Pope Shenouda III was elevated and enthroned the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, in Cairo on 14 November 1971. He played various roles; speaking about him is not just a biography of a patriarch rather speaking about a whole establishment and a story of a certain sector of people.
Pathos of an orphan
Nazir Gayed (Abba Ahenouda) was born on 17th August in 1923 in Salam village, Abanoub center, Assiout. He was born on Sunday, the same day in which his mother died; the day of his birth was mingled between contradictions of joy and sadness; when his father died, his eldest brother "Raphael" took charge of him. It was a miserable life ….he said, "I never knew naughtiness or happiness of childhood", his father traveled with him in several governorates due to his work until they resided in Cairo; he then joined "Al-Iman secondary school" of in Shubra.
The boy, Nazir, used to accompany his brother Raphael on Sunday for prayers and when he reaches the church he separates himself from his fellows in another room and while the seniors were being absorbed in the prayers inside the main hall, Nazir used to go, with other children, to study lessons about the Bible, the church history and the Coptic heritage; so there established in his mind that thers is in addition to the general identity, special one "Coptic nation".
During that period, the church knew "Sunday schools" that were established by Habib Girgis and attracted children and young men, where a feeling of special identity grew inside them and made the more young men belonging to them; this led to the emergence of a new religious type that the generation realized.
The clerics of the old system were participating less in the education and in effect; the religious thought was restricted to its spiritual sides; as for Al Arakhna (the secularists) who belonged to the top elites, they occupied a position that mediated between the country and the clergy, given that they are source of solutions and initiatives for everything related to the Coptic affairs; he says about this period: " it was a long period time in which the clerical leadership had no relations with masses, in addition to the fact that those who assumed leadership were seculars and the council’s deputy was a popular leader among Copts.
Under such a situation, the new generation of Sunday schools had one of two options: either to draw these secular elites under the authority of church, or to that church forms its own religious elites. The second option was the nearer, specially that these elites had their views regarding clerical and social work, which are away from religion.
The clerical reform
He served in Sunday schools from the 1939, then he established, in 1940 , a branch of the Sunday schools at Al-Iman society, Shubra; due to his active deeds " Habib Girgis " included him to the higher committee of Sunday schools, and this increased his religious activity; he traveled to many governorates where young men gathered to meet him, and his activity extended to write in the magazine of the Sunday schools where he started his first writing with a poem called "Abwab Jahannam" (Gates of Hell) then he assumed many positions until he became the chief editor.
His pen was steadfast and expressed the hopes of the new generation, the future of the church and problems of youth. He wrote in many fields; the Christian jurisprudence, the clerical reform, and he composed many religious poetic verses that changed later to be spiritual hymens sung by Copts.
When he was in charge of the magazine he used to frequent "Al-Siryan Monastery" in one of the remote areas where he used to get absorbed in meditation and worship, he always felt that he is a different man as he has a certain messag; he wondered how he can change the movement of Habib Girgis to be more powerful; all these wonderings and meditations made him renew Christianity which will start from monasticism.
Nazir completed his studies in the clerical faculty (a Christian religious faculty) after he graduated in the Faculty of Arts 1947 then he joined the Armed Forces and he became an officer in the army for a while.
Then he started implementing the clerical reformist project of renewing Christianity from the monasticism approach, then he rushed in 18/7/1954 to "Al-Sirian monastery", and then he consecrated as a monk in the name of "the Sirian Antonius" while he was only 31 years old.
His monasticism appeared to be a sudden and eye catching according to Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, where the technocratic cultured Coptic young men started to reside and gather in monasteries, and all agreed that the strength of the Copts starts from the church and that strength lies in the monasteries.
The question is: was the monasticism of a great number of Copt youth a mere coincidence? Or it reflected a project of the hopes of a new generation of Copts?
What is strange in this new generation is that they after they became hermits and united in desert, they returned once again to assume clerical positions, and it was supposed that the follower of monasticism and unit in the mountain should habitually resist any desires for returning; the question is: was this period a preparation stage for the clerical reform. Did Nazir realize this idea and these stages that resemble the initial stages of ideological upbringing,; the stages of implementation would start accordingly.
