Pope Shenouda: Enemy of Sadat, Friend of Mubarak

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A mourner prays next to the body of Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, displayed for public viewing, inside the Abbasiya Cathedral in Cairo 18 March 2012. (Photo: REUTERS - Esam Al-Fetori)

By: Bisan Kassab

Published Monday, March 19, 2012

Unlike the heads of Egypt’s official Islamic institutions, Coptic Pope Shenouda stood up against Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat for his normalization with Israel and flirting with Islamist forces. But the late pontiff had little qualms pandering to Mubarak’s rule and his plan for succession.

The percentage of Copts in the total Egyptian population is left for speculation, as all the agencies of the state, whether the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics or the church itself, refuse to disclose such information. Public estimates of Copts range between 10 and 20 percent.

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is in many ways are not much different from official Muslim religious institutions like al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta in terms of its relation with the ruling authority.

■ Article: Electing New Coptic Pope May Take Months

■ Photo Blog: Egypt Mourns Shenouda by Mosa'ab Elshamy

The head of the church, the late Pope Shenouda, had his run-ins with the state under former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, when the pope was exiled to a monastery in the western desert toward the end of the assassinated president’s term.

His relationship with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, turned out to be warm and cordial despite all the bloody and violent sectarian incidents against Copts during Mubarak’s reign.

Mubarak expressed this in courtesies such as appointing Copts to the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, and making Christmas an official holiday.

Shenouda, for his part, was willing to punish Father Philopater Jamil in 2005 when he suspended him for two years after the priest joined the Ghad Party contesting the stranglehold Mubarak’s party, the NDP, had on Egyptian political life.

The late pope went so far as to praise Gamal Hosni Mubarak in early 2010 as a "suitable man to be president of the republic" at the time when Mubarak the father was grooming his son to inherit the presidency.

Shenouda pressed on with his unwavering support for Mubarak when he stood against Coptic demonstrations in protest of the massacre of the Two Saints Church toward the end of 2010.

This was the protest that witnessed, perhaps for the first time, a clear condemnation of the regime itself and not of hard-line Islamists.

Prior to the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution last year, the church reached the pinnacle of its service to the regime, when it tried through its pastors and priests to deter Copts from participating in the scheduled demonstrations at the time, as the young activist in the Revolutionary Socialists Peter Safwat claims.

Safwat says that the church stayed on the same loyalist path in dealing with the events following the revolution.

According to him, “the church refused to allow Coptic demonstrators (members of the Maspero Youth Union) protesting [against] the Imbaba church incident from entering the cathedral,” under the pretext that “protesting is not part of our values and the solution to our problems is fasting and praying.”

The Maspero Youth Union was the clearest expression of the Coptic Youth’s attempt to get rid of the control that the church exercises over their political activism.

The union was founded against the backdrop of the first Coptic sit-in after the revolution in Maspero to protest the burning of the Atfih church in March of last year.

Then there was another sit-in to protest the clashes between Copts and Muslims and the attempt to break into the Imbaba church as well as the Maspero massacre on 9 October 2011, in which about 30 people were killed at the hands of the security forces.

The Maspero massacre led to the founding of the group “We Are All Mina Daniel,” which adopted the name of one of the martyrs who was a prominent member in the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom.

His sister Marie remembers an attempt by one of the priests to convince her sister to stop protesting against the massacre.

This was at a time when Shenouda himself was trying to persuade the families of the victims not to sue SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) under the pretext that no one has proof that the perpetrators were members of the army.

“We were all sure of it and we had DVDs that recorded what happened and I witnessed my brother’s death next to me but the pope was perhaps speaking out of fear for his children,” Marie said.

In any case, the church’s position remained the same after the revolution.

It tried to discourage Copts from protesting on the first anniversary of Mubarak’s downfall on February 11, based on a statement issued by Shenouda one month before his death, that disobedience has nothing to do with religion.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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