge problem and we only hope it will be resolved soon.”
Coptic lawyer Nabel Ghabrial, however, doubts the new pope will make the sought-for changes.
“The 1938 law was originally drafted by a secular person,” explains Ghabrial. “Since it was applied, the church has repeatedly filed complaints against it because it violated the laws of the Bible, which grants divorce only in cases of adultery. The new pope will have no choice but to follow God’s law as expressed in the Bible.”
Within recent decades, Egyptian Christians struggled to build – or even renovate – their churches due to the lack of a unified code regulating construction of houses of worship.
The problem dates back to the 1856 Ottoman-era Hamayouni Decree, which required non-Muslims to obtain a presidential decree to build places of worship. In 1934, Egypt’s interior ministry also issued the Al-Ezabi Decree, which made it harder for Christians to build churches. The decree laid down ten conditions for Christians to obtain a building permit, including a presidential decree. The conditions also stipulated that the distance between a church and a mosque must be no less than 100 metres, and that Muslims in the area in question must approve of the new building.
In 1999, then-president Hosni Mubarak issued Decree 453, making the repair of all houses of worship subject to a 1976 civil construction code, which treated mosques and churches equally. However, new churches still require the approval of administrative and security officials, and are often denied permits for water and electricity as well as for renovation work.
Since Mubarak’s ouster in February of last year, Copts have repeatedly demanded that a unified building code be drafted to remove restrictions on church building. According to Coptic Church lawyer Tharwat Bakheet, several draft building codes have been drawn up and are currently awaiting parliamentary approval.
“We’ve had drafts that were jointly produced by the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches in Egypt, as well as one that was presented by the National Council for Human Rights,” Bakheet told Ahram Online. “But until now, no decision has been made on any of them.”
In October of last year, a Christian-Muslim committee failed to approve of a draft of the long-awaited unified building code, merely recommending that a law be adopted “regulating the construction of churches.”
Not much progress has been made since that fateful meeting, and the task of finding a solution to the decades-old problem will now fall in the lap of the new Coptic pope. Lawyer Bakheet, who was close to Shenouda, believes it will not be an easy job.
“I’ve had many meetings with Pope Shenouda to discuss the issue. The pope had great legal knowledge, despite not having a law degree, and often presented logical recommendations for the law,” says Bakheet. “But now we have a parliament filled with Islamists who have no interest in solving Christian problems. I doubt very much that we will resolve this issue as long as this parliament remains in power.”
Since the 1970s, Islamist movements have been steadily rising to power in Egypt. Although banned, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to garner considerable popularity, while many of its candidates – before the revolution – ran as independents and won seats in parliament. In 2005 parliamentary elections, they won a third of the seats in the People’s Assembly.
As the Islamists rose, so did sectarian tension between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians. A hostile tone was often adopted towards Christians by mosque preachers and Islamic satellite channels, leading many Christians to feel that they were strangers in their own country.
While many Christians had hoped that the revolution would finally bring them their long-sought-for rights, the situation turned out to be the exact opposite. In the weeks after Mubarak’s fall, there were a number of attacks on churches and Christians.
Islamists, free to speak publicly for the first time, began calling Christians “heretics” and threatening to force them to pay the Jizya tax – an Islamic tax for non-Muslims – once they came to power.
The attacks on churches led Christian activists to hold several sit-ins and marches to demand protection and equal rights. During one such march in October, army personnel attacked Christian protesters, leading to the death of at least 25 Coptic demonstrators in what has come to be known as the “Maspero Massacre.”
The situation became even more dire when Islamists won a majority of seats in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament, with 23 percent going to the ultra-conservative Salafists.
At that time, Pope Shenouda tried to adopt a conciliatory stance, even meeting with Islamist leaders on several occasions. This, however, led to sharp criticisms from many Christians who felt the pope had betrayed them and those who had died.
Unfortunately, the new pope is sure to inherit at least some of this popular resentment. In fact, according to Ayman El-Sayyad, political analyst and editor-in-chief of Weghat Nazar magazine, the new pope must deal with an even more complex problem, since Egypt’s political map has been so radically changed since last year’s popular uprising.
