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By Nelly van Doorn-Harder


The Montréal Review, February 2013


The Early Coptic Papacy
The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt
The Emergence of the Coptic Papacy


On November 18, 2012, history was made when Tawadros II was crowned the 118th Coptic Pope in a lineage that started around the year 49 CE, when Mark the Evangelist arrived in Alexandria. Tawadros was the first pope in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church whose election and enthronement could be watched worldwide live on TV. It was also the first time that the world paid attention to the leader of this ancient church: the Arab Spring had made Egypt's Christians and the role they played in the revolution front page news--although, sadly, most of the highlights concerned acts of violence. Few realized that there is a vibrant Orthodox church in Egypt that has gone through a revival since the past fifty years.

This set of three volumes on the Popes of Egypt covers their role from the beginning of the Church ending at the end of 2011 when Tawadros' predecessor, Pope Shenouda III (1971-2012) was near death after a reign of over forty years. The books convey the challenges these leaders faced, and their responses to ever changing circumstances. One hundred and eighteen popes have ruled the Copts. Their church was always governed by non-Egyptian and most of the time by non-Christian rulers; by the seventh century Roman control made place for Muslim rulers. Focusing on some of the most influential leaders, the books trace the social, economic, political, and religious trends they negotiated.

The Coptic Pope is a pivotal figure, not only in keeping the Church together, but also in relating to the Egyptian government. He is considered a true father who watches over his flock. Copts living in the West take his advice as seriously as those in the motherland of Egypt; their gaze directs to the cathedral in Cairo, the Church center, from which spiritual advice and dogmas are sent around the world.

Tawadros was one of three finalists for the papal seat. The other two were Father Rafail Ava Mina and Bishop Raphael. For days, the biographies and visions of the three candidates had been discussed extensively. They had different personalities, yet all represented a moderate wing of the Church. Each realized that internal change was needed to accommodate groups that felt left out of the traditional hierarchy and rules, especially the youth. Finalist Father Rafail had been the deacon of Pope Cyril VI (1959-1971), the mentor of the late Pope Shenouda III who passed away on March 17, 2012. Following in the footsteps of Cyril he was known to advocate intense prayer as the first solution of all problems. Bishop Raphael had served as general bishop in downtown Cairo focusing on youth work, and Tawadros seemed a combination of the two other candidates. Expectations for the new pope were high; in the middle of post-Arab Spring turmoil, the entire world wondered how the new prelate would contribute to stabilizing Egyptian society.

Considering alternative candidates and the disastrous implications their election could have had for the Coptic Church and for Egypt, a young Copt wrote on Facebook that "God must still love the Copts since He had chosen these three finalists."

Coptic youth not only considered Pope Tawadros a wise, balanced ruler, but also a man of the twenty-first century; he had studied in England and, before entering the monastery in his mid-thirties, had managed a pharmaceutical company. After going through the monastic ranks, he had been assigned as auxiliary bishop to the well-respected Metropolitan Pachomius in the northern province of Damanhour, focusing on work with children and youth.

Tawadros is not the first one to start his reign in the midst of turmoil. Looking back at a history of over two thousand years, Copts have witnessed their fair share of tumultuous years. The first book, by Stephen J. Davis, discusses the period before the Muslim invasion, when the Coptic Church influenced the theological discourses of the time and was ruled by popes who remain part of universal church history. Athanasius the Great (328-339 -373 CE), considered one of the pillars of the Church, is remembered for his fight against the Arian doctrine. He was forced a total of seventeen years in exile. Cyril of Alexandria (412-444 CE), is another giant in the history of the church, whose influential role in the First Council of Ephesus (421 CE) has been well documented. During the time period Stephen Davis describes, Egypt's Christians were first persecuted by Roman pagan emperors and later, by Roman rulers who had now become Christian and wanted the Coptic popes to accept the primacy of Rome. Copts today remain closely related to this period of time; those who died during riots at Tahrir square are considered martyrs in a direct line with those whose blood was spilled during the first centuries of Christianity.

