A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Coptic Pope Shenouda III, 1923-2012

His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa and the Preaching of Saint Mark, died Saturday at the age of 88. He has long been ailing from back and kidney problems and appeared extremely frail at the Christmas liturgy in January and in more recent appearances, so his passing is not a surprise, but coming at a time of rising Islamist political influence in Egypt and recent tensions between Copts and their Muslim neighbors, the succession of the See of Saint Mark is of considerable political importance to Copts and other Egyptians alike.

Shenouda's reign of over 40 years, 1971-2012, was an unusually long one (though Pope Kyrillos V, 1874-1927, at 52 years holds the record), and his papacy has many accomplishments to boast of: the enormous growth of the Coptic diaspora, and the creation of bishoprics in Europe, the Americas, and Australia; the great expansion of Coptic education and improvement of seminaries at home and abroad, the building of new churches, improvement of ecumenical links with Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and much more. But he also created controversies throughout his reign as well. He emerged as something of a protégé of the popular and saintly monk Matta al-Maskin, who had once been his confessor, but with whom he had a theological falling out, leading to the banning of some of Matta's work. Beyond such internal Coptic theological issues, most of the controversy surrounding him involved his role in politics, and his very different relationships with the two Presidents whose presidencies coincided almost exactly with his papacy, Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak. (Shenouda came to power only a few months after Sadat assumed the Presidency, and survived just over a year after Mubarak's fall.)

His predecessor, Kyrillos VI, had been a close ally and friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which I discussed in this post last year.Sadat initially saw Shenouda as an ally, but Shenouda became increasingly critical of discrimination against Copts, attacks on churches, and other issues. When the Coptic diaspora in Europe and America began agitating for Coptic rights just as Sadat was being hailed in the West for his visit to Israel, he blamed Shenouda and the two men became increasingly antagonistic. When Sadat cracked down on all his critics shortly before his assassination in 1981, he deposed Shenouda and sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Wadi Natrun. After Mubarak succeeded Sadat, the restrictions on Shenouda were relaxed, and in 1985 he was fully restored to his papacy. (A Council of Bishops had governed the church in his absence.)

If Shenouda had had a confrontational relationship with Sadat, he had a very different one with Mubarak. Perhaps chastened by his deposition and exile, or genuinely grateful for his restoration, he was an outspoken supporter of Mubarak, even when many of the faithful at home complained of government neglect and tacit toleration of attacks on Copts. Many Copts abroad became critical of the Pope, at least of his political support of Mubarak. In recent years, he even appeared supportive of the project for Gamal Mubarak to succeed his father. Many supporters of the Revolution, especially among Copts, felt the Pope was too cautious too long, though in the end he was cautiously supportive.

The timing alone assures that the choice of his successor will be an important one, not just for Copts but for Coptic-Muslim relations as a whole. A new Pope will, in fact, once again begin a papacy almost at the same time as a new, elected President.

A locum tenens  will be named to run the church during the transition. I will be posting soon on the complex unusual process for choosing the next successor of Saint Mark, and will no doubt find I have more to say about the legacy of Shenouda III. Whatever one's verdict on his reign, it was one of the more eventful in the recent history of the ancient Church of Saint Mark.


xoussef said...

Could you please sometime, may be in marge of these upcoming succession series, touch upon the extinction of the Coptic language as a non-liturgical language, and how it had come to be totally replaced by Arabic despite many thriving communities never being Islamised?

Anonymous said...

This is great. I really appreciate your posts and learn a lot from reading them. Could you also touch on the lack of a census in Egypt and the issues that's caused? I believe it was part of the reason for the fall out between Sadat and His Holiness.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I may indeed do a post on the extinction of spoken Coptic, but it's a complicated by contradictory estimates of when te spoken language died out. (I'm personally dubious about claims that make very late.)There are more Copts than Syriac/Assyrian Christians, so why did Aramaic/Syriac survive and Coptic didn't? We're all just guessing, but I may post on it.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Yes, the census is an issue. One was supposedly taken but the results never published. Which is why estimates of what percentage of the population is Coptic.