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How Sunday School Sparked Revival in Egypt’s Oldest Church


Habib Girgis
Habib Girgis, memorialized on the curtain separating the altar from the sanctuary of a Coptic Orthodox Church

This article was first published at Christianity Today on June 19, 2018.

My wife had just dropped off our kids at the local Coptic Orthodox Church we attend in Cairo and sat down with her Egyptian friend at the adjacent church-owned cafe. After initial pleasantries, she spoke of this current article I was then researching.

“Oh, do Americans have Sunday School also?” inquired the mother. “I never knew.”

My wife and I have lived in Egypt for nearly nine years and consider ourselves of evangelical faith. But we wish also to learn about ancient Christianity and, to the degree possible, worship within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which many Protestants here respectfully call “the mother church.”

We have been impressed by their biblical fluency. We have marveled at their forgiveness after martyrdom. But to entrust our own children to them?

We have been blown away by their care for the next generation. It takes two years of training to even teach a kindergartener.

It was not always so, and they have the Americans to thank—sort of.

This article is about Habib Girgis, the recently canonized Coptic saint who doubled as a humble educator. This past month the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrated the 100th anniversary of what he set in motion: the Sunday School Movement.

Girgis lamented the situation of his time, when Western missionaries were making inroads among the Copts.

But then again, they left fallow their own fields:

“Is there among us anyone who is capable of responding to those who ask him about his religion and why he is a Christian?” Girgis asked in a student lecture four years later.

“I am sure that most of us do not have an answer, except to say that we were born from Christian parents and hence we are Christians.”

Please read the article to see how Girgis sparked the solution, but spark it he did. Today the Coptic Church is among the most devout in the world. Here is testimony from one of Girgis’ disciples, who carried forward his teacher’s reforms once he reached the highest levels of the church:

Looking backward eight decades, the beloved Pope Shenouda III, known as “the teacher of generations,” described the solution with primordial imagery.

“Our teacher … started his life in an age that was almost void of religious education and knowledge,” said the patriarch, who died in 2012.

“Then, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And the light was Habib Girgis.”

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.

And if you are interested in an earlier post, excerpting a book review on Habib Girgis, please click here.

Habib Girgis Sunday School


Pope Tawadros’ Weekly Sermon, in English

Mideast Egypt Islamic State
Pope Tawadros II. Photo Amr Nabil

Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Orthodox Church was known as the ‘teacher of generations.’ I had the privilege of attending the beloved 87-year-old deliver one of his Wednesday weekly sermons back in 2010.

Five years later, in post-revolutionary Egypt, I watched his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition. He preached on Esther, and for unrelated reasons, a mini-protest broke out.

Now in 2018, for the first time I have noticed the weekly sermon translated into English, provided by the Coptic Media Center.

I am not certain if this will become a new tradition, but if so it will be fitting. The Coptic Orthodox Church is international, with many English-speaking congregations in the US and Canada (and the UK).

For those interested in the spirituality of the Coptic pope, here is an excerpt from his text. Pope Tawadros spoke on Mark 10:46-52, the story of blind Bartimaeus.

It is entitled: What Do You Want Me to Do for You?

Lessons we can learn from the story of the blind man for our spiritual journey:

1. Be persistent in prayer: don’t stop asking God for help, with patience & confident faith. Continuous crying out (praying) demonstrates a strong need for help.

2. Jesus hears your prayer from amongst the crowds: your short & simple prayers are heard by Christ and He responds to them.

3. The #1 goal of Satan is to prevent you from reaching Christ: just as the people tried to prevent/discourage the blind man from reaching Christ, Satan does with us when we are praying. FOCUS on the goal: to reach Christ, & do not listen to thoughts of doubt – your own or others’.

a. Remember the miracle of the demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute? (Matthew 12:22) It reveals that sin denies a person 3 things: thinking about Christ, talking to Christ, and seeing Christ.

4. Throw away anything that stands between you and God: be ready to QUICKLY detach from things, habits, etc. God reveals to you to let go of.

5. The importance of your will: “What do you want Me to do for you?” shows that God not only respects your will, but that your CONSENT IS NECESSARY to allow God to work in your situation.

6. You are a partner with God: God will give you the ability to do what is needed to do, but you must participate with your faith, your repentance, your prayers, your persistence, and your will.

7. Be definitive in your prayer request to Christ: Imagine if the blind man’s response to Christ had been, “I want some money,” or “I don’t know what I want,” that would have been a wasted opportunity. Go to Christ prepared, knowing what it is you want Him to do for you.

8. Follow Jesus after He heals you: after Jesus heals/helps you, will you follow Him?

Click here for the full sermon on the Coptic Spokesman’s Facebook page.








The Pope, in Maadi

Pope Tawadros at St. Mark's Church in Maadi, Cairo
Pope Tawadros at St. Mark’s Church in Maadi, Cairo

Friends in Philadelphia will soon have the privilege of a papal visit. But will Pope Francis preach in your particular church?