Clash of Civilizations
"Clergy now is in a very deep connection with people; The pope or the bishop or the archbishop is no more sitting on his chair so that he grants the blessing and the prayer rather is working amid the people, preaches and looks after their needs ... This saying embodies Nazir’s general feature and for his approach to renew the reformist project within the church. The execution of the project required: an establishment for a new social theology that achieves a social salvation through spiritual salvation, thereupon crossing of the gate of earth to the gate of heaven.
These ideas and this project appeared in his articles in "the magazine of Sunday schools" they were amazing articles and were trying to establish Evangelical reformation, and then he spoke - frankly - about the necessity of change, and the conditions that must be available in the patriarch of Copts.
The ideas of Nazir- which were greatly inspired by the ideas in the Sunday schools- had to create a clash within the church. Indeed, a clash took place between the generations of the Sunday schools and the old guards. It was represented in the "Group of the Coptic nation" which was established by the advocate Ibrahim Hilal, its slogan was "Bible is our constitution, Coptic is our language, death in the cause of Jesus is our supreme wish"
This group forced an Abba " Usap II" after kidnapping him on the hands of the Group of the Coptic Nation- to sign his concession document from the papal throne, and another document to order the Holy Synod and the council to meet and agree for new papal elections and the recommendation for a review in the electoral regulation in order to open doors before most of the Christians to participate in the voting, Nazir’s slogan was "people’s right to choose their sponsor" that included all the demands of Copts.
The group of Coptic nation represented in this clash the extremist face of Sunday schools who tried to change the church when it despaired the change of the Christian society; this confirmed the correctness of the reformist method through monasticism that appeared within the Church.
In 1956, the papal chair witnessed a competition on the one(s) who ascends it after the death of Abba "Usap" among those who ran these elections " Matta Al- Miskin", " Mkari Al- Siriani" (Abba Samuel’s who was killed with president Sadat in the accident of parade) and Antonius Al- Siriani (Abba Shenouda), the first got 5400 votes, the second got 5300 while the third got 5200 votes.
However, the conservative powers intervened to seize the opportunity from this movement who was willing to further reformation by this radical way. Meanwhile, after the winning of Mina Al-Mutawahid pope Kirls VI) who was nominated by the generations of the Sunday schools, a new phase was determined between the new and old worlds in the church, pope Shenouda says:" days of Kirls were a kind of interim and we were trying the reform and when he becomes bothered we remained silent".
Wipe the error….through edification
Pope " Kirls VI " appointed Antonius Al Siriani (Shenouda ) to be the bishop for education in the name " Shenouda III " in 1962, and hence, Sunday schools became an official project for the Church and from its main formations.
These new clerical orientations led to big social transformations in the Coptic environment, and pushed many sections from Copts from the new middle class to support this trend; then the new ideas were presented by force and the lessons echoed among the Coptic community.
Shenouda was absorbed in education and reformation; raising a slogan "Wipe the error….through edification" he succeeded in etching his ideas in the minds of many Copts; since all the educational institutions in his hands.
Shenouda started that "Friday Sermon" which was of a great importance in the process of Coptic edification, and became an important occasion in the life of the Coptic church where thousands rushed for his hearing, and he was charismatic among the Coptic young men especially after year 1967; because his lessons were treating the political and social sides in a religious mould .
And " Shenouda " continued writing articles in the Al-Keraza magazine that angered Pope Kirls VI; and he was forced to stop Al-Keraza to avoid any clash with the Pope.
Indeed, the clash already reached its peak because Shenouda’s articles in sermons vexed Pope Kirls, so he exiled Shenouda to the monastery of Al-Natron valley which stirred the masses of the Coptic youth; thereupon a great demonstration erupted and many papers were distributed to criticize the Pope.
Copts will never be Orphans!
By early 1970s, the scene was prepared for the new generation in the church, the social rule has changed and the faces of cultured young men who controlled the scene, they made good use from the Nasserist social turn since there were no pashas or feudalist, and the composition of command inside the church changed.
Perhaps, the title " the Copts will never become orphans" is a perfect to describe this life stage of Shenouda and the Egyptian church, where the unity phase started to emerge between the church and its people and appeared in the reality space and fed by the instinct of seeking refuge and safety, so that the church became the first defense line.
