The Coptic Church has announced today that Pope Shenouda has died. He had been the patriarch of the largest Egypt’s Christian community, the Coptic Orthodox, since 1971. Details are not yet clear but he had clearly been ill recently. His successor will inherit severe challenges as Egypt’s political transition continues and as the place of religion and religious leaders in Egypt’s society and political system remains a point of considerable controversy and conflict. Since Egypt’s uprising that began on 25 January 2011, the Coptic community has witnessed a series of sectarian attacks on churches, as well as the dramatic events of 9 October 2011 when approximately 25 mainly Coptic protesters were killed after military police opened fire and drove into the crowds, crushing people under the wheels of their APCs.
Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has become the majority in parliament after the first elections since Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. This rise to power for Islamist parties has exacerbated fears held by Egypt’s non-Muslims and secular-oriented citizens for Egypt’s future. The Coptic Church will need to steer its way through this maze of fear and uncertainty and take decisions, not only on how to respond to the Muslim Brotherhood’s new-found authority and influence, but also on the extent to which the Church could or should be a part of Egypt’s political life. Pope Shenouda was a supporter of former president Mubarak and had worked to maintain good relations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over power after Mubarak’s resignation. Two major tests for the Coptic leadership will come with the drafting of the new constitution and the presidential elections, both of which are due to be completed by the summer.
Regardless of the rights or wrongs that can be attributed to Shenouda’s reign, and particularly his political decisions, the grief and uncertainty that are inevitable consequences of his death will complicate the Church’s position in the short-term.
Ahmed al-Tayeb, Sheikh of al-Azhar, the top Islamic institution in Egypt, left, and Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, right, meet together at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo, Egypt Tuesday, May 17, 2011. (AP Photo)