His equal in the faith visited us in Maadi.

A Catholic might not consider it so. A Protestant might insist we are all equal. But for Orthodox Christians, Pope Tawadros is patriarch of one of the five ancient sees of the church, in which Rome and Alexandria are equals.

“To advance in the church,” he said, “is not done in the ways of the world. It is to lower yourself beneath the feet of others.”

By holding to equality with Rome, or in serving as a patriarch at all, does the head of the Coptic Orthodox violate his own teaching? His sermon on Wednesday was on the topic of humility. His visit on Wednesday—perhaps—is evidence of it.

Pope Tawadros’ predecessor Pope Shenouda was beloved of the people. Charismatic and witty, his Wednesday sermon at the papal cathedral characterized this bond. To a full house that treated him like a superstar, he took questions from the audience and left them laughing, rebuked, and inspired.

Pope Tawadros is respected as an organized administrator and heady thinker. He is young in his position, but does not seem to have the same level of charisma nor to have won the same level of enthusiasm. Few could.

He initially tried to follow in Shenouda’s footsteps, but when I attended a few weeks ago the hall was only half-full. Furthermore, he replaced the question-and-answer period with the traditional evening prayer. He does have a call-in show on Coptic satellite television, but I have heard Copts complain that this medium is out of reach to many simple believers. Rich and poor alike, all loved Pope Shenouda.

The Coptic Cathedral is now under repair, and Pope Tawadros suspended the Wednesday service. Before this, however, it was interrupted by petitioners seeking resolution for their divorce cases. Speculation wonders if the two are connected, or if the pope feels weighed down by the burden of comparison.

There is no answer that can weigh the motivations of his heart. But the visit to Maadi reflects a new evolution of the Wednesday tradition. Rather than sitting centrally in the cathedral, he will visit his flock.

A full church for the papal visit“To be humble does not mean you are less than others or to deny your gifts, talents, or abilities,” Tawadros said. “It is liberation from the power of the self.”

In order to stay humble Tawadros recommended a checklist of characteristics the Christian should continually review. Never elevate your opinion of yourself, but lower it. Be thankful, and search for the good in all things. Remember the final judgment, and constantly repeat, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Tawadros’ advice centered on the creation of a humble spirit, but two other attributes are necessary, he said. The Christian should also cultivate an open mind and a wide heart. Together these three make it possible to live well and navigate the challenges of life.

After the sermon St. Mark’s Church demonstrated fidelity to Tawadros’ predilection for organized administration, in the form of crowd control. Young people from the scouts program lined the aisles and hallways, channeling all in attendance into a single line to meet the pope. There, he further demonstrated humility as near an hour transpired for each one to receive from his hand a commemorative picture of the occasion.

Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark's Church
Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark’s Church

Meanwhile, I chafed. My seat was in the very back row of the balcony. The best seats were already taken, so I judged the next best viewpoint would be to scan the whole assembly. Had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for choosing so lowly a place.

I have had the opportunity to meet Pope Tawadros, briefly. But at the end of a long evening I just wanted to get home. I was quite happy to skip the line and again, had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for my patience in waiting to leave and allowing others to go ahead.

But patience wears thin. I could see below that the pope was receiving the crowd. What I could not see was the organization. The scouts in the balcony were not letting us go anywhere, and I didn’t know why. Just let us exit, I thought, and as others get in line below, I’ll slip out a side door.

A few fought their way past the scouts, and the balcony crowd started getting restless. We were told many times to sit and wait, but no one was explaining anything.

That might be a mark of deficient organization, as communication is a must. But my entire perspective changed once allowed down the balcony steps. Very efficiently, at each turn in the path stood the scouts. Smoothly and quickly we were ushered to Pope Tawadros.

As it turns out there was no opportunity to leave by another path. I took the picture from the pope, then a mug from the bishop. Just like that, and I was outside. Five minutes later I was home.

It could be said the entire evening was public relations. Rather than continuing in the pattern set by his popular predecessor, Tawadros sets his own terms. He will visit the churches in carefully controlled settings. He will deliver a sermon and distribute memorabilia. Copts love their religious leaders. He will create a desire in each church to receive a future visit.

Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark's Church, following an open sign-up
Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark’s Church, following an open sign-up

If it is public relations, is it only PR? And is it wrong? Tawadros blessed the Copts of St. Mark. He both encouraged and demonstrated a humble spirit. He has the open mind to create a new pattern for Wednesday sermons, and the wide heart to check directly in on local congregations.

He has a hard job. If he lacks the charisma that is comfortable with the spotlight, he knows he cannot remove himself from it. Instead he will subject himself even to the scouts of the church.

Only God knows his heart, but God has so far chosen to elevate him to leadership of an ancient see. Many scoundrels have held similar posts in the past, so there is no guarantee. Let both Catholic and Protestant nod heads in sad memory of flawed saints and rank sinners.