These structural changes accompanied the general climatic change where the religion became the only refuge for the Egyptians who transferred their attentions towards the new religious commands in order to exercise the merits of stage. A stage started to take place where people started to boast for priests who are courageous enough and defend the beliefs secretly and publicly, and the thought of extraordinariness and the need for the miracles intensified; then the events of the Virgin’s appearances spread, and the names of the persecuted saints and the resisters started to emerge.
This was the background of the era of voting for the new patriarch, where a number of personalities competed, the most prominent of which was Matta Al-Miskin and "Shenouda". Thereupon, Abba Shenouda won by the papal seat, and there were rumors reported that the government played a role in this winning.
The mood... And the tragedy
"I was exchanging jokes and fun with Sadat during our meetings when he eventually became very serious"... So pope Shenouda depicted exactly the beginning of his relation with President Sadat; then the Copts tried to benefit from the atmospheres of freedom that spread and hence support the gains of the church, Pope Shenouda says: "we supported Al Sadat and stood with him continuously and blessed the Rectification revolution because we considered it as a turning point since it was not just an extirpation of strong powers at that time but was a new curriculum in the rule " until Al Sadat’s religious inclinations appeared and his pragmatic approach towards the Islamic movements appeared, and hence the way became open for clash between the priests and the sheikhs; as if the seventies era was the religious settlement that was hesitant in the sixties.
In 1972, sectarian violence took place at the events for al-Khankah, it was the first time to see Copts marching in a demonstration of 400 individuals among them were 100 persons wearing clerical garments after the priests complex in Cairo approved holding the prayer in the society headquarters that was burnt, the security services failed in dissuading them and they went on foot reciting hymens then they left without any incident, but pope Shenouda’s reaction appeared strange and paying for attention, where he said : " I will stop eating and drinking until the problem is solved", and the most attracting was the expression of protest through a religious ritual, and that was the beginning of the hymns of the papal protest that were repeated many times in Pope Shenouda’s life.
Time or the hero!
On 17 January 1977 a conference was held under the leadership of Pope Shenouda, and his first statement issued by him about Copts said that "Copts are the oldest and the noblest offspring" in the Egyptian society, then the conference faced the freedom of religious belief, the exercise of religious rituals, the protection of family, the Christian marriage, the equality, the equality between opportunities and the Christian representation in the parliamentary institutions and he warned against the extremist trends.
And the statement demanded canceling the apostasy project and excluding thinking of applying the Islamic law on non-Muslims, the executive recommendations was the most dangerous results of this statement, where he ordered Copts to fast for three days (from 31 January to 2 February 1977) , in order to attract the attentions to their demands, and the writer " Milad Hanna " has tried to give national justifications for this inclination for the sectarianism, then he claimed that it was a reaction for Al Sadat’s attempts to apply Islamic law, the pope went through the battle of the progressive powers, where he considered it as an effective innovated behavior through fasting as a protest, hinting to the role of emigrant Copts who pressed strongly and did not calm down except after the pope sent to them who informs them that the crisis ended.
Away from any other interpretations, there are two notes:
• The project as a whole is an amended form for the project of the attractive Coptic Nation Group including all separate feelings of individuality; we can observe it in expressions like "Coptic people", the "Coptic race".
• This project differs from the conference held in 1911 called the First Coptic Conference, because this conference is a clerical project not a project held out by some activists in 1911.
The question is: was this great change in the mood of the church and its symbolic imagery inspired by Abba Shenouda or it was among the repercussions of the revival of religion in the seventies?
The question is in other words: are these changes applied to the philosophy of hero that Shenouda inspired through his heroic feeling for the communal identity, or they were among the trends of that time that delivered this kind of leadership?
Many of the Coptic researchers see that the matter was related to spirit of the age and the religious awakening and consequently the movement of pope Shenouda is considered as a social phenomenon within a specific historic moment contexts.
Another question: were religious organizations the only reason behind the Coptic reaction? If one followed the sectarian clashes that started in 16-6-1970 till 12-11-1972, 11 accidents took place; about 10 accidents (from 11th August 1971) were stirred due to the leftists’ powers not by Islamists who had no organizational bases on public at this time.
Therefore this fierce and sectarian behavior from some Copts was included in the term of "reaction", and this is untrue because this created many sensitivities which started when President Al-Sadat said, "I am a Muslim President for a Muslim State".
