A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Different Time in State-Coptic Relations: Nasser's Friendship with Pope Kyrillos VI

Left to Right: Vice President Anwar Sadat, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Coptic Pope Kyrillos VI at the dedication of the new Cathedral of St. Mark in Abbasiyya, 1968
In this week of heightened tension between the Egyptian Army and State and the Coptic Church, and in keeping with my post the other day about General Fuad Aziz Ghali, an Egyptian general, war hero, governor, and Copt, I thought I'd also note, in another echo of better days, the friendship and close working relationship between President Gamal Abdel Nasser (d. 1970) and Coptic Pope Kyrillos (Cyril) VI (d. 1971).

Nasser should need no introduction; if he does, reading the posts under my Nasser label would be a good place to start. Non-Coptic readers my be unfamiliar with Kyrillos, but Copts today venerate him as a 20th century saint. His papacy lasted only from 1959 to 1971 (compared with his successor, Shenouda III, who was enthroned early in the Sadat Presidency and has now outlasted the nearly interminable Mubarak Presidency). Shenouda's tenure has been stormy: clashes with Sadat, a deposition from the See of St. Mark and later restoration under Mubarak; accusations he then became too supportive of Mubarak; theological disputes within the Church, etc. Kyrillos' predecessor, Yusab (Joseph) II, was worse: a papacy ridden with corruption and scandal, leading to his bizarre kidnapping and, after his return, his deposition by the Holy Synod and the lay Maglis al-Milli, in 1956. The throne of Saint Mark was vacant from 1956 to 1959. Kyrillos' papacy lay entirely within the Presidency of Nasser. They became friends, and by many accounts, Nasser was willing to see the Pope with little prior arrangement. These stills and 1960 video show none of the stiffness Shenouda's meetings with Sadat and Mubarak usually display:

A major issue has always been an old, Ottoman-era requirement that no new churches may be built without permission of the head of state. Nasser was liberal on the issue. Mohamed Heikal in Autumn of Fury (not always an utterly reliable witness) says Nasser asked Kyrillos how many churches he needed a year, and Kyrillos said between 20 and 30. Nasser said, right, you can build 25. True or not, it reflects the reality.

One of the great goals of the Pope's reign was to build a new Cathedral of Saint Mark to replace the decaying, cramped one in Ezbekiyya. Nasser strongly supported this as a matter of national pride. According to Heikal again, Nasser provided LE 500,000 (worth more in those days), half in cash and half in state-owned contractors' donated time. The Cathedral was dedicated in 1968. Video, showing the arrival of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (unlike Shenouda, which is a story for another day, Ethiopians venerated Kyrillos for granting them their own Ethiopian Patriarch after centuries of always having one appointed from Egypt) and Nasser and Kyrillos at the dedication. (Note: watch carefully for the rare walk-ons of Anwar Sadat. It's not just in the US that Vice Presidents aren't that visible.)

In Nasser's day, the state helped pay for the great Cathedral (the largest in the Middle East and Africa). Today, building a new church provokes violence and state intervention.

Don't get me wrong: Nasser was a dictator who imprisoned many people. But during that brief period of Nasser and Kyrillos working together, Coptic-State relations were excellent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another insightful post. I visit here often and each time I do I learn something new.