Let them both also hold out hope and prayer for Pope Tawadros, to live and lead worthy of his calling.

“I must decrease, he must increase,” Tawadros quoted John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus. Standing long in the apostolic line of Alexandria, may the 118th successor of St. Mark do the same.


The Pope, Preaching Esther

Pope Tawadros EstherFive-and-a-half years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Pope Shenouda preach. The now-deceased 87-year-old had presided over the Coptic Orthodox Church for 39 years, along the way establishing a new tradition of holding a weekly meeting with the people every Wednesday.

Last week in my first visit since, I witnessed his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition.

It was a fine sermon. Pope Tawadros preached on the character of Mordecai in the Old Testament book of Esther.

To briefly summarize, the book describes a period when the Jews were captive in Persia and a wicked minister planned their extermination. But prior to the scheme, following the announcement of an empire-wide beauty contest Mordecai helped the Jewish orphan Esther win the favor of the king, who then married her and made her queen.

In the end, Mordecai challenges Esther to violate palace protocol and inform the king of the minister’s intrigue. God, who interestingly is not named in the entire book, rules sovereign over events as the plot twists and the minister instead is put to death, hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.

Pope Tawadros had been preaching a series entitled ‘Names in the Shadows,’ featuring minor characters from the Bible who are celebrated less often.

Mordecai was a hero, he said, in three areas.

First, in owning responsibility to raise the orphan girl Esther. In an age when many who are fathers do not live up to their title, Mordecai assumed fatherhood outside the requirements of blood. In both church and society we must honor the responsibility God gives us, said the pope.

Second, Mordecai was a hero in contentment. Despite promoting his adopted daughter to the position of queen, he never sought personal advantage or advancement. Furthermore, after exposing an earlier plot against the king’s life he did not run after reward. He was satisfied in his position, and used his connections only when required to save the life of his people – not serve his own interests.

Third, Mordecai was a hero in faith, the pope said. Despite living in a foreign land he did not give up his prayers or rituals. Even when others bowed down to the wicked minister, he risked censure by refusing a posture due only to God. Trusting fully in God’s sovereignty, he held to his principles confident nothing happens apart from God’s will.

To close, Pope Tawadros encouraged the congregation with a picture from the book of Revelation, where the martyrs were honored as those who were faithful unto death. Whether God gives you high position or ordinary standing, he said, great works can emerge from acting with responsibility and faithfulness to God’s principles.

The book is named after Esther, but Pope Tawadros called Mordecai the hero of the story. The saying goes that behind every great man is a great woman, but here, he said, we see this truth in reverse.

As mentioned, it was a fine sermon. But the evening was different than what I experienced five-and-a-half years earlier.

First, there was a mini-protest. One man had to be removed from the audience over something I didn’t understand. Another woman, across the aisle, stood up and shouted something I couldn’t make out. All was calmed without incident, but a week earlier the pope canceled his sermon altogether when activists agitating for wider divorce and remarriage rights disturbed proceedings.

Second, there were vesper prayers. Pope Shenouda opened his weekly meeting taking questions from the audience, on all manner of topics, both mundane and theological. Pope Tawadros has a similar practice, but on television where people can call in or share questions electronically. Replacing the audience participation was one of the ritual daily prayers of the church, with the audience, perhaps, passively involved.

Third, the cathedral was half-empty. With Pope Shenouda the hall was packed, replete with the faithful even scaling the scaffolding. Here, all was subdued. When Pope Shenouda entered, the crowd rocked with the chant of ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ With Pope Tawadros everyone stood, but I had to ask about this missing custom. It was there, I was told, but intoned in quiet Coptic.

In both personal relations and public address, Pope Shenouda was revered for his wit. In Pope Tawadros’ sermon no one laughed. At the close everyone filed out, in orderly fashion.

To leave the comparison at this sentiment is not just. My attendance with Pope Shenouda came after his long service; Pope Tawadros is still young in office. He is also a different person. Pope Shenouda was acclaimed for his charisma; Pope Tawadros is respected for his administration.

One Copt sitting next to me agreed, and helped lead me in the descriptions above. But perhaps unconsciously influenced by the sermon on Mordecai and Esther, this person said that Pope Tawadros was the man for this time, chosen by God for these unique circumstances.

Pope Shenouda coincided with the regime of Mubarak, with its stable but contested relations with Copts. Pope Tawadros coincides with revolutionary instability and whatever is emerging in the nature of the state.

Each is responsible to God for his conduct in office. But each, Copts believe, was put there by God in his sovereignty and wisdom, to guide the church through challenging times.

Will Pope Tawadros, one day, be as deeply loved?

Mordecai counseled Esther, ‘Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’

And Esther responded, ‘I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’

As indicated in his own sermon, nothing less is demanded of the pope. Whether he is loved or not, what is required is faithfulness. God may yet have great things for him; perhaps he is walking in them already.