“There were many questions regarding the Islamists in Pope Shenouda’s time, but the state had always been on the side of the church, because the Mubarak regime saw the Islamists as enemies as well,” says El-Sayyad. “But now the situation is different. Now the Islamists are the state, and it remains unclear how the church will deal with that.”
Fawzy believes that, no matter how the new pope deals with the problem, he will not back down on the longstanding demand that Copts be treated equally with their Muslim counterparts.
“This issue is not open for discussion. The new pope and the Coptic community will not accept anything less than being equal partners in this nation,” says Fawzy. “The idea that the pope embodies the entire church is not accurate. There are Coptic writers, politicians and thinkers. There are clergymen who will not backtrack on Pope Shenouda’s earlier assertions that Copts and Muslims are equal and must be treated as such.”
The Question of Israel
Pope Shenouda never shied away from giving his opinion of Israel. His rejection of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with the self-proclaimed Jewish state landed him in hot water with late president Anwar El-Sadat, who banished him to his Wadi Al-Natroun monastery and stripped him of his papal authority.
Egypt’s Coptic Church has been at loggerheads with Tel Aviv since Israeli authorities decided to turn Jerusalem’s Coptic Deir Al-Sultan Monastery over to the Ethiopian Church in 1970.
Since the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty over 30 years ago, the pope has also banned Copts from visiting Jerusalem, famously stating: “We will not enter Jerusalem again until we go hand-in-hand with our Muslim and Arab brothers.”
And on this issue, the Coptic Church isn’t likely to change its position after Shenouda’s passing.
“The pope had wanted his stance on Israel to correspond to that of the Egyptian people,” Fawzy explains. “He said that he would not normalise relations with Israel until the Egyptian people gave the green light; that he would only go [to Jerusalem] if the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar went with him. This will not change.”
“The pope had taken up a very strong position on Israel since the signing of Camp David,” he says. “And throughout the years, he kept his word, even though other Arab leaders didn’t. The new pope will have to abide by this too. The church cannot normalise relations with Israel until the Egyptian people approve of such a step.”
A new Egypt
Since last year’s Tahrir Square uprising, Egyptians – who for decades had been largely passive and apolitical – began taking an active interest in politics. The country witnessed unprecedented political activity, which included an increase in participation in everything from protest marches and sit-ins to the establishment of political parties and record levels of voter turnout for elections.
The new trend also affected the Coptic community, with Copts participating in politics like never before. The most noticeable changes came from within Coptic youth, who formed unions and associations to press for Coptic rights.
“In my opinion, this will be the biggest challenge faced by the new pope. He will have to be able to create a new discourse in keeping with the new, post-revolution Egypt,” says Fawzy. “He will need the ability and charisma to draw the Christians to him, especially the young, with whom he must forge a new relationship.”
Indeed, like other segments of Egyptian society, the fabric of the Coptic community has changed over the last year, and at least some Copts may no longer be willing to obey the church.
“For years, the Copts – like most Egyptians – were scared of and submissive to authority,” says El-Sayyad. “This is no longer the case.”
Coincidentally, the new pope will also come onto the scene in tandem with a new president – which will no doubt have a tremendous effect on him.
“This will give him new questions to answer,” says El-Sayyad. “We’re now dealing with the drafting of a new constitution. How will the Copts deal with this? How will they deal with electing a president for the first time?”
For years, Egypt’s Copts have been seen as a distinct political grouping within society, says El-Sayyad. Their political activity was often dictated by their Coptic identity, he explains. For example, during the March 2011 national referendum, many Copts voted against the proposed constitutional amendments because they were worried that the changes would only serve Islamist interests.
“The question now is, will they remain a distinct group? Will they vote in upcoming presidential elections as citizens or as Copts?” asks El-Sayyad. “I personally believe that, with the departure of Pope Shenouda, Egypt’s Copts will no longer remain a distinct group within society and will increasingly lean toward the idea of equal citizenship.”