The second volume, by Mark Swanson, covers the time between 641 and 1517, describing recurring periods of state violence during which many Copts converted to Islam and shows how Christianity changed from the majority to a minority religion. The names of the popes who ruled after the Muslim invasion of Egypt (641 CE) are mostly remembered by the Copts. Much needs to be studied about this period of time. What we do know about those governing the Church during the Middle Ages and how the popes advanced and protected the distinctive Christian identity under Islamic rule can be gleaned from a collection of writings called the History of the Patriarchs. This History should be read with what Stephen J. Davis has called a "discursive historical" approach; the focus is not so much on reality but on how popes were imagined and portrayed and ascribed virtues and actions that served the re-creation of Coptic identity through the ages. Popes impressed the Muslim rulers with character traits such as fearlessness; they were holy fathers, wonder workers, clairvoyants, or scholars. Certain themes recur: they all prefer life in the remote desert monastery over the high calling of being a pope; they are always humble, and even if they were feeble or inert, the History will still raise them to the level of saintly giants who saved the Church.

Saints, those who overcame their earthly ordeals, remain an important anchor of hope and consolation for Copts today. The twentieth century has produced its share of holy fathers and mothers who are credited with assisting the believers from above. Not considered to be a wonder worker in life, Pope Shenouda III equally has reached the level of sainthood in a remarkable short time after death. A body of proof is in the making in the form of a series of small booklets relating miraculous events that involved his interference.

Copts shared and share in the fate of the rest of Egypt; outbreaks of the plague decimated the Muslim as well as the Christian communities. In the first two chapters of the third volume, Magdi Guirguis whose research relies on court documents and church annals, mentions that monasteries fell into disrepair since the disease had wiped out the surrounding villages. In the midst of man-made and natural disasters, the popes remained responsible for the affairs of the Coptic community before the government. However, the degree of authority they could exercise at times was ambiguous. On the one hand their power was curtailed by Muslim rulers who threw them in jail or attempted to depose them; an act that according to Church Law is unthinkable. On the other hand the popes were challenged by rich Coptic notables who disagreed with papal decisions concerning certain practices such as having a concubine, or whose wealth gave them so much power they ended up electing the pope themselves. One of the most famous among them, Ibrahim al-Gawhari (d. 1795), held the position of chief scribe of all Egypt and was called the Sultan of the Copts. The rest of the final volume that I authored describes a new era in the history of the Copts with enormous changes that form the foundation for the contemporary Coptic Church.

Conventionally, the onset of modernity in Egypt is placed at its brief occupation by Napoleon Bonaparte (1798- 1801). Stepping into the ensuing power vacuum, Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805-1849) created venus of social mobility for all Egyptians. Schools opened, foreign specialists entered the country, new types of professionals arose and, officially, in 1856 the Copts gained legal equality with Muslims. In the wake of these developments came foreign missionaries who challenged the Church with Protestant novelties such as schools, Bible studies, and church councils. During his brief reign the brilliant Pope Cyril IV (1854-61) copied the foreign methods by opening schools, among which Egypt's first one for girls. Furthermore, he reformed the church's administration, and started to entertain ecumenical relationships. Cyril's rule ended with his early death, under possibly suspicious circumstances, at the relatively young age of forty-five. It was not until 1959 that another reformer of similar caliber became the 116 th pope: Cyril VI (1959-71). Most of the popes before him were overshadowed by, or in conflict with, lay Copts whose education and worldly savvy far surpassed that of the popes, who had all been monks from a tender age. Cyril's predecessor, Yusab II (1946-56), had so mismanaged the Church's governance that he had been banned from office since 1955.

Cyril VI is one of the most beloved popes who ever ruled the Church; his fame as wonder worker and saintly person continues to this day. Cyril's reign started during a time of utter chaos. Internally, Copts were fighting, while in society, President Nasser's (1954-70) land and industrial revolutionary reforms had greatly diminished their wealth. This time the Pope looked inside for strength and saw hundreds of lay programs that transmitted the Coptic faith. He saw well-educated dedicated young man and women; engineers, teachers, and medical doctors who hesitated to join the official hierarchy since it meant entering a stuffy monastery or convent where most of their peers would be illiterate. Since monasteries supply the candidates for the official Coptic hierarchy, Cyril renovated and reformed these ancient institutions, tucked away in remote deserts, and invited the dedicated lay leaders to enter them. When he passed away, Cyril left behind a church in the midst of a spiritual, pastoral, social, educational and economic revival that was based on reinventing the ancient traditions. He had also laid the foundation for a transnational church; no longer were Copts confined to the regions of Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Jerusalem but, Coptic churches appeared in countries across Europe, North America, and Australia.