May he honor his responsibilities, content in his position, according to God’s principles. May his good word preached be true in practice.

Middle East Published Articles The Tablet

Where Tolerance is at Home

Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son
Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son

A scant eighty feet from St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Port Said, two small bombs exploded last month. Despite the second detonation being delayed until after a crowd had gathered and police were summoned, no one was killed. Even so, it is one more mark of an insurgency aiming to destabilize Egypt.

‘It is a psychological message that terrorism is near you,’ said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas, the local priest.

Fortunately, despite the hundreds killed in the waves of protest and violence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt has not suffered the horrors witnessed in Syria and Iraq. But throughout the region struggles over political power are mixed with sectarian rhetoric that targets religious minorities.

‘Some people try to stoke the flames of hate,’ said Ghattas of his otherwise idyllic Mediterranean city, ‘to turn them against their Christian neighbour and get them to leave their homes.’

But unlike Syria and Iraq, Egypt has an antidote. It is embryonic in development, but carries promise to resist the regional trends. It is the Egyptian Family House, created by Al-Azhar University and Coptic Orthodox Church to resist the sectarian pull and preserve national unity between Muslims and Christians. Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are also included.

Egypt’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Pope Shenouda were distraught after the 2010 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, and worried when extremists declared they were coming for Egypt next. In 2011 the Family House received official approval, though the 25 January revolution delayed much of the work of setting it up.

‘National unity’ has long been a rally cry of the Government, which paraded imams and priests in official ceremonies, exchanging hugs and kisses at the highest levels. But on the street ordinary Egyptians would grumble. Neighbourly relations were ample and interreligious friendships not uncommon, but a sectarian spirit was latent in many and easily exploited.

By contrast, the Family House was authorised to extend national unity in two directions. First, it was given authority to interact directly with cabinet ministers to address policies that result in division. Committees were created to tackle religious discourse, educational curriculum, media coverage, and youth affairs, among others.

But second, the Family House has authority to replicate itself in branches throughout the country at the grassroots level. One of the most dynamic early initiatives aims to supply the raw materials in this effort.

January 2012 witnessed the launching of a three-year programme to bring together imams and priests in common cause. Paired off, they live together for three days, four times a year, while as a group of 70 they receive training in dialogue and practical partnership. The programme takes them to historic religious sites, churches, and mosques, which for many represents the first time to step foot in a house of worship of a religion not their own.

The project was run through Al Azhar. Hailed as a bastion of moderate Islamic thought, it aimed to counter sectarian trends in Egypt and coordinated the supply of imams. The Orthodox offered the largest percentage of priests, and each other denomination chose their multiple participants.

Midway through the first year the Family House received sizeable psychological encouragement from the highest levels. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew President Morsi following widespread demonstrations, began publicly speaking of the need to address sectarianism.

‘I pledge to implement mechanisms that will reform religious discourse,’ said Sisi, ‘so that Egyptians don’t witness any more violence.

‘I personally have lived and grown up in a town where problems between Muslims and Christians were nonexistent, but radical extremism has caused division.’

This division was not easily overcome. One Christian participant accused the Muslims of lack of hospitality – a great insult in the Arab world – as he accused them of hoarding welcoming food and drinks intended for the whole group. Some said that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church.

‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director. ‘They can be very hardheaded, as everyone thinks they are right.’

Slowly attitudes began to change. Bishop Yohanna Gulta of the Coptic Catholic church gave an address on the Trinity, demonstrating its essential monotheism. This message was confirmed by a respected Muslim scholar, after which some of the more sceptical imams began to mellow, Wassef said.

Particularly pleased was Fr. Mikhail Thabit, a Coptic Catholic priest in 6 October City outside of Cairo. Before relocating north he served 23 years in Hegaza, 570 kilometres deep in the often sectarian-laden provinces of Upper Egypt.

‘It was a Judas kiss,’ he said of his previous official gatherings with sheikhs, which he described as playacting. But with participants in this exchange he felt a real warmth develop as they joked together.

‘Just because we are different it is not the end of the world,’ he said. ‘Instead, the differences enrich us if we get to know each other.’

Between official meetings, many participants did. For some this involved only the phone calls offered for religious holidays, though the recognition of Christmas and Easter even as social occasions was often a great challenge. But Sheikh Ali Abdel Rahman of Fayoum welcomed Orthodox priest Fr. Mityas to his home to visit his sick wife. For many conservative Muslims female members of the household are strictly off limits to anyone but relatives.

‘God bless all of your work for the sake of our country and our children,’ lectured the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishak, who welcomed the imams and priests to the cathedral for one of the sessions.

‘But it is very important that this reaches the people so that they can see it, be influenced by it, and be changed.’

One of the most revolutionary acts of the group was simply to walk the streets together. Some priests complained when they walk alone some will curse and even spit upon them. But as they strolled the streets of Cairo in a group, onlookers gaped in astonishment, and seeming admiration. At the Coptic Museum a school group ran up to greet the imams and priests together, and demanded a picture.

‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious Murid, a Coptic Catholic priest in Fayoum, ‘and if they see a priest and an imam together it influences them to work together and overcome fanaticism.

‘These displays of love are like the leaven that spreads through the whole community.’ He hopes a Family House branch will soon be established in his city.

Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican Church in Egypt urged at the close of the second year of Family House sessions that this would not be the last meeting between participants. Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, asked the same.

And if year one is any indication, it is a developing project. Regional branches of the Family House were created in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Luxor, among others, though many cities have yet to show interest.

One city that did, however, is Port Said. There, Fr. Ghattas was able to directly intervene and prevent a Coptic family from being forced from their home.

A neighborhood scuffle between teenagers led to the hurling of insults and broken arms. The Muslim family’s home was full of knives, while the Christians – after fleeing for a week – called on relatives who brought guns.

But the potentially explosive situation was diffused when Ghattas pressed upon both families in the name of the Family House. The Christian family was primarily at fault, he judged, and led both in the acceptance of a reconciliation sacrifice. Two sheep were slaughtered and peace prevailed.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call [for us] to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim, Ghattas’ close collaborator in Port Said.

In a region torn by strife and religious intolerance, the Family House has accepted this challenge, to keep this harm from Egypt.


This article was originally published in the 13 December, 2014 print edition of The Tablet, but is currently behind an online paywall. It is reproduced here with permission.


Misrepresenting the Coptic Church and Politics


The debate is valid: What is the proper role of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the nation’s politics?

It is also an unavoidable debate. Once Pope Tawadros appeared with the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar to back the popularly-backed military overthrow of President Morsi, he reasserted the church into the political scene.

The decision of the pope can be criticized, but in a recent article for the Carnegie Middle East Center, Georges Fahmi goes much too far. He writes:

With the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in June 2014, the Church has attempted to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community. But that role, too, carries risks. Rather than trying to unify Egypt’s Christians under its leadership, the Church should withdraw from the political sphere and allow Copts to defend their interests themselves by joining political parties and movements. The Church should focus on being an institution of civil society that defends universal ideals such as human rights and social justice, and on supporting developmental projects for both Muslims and Christians.

In the essay which follows, Fahmi does an admirable job of summarizing the recent history of the Coptic Church in politics. Within a limited political sphere, President Mubarak allowed Pope Shenouda to represent the Coptic community outside the realm of law. After the revolution Pope Tawadros spoke against a political role for the church, but increasingly found himself drawn in during the Morsi administration. Famhi helps the reader track with an often neglected sub-theme in the Egyptian transition.

But in his summary critique, he makes statements that do not completely gel with my understanding of the situation.

  • Though the church does invest much charity in Christian focused projects, it also benefits local Muslims. Surely it could do more, of course.
  • He recommends the church defend universal ideals, but would this not also be a form of political engagement?
  • Perhaps his wording is poor, but is the church doing anything to disallow Christians from joining political parties and movements?

The church has always presented its participation in the overthrow of Morsi and the backing of the roadmap as a national decision, not a political one. It backed the constitution and the presidential election, but did not back a specific candidate. Again, its decision to speak at all can be criticized, but the nature of its speaking does not represent an attempt “to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community,” as the author accuses.

Here is his evidence:

The Church’s support for the military’s 2013 intervention has given it a privileged position in the new regime, prompting the Church to try to revive the old pact it had with the Mubarak regime. And changes carried out by the state have helped the Church regain its position as the only representative of the Coptic community.

As the new political authority has tightened its control over the public sphere, youth movements, including the Maspero Youth Union, have lost their ability to mobilize. Coptic politicians have also lost their influence, as the new regime seems to see little role for parties; President Sisi has not held any meetings with political parties.

What sort of privilege does the author intend? Is the church any more privileged than the judiciary, or the police, or the administration, or other institutional bodies that backed the overthrow? And where is the evidence of the church’s intention to “revive the old pact”? One can guess at their internal desire, but the author confuses the conduct of the state with the approval of the church.

The Maspero Youth Union lost its ability to mobilize long before the overthrow of Morsi. But it says that despite initial uncertainty it has a good relationship with the church. And within the political parties, Coptic politicians are still quite numerous and influential. Yes, the public sphere has shrunk, and political parties appear marginalized. Yes, the church has not spoken out against this, but few have. This is a national issue, and not one to lay at the foot of the church.

So should the church take a stand? Fahmi argues in his conclusion:

In terms of discourse, the Church needs to differentiate between defending universal values in the public sphere and engagement in deals with the state or political parties. While the first is needed and would improve the Church’s public image among Egyptians, the latter could have drastic consequences because it makes the Church a part of the political regime. The ideals of human dignity, social justice, and human rights need to be integrated into Church discourse. Only by struggling for a political regime that respects these principles will the Copts, together with all Egyptians, receive their full social and political rights.

