Sunday, March 18, 2012

Orthodox Pope Dies in Egypt Amid Internal Struggles

March 17, 2012

Coptic Pope Dies in Egypt Amid Church’s Struggles

New York Times

CAIRO — Pope Shenouda III, who led the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt for four decades, expanding the church’s presence around the world as he struggled, often unsuccessfully, to protect his Christian minority at home, died on Saturday after a long illness, state media reported.

Pope Shenouda, who was 88, had suffered from lung cancer and kidney problems for years.

His death comes at a time of rising fears for Egypt’s 10 million Coptic Christians, who have felt increasingly vulnerable since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak amid attacks on churches by hard-line Islamists and deadly clashes with Egypt’s security forces.

The rise to power of conservative Islamist parties has also raised concerns that Egyptian national identity is becoming ever more closely bound to Islam.

“It’s an injection of uncertainty for Copts at a time of transition in the country,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation. “Whether people were fond of him or not, this will cause anxiety.”

On Saturday night, hundreds of Coptic Christians gathered at Cairo’s main cathedral to grieve. “It’s like a pyramid has fallen,” one man said to a friend.

Dr. Samir Youssef, a physician, called Pope Shenouda “an intellectual, a poet — strong, charismatic.”

“On a personal level, I’m worried about the future. I think there will be a conflict: the same chaos that followed the 25th of January,” he added, referring to the start of the uprising last year.

In a statement, President Obama praised Pope Shenouda as a beloved “advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.” Egypt’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, called on Egyptians to “come together in solidarity and be tolerant to take Egypt toward security and stability.”

Pope Shenouda was known as a charismatic, conservative leader for Egyptian Copts, who make up roughly 10 percent of the population in the majority Sunni country.

Since becoming patriarch in 1971, he was credited with filling a leadership vacuum as Copts — along with most Egyptians — retreated from public life under a dictatorship, and with expanding the church’s reach, especially in North America. At the same time, he was criticized for what were seen as his autocratic tendencies, which stifled internal church reform, and his support for Mr. Mubarak’s government, given in return for a measure of protection that Copts increasingly felt was insignificant.

The failure to distance the church from Mr. Mubarak led to greater disillusionment with the pope after the revolution, especially among younger and more secular Copts.

Pope Shenouda was born on Aug. 3, 1923, as Nazeer Gayed in the city of Assuit, according to a biography of the patriarch posted on the church’s Web site. He attended Cairo University and became a monk in 1954.

In 1981, Pope Shenouda was sent into internal exile by President Anwar Sadat, with whom he clashed after complaining about discrimination and attacks on Copts. After Mr. Mubarak ended that exile in 1985, the two men seemed to have an informal understanding: that Pope Shenouda would be less vocal in pointing out discrimination in exchange for more support from the administration, according to Dr. Mariz Tadros, a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex and the author of a soon-to-be-published book on the Copts.

That understanding was severely strained in the past decade after a series of deadly clashes between Copts and Muslims, including some caused by the state’s refusal to allow the building or renovation of churches.

The church’s own policies, including its almost total ban on divorce, have also increased tensions. Some have left the church specifically to divorce, either choosing another denomination or officially converting to Islam, then sometimes converting back after the split. The conversions have sparked rumors that have led to episodes of Muslim-Christian violence and several riots since the revolution.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

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