Cyril's successor, Shenouda III (1971-2012), expanded the work; inside Egypt he launched educational and youth initiatives while internationally a new transnational Coptic Church emerged . At the time of his death, as far away as Brazil, Hong Kong and Singapore, there were over four hundred and fifty churches outside of Egypt guided by twenty-four bishops. Even before becoming the pope, Shenouda was famous as an educator and prolific writer who penned more than one hundred and forty books.

As early as 1972, Shenouda's reign was marred by inter-communal strife with clashes so severe that they made the international headlines. The new Millennium opened with violent conflicts in the Upper Egyptian hamlet of Kosheh (January 2, 2000). By now the suicide attacks on a Church in Alexandria (January 1st, 2011) is common knowledge. Especially since the Revolution of January 25, 2011, the world has kept track of various attacks on the Copts. In part these bold assaults were credited to the increased influence of radical Islamic ideas on Egyptian society that especially started to flourish under the time of President Sadat (1970-81). He had re-instated the Islamic law of Shari'ah as one of the legal sources of the Constitution and famously called himself "a Muslim president of a Muslim country." Refusing to budge, Shenouda went into a head-on confrontation with the President who forced him into exile. Yet, during that darkest hour, the true magnitude of the Coptic Orthodox Pope as symbolic and spiritual leader of the community came into focus. As Shenouda left Cairo for the monastery of St. Bishoi where he was to stay for 1,213 days (1981-1985), the believers lined the streets shouting "With our souls and our blood we will vindicate you."

Since his return from exile, Shenouda walked a less confrontational line; participating in national unity projects, and focusing on good relationships with the Mubarak regime (1981-2011), on consolidating his power and authority, and on strengthening the Church. In fact, he built a Coptic civil society in which the Church and its leaders influenced the daily life and decisions of the believers. A younger generation did not agree with this model that came across as totalitarian. Just before his death, the pendulum had started to swing back with especially Coptic youth airing their frustration about what by now was perceived to be an autocratic Pope who allowed little room for alternative voices.

Over the years, Shenouda's main answer to the varying conditions facing the Coptic Church became: "Rabbina Mawgud!," or "God is present!" Nowadays, a large billboard in front of the cathedral in Cairo shows him looking slightly sad, with his eyes facing heaven. In bold letters this slogan conveys his final message: may what come, God will not give up on the Copts.

The new pope, Tawadros II, author of twelve books, has wasted no time filling these big shoes. Well aware of the vagaries of history, he participates in the diplomatic rounds with the Muslim rulers and he speaks his mind when necessary, but, for the most part, he focuses on the well-being of his flock. Unlike his predecessor, he knows how to delegate; his philosophy is that, "All Copts are servants" and, "We need teamwork to serve the Church better." After a mere two months in power he has started to restructure the Church's governance, and plans to create a more democratic and transparent system with as his inner cabinet a team of well qualified pastors, monks, and bishops. He listens to the many voices that feel left out such as youth, those serving in Diaspora, those excommunicated under the former pope, and those seeking a divorce within the strict Church regulations.

On January 24th, 2013, the day before the anniversary of the Revolution, Pope Tawadros II even accommodated his busy schedule to squeeze in my colleagues and me, taking far more time than planned to discuss the third volume of this series on the Papacy that I had brought him. We both shared in our disappointment that on the cover a picture of Cyril VI was missing. We talked about his daily spiritual message on Twitter, his Facebook page, and what it meant to be a pope in this time of change. Friday the 25th he did not tweet. After a day of business as usual, he had visited the Coptic Cultural Center, he delivered his daily message via the TV. Asked how people could cope with the current upheaval in the political and economic situation he suggested: "shut the TV, take a rest from the news and pray." Elaborating on this advice via Facebook he added that "God will preserve our country." In other words: "Rabbina Mawgud!"


Nelly van Doorn-Harder is professor of Islamic studies at Wake Forest University's Department of Religion.


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