In this and Fahmi’s other recommendations are found much wisdom. But where he wants to differentiate, I see simply a different involvement. To hold out a discourse for these values would be to very obviously criticize the current regime. Perhaps this prophetic voice is the burden of the gospel, but it is also very political. If the author wishes to accuse the church of hypocrisy for criticizing Morsi and not criticizing Sisi, let him do so. But the stakes for Christians were different, and as mentioned above, the church presented its approach in a national context, not one of religion or politics.

The consequence of its decision, however, is to put the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters outside the national context. Indeed, Egypt’s Christians are convinced of the terrorist designation with which the government labels them. And Christians suffered much terrorism, as their churches were attacked by Morsi supporters across the nation.

This is a high price to pay for the church, but the author comes very close to blaming the victim.

This leads to a situation in which Church decisions can put the lives and property of any individual Copt at risk, even if he or she did not actually participate in making a political choice.

Earlier he wrote:

The strategies of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Church in this period have increased the level of religious polarization between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. The result has been a cycle of sectarian violence, with each side accusing the other of attacks on its followers.

Unfortunately, this critique is partially true, but is it a cycle? The Brotherhood has certainly accused the church of a conspiracy, but their manner is deeply sectarian and propagandist. If the church had stayed silent, if Christians were not among the many, mostly Muslim activists who campaigned against the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps they would not have been targeted.

But did the church stand against Morsi for political gain only, to reset the Mubarak-Shenouda relationship? Or, did they place themselves in jeopardy because they thought it was right – for Coptic liberty, yes, but also for human rights and the good of the nation?

If their intentions were true, which can be debated, then this is exactly the situation Fahmi calls for now, with the church defending universal values as part of its discourse. Many Muslims have spoken positively of the church, for what it has suffered, and many Copts appreciate that the bulk of ‘moderate Muslims’, as they call them, now see Christians in a different and better light.

Like Fahmi, I can read into recent actions of the church a pattern of political engagement and representation of Copts as a community. I lean toward his perspective, wishing Copts as citizens would be in the forefront. But I try to watch carefully for evidence of this being the intention of the church, and I have not yet seen it. Fahmi links considerably to articles which trace history, but he can only interpret on this issue, and not link to any quotes.

Certainly I have not seen the church discourage its people from their own participation in politics. If movements are faltering and parties are weak, is this not their own fault? They have had three years since the revolution to assert themselves, to build apparatus and win support on the street. They have not done so. If Sisi ignores them, as mentioned above, is it because they do not yet have sufficient weight to force their hand.

The church does have weight. Fahmi’s correct question concerns how the church should wield it. The weight of the gospel does call for a prophetic voice, for self-limitation, and the promotion of the common good. Within the sharp political polarization and challenge to state authority, the church has a very difficult line to walk.

It is right to call the church to sublime ideals, but Fahmi’s article misrepresents in its critique. His opening sentence stated:

The Coptic Church’s recent involvement in politics in Egypt has harmed both the Church and the country’s Christian community.

If so, were he in Egypt, he would be one of the very few Christians to say so. Nearly everyone else is overwhelmingly positive about the status quo.

Perhaps this is why his own prophetic voice, even in overstatement, is needed. May his readers in Egypt bristle, but also consider.

Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Solemn Ceremony and Contentious Politics Surround the Papal Throne

Pope Tawadros

From my new article on EgyptSource:

In a solemn, emotional ceremony, Pope Tawadros II was enthroned as the 118th Coptic Orthodox patriarch on Sunday, November 18.  Only one day earlier, a different atmosphere prevailed. Acting Patriarch Bishop Pachomious announced the withdrawal of church representation from the constituent assembly writing Egypt’s new constitution.

As Pope Tawadros took his seat on the papal chair of St. Mark, he was the picture of spiritual reflection. His demeanor was subdued, almost resigned to his new responsibilities. On a few occasions he shed a tear.

Two days prior, the church – behind closed doors – was the picture of enflamed political discussion.

Tawadros is the disciple of Pachomious, who spoke of his protégé:

Following the reading of the gospel, Pachomious introduced the new pope. Tawadros’ gravity was matched by Pachomious’ triumphal proclamation. “I tell him I will be his son and his servant,” stated Pachomious, “for we know the meaning of spiritual fatherhood.” He then exclaimed, driving home an intended contrast, “There is no struggle for authority in the Coptic Orthodox Church!”

The contrast, of course, is with the Egyptian political system, which the church strove hard to rise above.

But why would Pachomious make such a critical decision a day before the new pope, presumably, should start guiding these matters?

According to Bishop Yohanna Golta, Deputy Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church and its representative in the constituent assembly, the pope’s distance was deliberate. “The goal of Bishop Pachomious’s announcement … was to avoid entangling the new pope in this matter,” he said.

Politics entered the papal ceremony through another route – the decision of President Morsy not to attend. Many saw this as a failure to assuage the Copts amid an Islamist presidency, but others were relieved.