Pope hates Israel
A part of the pope’s life was military because he witnessed the events of the war of 1948 besides another part was important in the formation of the church in the 1960s because he was influenced by the national atmosphere there, the clerical stance from the Zionist project was very clear, for example in 26th June 1969 there was a debate held in the syndicate of journalists entitled "Israel from a Christian view", he said, "If Allah wanted to send Nasser to punish this people, this would be a spiritual choice for them."
Some considered his winning the elections as a national victory for the church, especially after pope Samuel regarded Shenouda as a man of dubious ties with he West.
Concerning the normalization with Israel, Shenouda confirmed that the Copts will not visit Jerusalem for pilgrimage in protest at usurping one of the Coptic endowments in Jerusalem which was, "Deir Al-Sultan", although that Shenouda supported the peace with Israel and outlined his attitude in a famous saying to Sadat: " Be sure that the truth supporting you is stronger than the false who opposes you", and this saying was considered by "Abu Saif Youssef " in his book "the Copts and the Arab nationalism " that it is an indirect support for Sadat in the peace process with Israel.
Thereupon, we must differentiate between the clerical stance and the stance towards normalizing ties with Israel, because the first stance is religious while the other is political; politics is inseparable of the context of ties with the state along with the repercussions; before the clash with the regime of Sadat, the two stances- the clerical and political- remained separate. Then they mingled in the frame of political clash, and the heat of the issue of "Deir Sultan" faded, then the idea of normalization started to emerge as one of the important issues.
Was he a Politician?
It seems that the interest in politics among the generation of the 1960s was a prominent feature especially among clerics, according to Nabil Abdul Fattah and Heikal; priest Dr. Andre Zaki said that the pope started from an early age to use a discourse with a political content in the Al-Keraza magazine like the expression of the " Coptic Street", and the matter reached its peak in the council’s meeting ( in 26 March 1980 ) when all celebrations related to the Easter were cancelled in protest at the aggressive actions against the Copts.
As for the researcher " Samir Murqus", he sees that talks about the political project of the church if it means the presence of a view for defining a specific concept for the country, then the answer is no.
If the talks of pope about the Coptic demands are not included in the core of politics, then noting is left from the meaning of politics; the pope spoke about the Coptic demands concerning the ministers in the government, the Coptic members of parliament, their situation in the public positions, the negotiation on building churches and readiness for a clash with the government in protest at the violent attacks against the Copts, for example he requested from President Al Sadat more than once that he sits with him as a representative for Copts saying: "Aren’t the Copts a part of this country? " and his statement to Sanaa Al Sayyed : " the church is not a country inside a country, but they play the role of a mediator between the officials and publics " ..
Change in Strategy
Pope Shenouda says that "the people in the war are like chess players, each person thinks what he will do with the other? And how I will resist my opponent? And how does he face my resistance? And how I face his resistance of my resistance". After the clash reached its peak, Sadat issued a republican decree of rescinding pope Shenouda’s appointment, forming a quintuple committee for carrying out the papal tasks and decreed house arrest for the pope in Wadi Al-Natrun monastery then president Mubarak issued a decree in 1985 to re-appoint Abba Shenouda as a patriarch to the Copts, so it was necessarily that there should be a review for many of the political and religious manners; the pope started to be more keen on gaining to his side the media that stood against him in the 1970s and that he should bridge gaps between the church and the secular elites and he was keen also to care for the international affairs that he neglected before.
The Pope realized the importance of keeping contacts with the emigrant Copts, inaugurating new churches in order to admit them. Pope attributed the reasons of the change in his stance in the 1980s to the government’s launching crackdowns on Islamic groups, so if the church intervened, the matter would have changed to clash between Muslims and Christians, so everything will go astray. Some gambit about his stance from emigrant Copts, where they say, "They (Emigrant Copts) want the pope to be always furious and give tirades as they think that this is heroism, this kind of dealing is not wise. The pope participated in many dinners in Ramadan with Muslims as a kind of national unity in order to ease tension.
Every thaing passed relatively quiet until the idea of the religious freedoms and foreign intervention surfaced where some Copts backed while others refused in addition to the clashes of the first events in Al Kusheh village and the second incidents where the church started to call for their demands in public, this was clear in the crisis of Al-Nabaa Magazine, the issue of Wafaa Qostantin that revived the atmosphere of the 1970s.