Perhaps Morsi, like Pachomious, also spared Tawadros the difficulty of political complications. The pope may prefer a non-politicized papacy, but this luxury may not be afforded until Egypt’s government stabilizes, if then.

And finally, here was the lead-up to the conclusion which needed to be edited out to fit with EgyptSources political focus:

Regardless of the explanation, during the ceremony Bishop Pachomious publically thanked President Morsy for sending a deputy, but focused on the spiritual definition of leadership.

‘We are the children of St. Mark,’ he said, ‘who taught us to wash each other’s feet.’ In this he referred to the example of Jesus, who took the place of a servant to wash the feet of his disciples.

Perhaps Pachomious and the church did so for Pope Tawadros, leaving him enough room to change the decision positively should circumstances warrant.

Though only speculation, perhaps it was these wranglings which produced Tawadros’ tears.

Please click here to read the whole article on EgyptSource.

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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Tomorrow, God to Select the Next Coptic Orthodox Pope

From left: Bishop Tawadros, Fr. Raphael Ava Mina, Bishop Raphael

While Americans prepare to elect their next president on Tuesday, Egyptian Christians are leaving this Sunday’s choice for their highest leader up to a higher power: God.

On November 4, one of three final candidates will succeed Pope Shenouda III, the beloved “pope of the Bible” who died in March, as the 118th patriarch of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. But in contrast to the “group consensus” method used to select Roman Catholic popes, the casting of lots will determine whether Bishop Raphael of Cairo, Bishop Tawadros of Beheira, or Father Raphael Ava Mina, a monk from the Monastery of St. Mina near Alexandria, becomes the next spiritual leader of Egypyt’s 8 million Orthodox Christians.

This excerpt is from my article describing the papal selection process for Christianity Today. Please click here for the article in full.

It is an exciting day for Coptic Christians; may God honor their faith and grant them wise leadership. Two other angles to note:

First, all observers declared the election process prior to the lot was very organized, clear, and transparent. A limited pool of around 2,400 electors brought the number of candidates from five to three, of whom the lot will fall on one.

Some remarked the church wanted to present a picture of democracy and order that has so far escaped the Egyptian transition. Yes, for both parliament and president, democracy has been present and the lines to vote have been orderly. Yet the church has bent over backwards to ensure its election majors on the key missing ingredient in Egypt: transparency.

Second, if indeed there is transparency in selecting one of these three names, it presents an unmistakable spiritual picture of leadership to Egypt. One liberally-minded Muslim friend questions the reality of the lot, saying there is no way any large institution can leave their top leadership position to chance. He believes Bishop Raphael will be chosen; tomorrow we will see.

I am not sure how to interpret this spiritual picture, if indeed the blindfolded child has three separate names from which to draw. Yet given the wrangling, ambition, and conspiracy that has surrounded the Egyptian presidential contest – with unmistakable religious overtones – the church is saying: We trust in God.

As always, statements must be modified. The church is not saying it is a model for the Egyptian state. On the contrary, if anything, it is a rebuke by contrast. As a church we can be clearly spiritual in our leadership selection, but we are all Christians. The state, as a mixed polity, should be clearly secular.

If this is the lesson offered by the church, it is received. But it is not received with full transparency. The final choice is for God, and the election from five to three was by an accredited election. But the movement of candidates from seventeen to five was not particularly transparent. Twelve candidates were removed by a committee, and among these were the most controversial and polarizing figures.

Of the five that remained, three were of a similar disposition, while two were monks who were largely unknown. Please read the article to learn a little more of this disposition, but if the election from five and the lot from three will result in a similar pope no matter the candidate, where is the transparency?

By and large, Copts are very happy with their choices, so there is no need to complain. Furthermore, the church is not a democracy and should not be held to the standards of modern revolutionary conventional wisdom.

But on what basis were other candidates removed? Perhaps, simply, spiritual wisdom? This is not the same as transparency, on which democracy rests. Democracy can be transparent yet produce an unwise choice. But spin this differently, and the question is necessary: Is an appeal to spiritual wisdom simply a justification for paternalistic arrogance?

Now extend this question to Egypt, as President Mubarak did: Is Egypt ready for democracy?

Countless non-Islamists might look at the results and wonder, for they dare not articulate contrary to holy democratic principle, ‘No’. Democracy demands faith in the people, who can be rather fickle and easily manipulated.

Meanwhile, countless Islamists recognize ‘faith in the people’ as idolatry. They demand the coming constitution state clearly that sovereignty belongs – not to the people as currently written – but to God.

In the above, three models are presented: the reception of a system from God, the full sovereignty of people, and the paternalism that allows choice along a spectrum. Where does wisdom lie?

As I stated, I am not sure how to interpret the lessons from the papal selection process to the Egyptian society at large. I sense, however, the observations are poignant. I only wish for their proper translation.

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Bishop Thomas: Almost a Jonah

In typical Coptic Orthodox clerical fashion with his flowing black gown and long white beard, you would never know Bishop Thomas was almost a Jonah.

The Jonah of old is characterized for his rebellion against God. He was commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh, went instead on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction, and met up along the way with a famous whale.

A point often missed in the story applies equally well to the case of Bishop Thomas: Jonah was a man of God already, at the point of his calling. He was a prophet with a well established ministry in Israel.

Bishop Thomas, meanwhile, was a missionary monk serving in Kenya. He had already dedicated his life to God, when, at the age of thirty, God interrupted.

The interruption came through Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, now deceased. He identified Thomas for the position of bishop of Qusia in Upper Egypt, giving him one day to prepare for his ordination.

Thomas actually said no to the pope – an almost unheard of boldness in clerical circles. Yet his spiritual father encouraged him to wait and pray before making any final decision.

At the cathedral in Cairo Thomas knelt alone before the altar of God and cried the tears of resistance. He begged God to take this burden from him. The word ‘bishop’ implied title, respect and responsibility of men. Thomas preferred his quiet, unknown service among the Africans.

It was then God revealed to Thomas exactly where he was kneeling.

In the Coptic language, ‘anafora’ means ‘offering’ – that placed in sacrifice upon the altar. Thomas pictured himself no longer weeping beside the altar, but surrendered upon it.

God showed him a bishop was not a hand to rule over people, but a hand to come beneath them to lift them up. With this his heart rested and he accepted the mission – to own the work of a bishop, and not the title.

Moving to Qusia his vision – in particular the word ‘anafora’ – remained with him. He purchased empty land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway over two hundred miles from his parish. Here he oversaw a reclamation project he named Anafora, an offering of spiritual retreat for all who were in need.

Anafora became a retreat center open to all Christian denominations, local and foreign. It also provided employment for the people of Qusia suffering from a difficult job market. These he formed into a team able to administer the center independently in democratic manner. He teaches them even to positively say ‘no’ to the bishop, as he once did in error to the pope.

Anafora is being developed additionally into an education and training center for personal capacity building. Its focus is on women’s development, but also on men, to allow their wives to develop. Furthermore, Bishop Thomas is creating a life-size Biblical panorama to aid in scriptural education, as well as a school of mission to train in service for fields abroad. Currently France is asking for trained Arabic speakers, in cooperation with the University of Lyon.

Jonah, though he repented, remained a bitter servant even after seeing the harvest of his preaching in Nineveh. In contrast, Bishop Thomas did not succumb to rebellion but embraced the call of God. He remains full of joy in the life God has given him, a servant to all he comes across.

A whale can chasten, but not transform. Only God can change a heart.

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The Shrine to Pope Shenouda

Yesterday, in a third attempt, I was able to see the final resting place of Pope Shenouda.

All efforts were arranged by my friend Rashad, who I met through studies at a Coptic Orthodox theological institute, and who regularly organizes group trips to the various monasteries of Egypt. One such ordinary trip was to the Fayyoum region, where I had a daddy-daughter date with my firstborn.

The first attempt was canceled before it started. Rashad realized half the Coptic world was on its way to St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrun where Pope Shenouda was interred. Though he called around to solicit fellow pilgrims, he called it off later that same day.

The second attempt was a week later, and my second-born and I made our way to Wadi Natrun before realizing the other half of the Coptic world preceded us. Rashad wavered in continuing on hearing reports of the great traffic; when he heard of several deaths as Copts crushed against each other, he redirected us to the nearby Makarious Monastery instead. I had hoped to write comparing the shrine of Shenouda to that of his predecessor Pope Kyrillos, which I visited just before Shenouda’s death. Instead, I simply reflected on the effort to do so, focusing also on the shrine of the martyrs from the 2010 bombing in an Alexandrian church.

The third attempt succeeded. The trip was relatively uneventful, save for a flat tire on the way. Once again the monastery was packed – the visiting communion attendees filled half of the massive cathedral built on its grounds.

Afterwards we delayed and had breakfast in the monastery cafeteria, allowing everyone else to jostle their way into the shrine. An hour later, we were able to walk through briskly.

Briskly it was. There were attendants inside asking people to keep to their orderly lines and move quickly through the building. People threw prayers written on scraps of paper onto Pope Shenouda’s above-ground tomb, seeking his intercession. As they circled they touched their hands to the marble, seeking his blessing.

If either were to be had, they were had quickly. Within two minutes we were outside again. By now the crowds were low, and I returned for a second circumambulation in order to take the following video.

Click here for the four minute tour, with accompanying commentary.

It was both surprising and impressive to see the guardrails and organization at the pope’s tomb. Thinking back to the news of the deaths by crushing, my curiosity wondered if they were present that day. Unfortunately, I failed to discover an answer. Either way seems possible – the area was very tightly constructed.

St. Bishoy Monastery was Pope Shenouda’s choice for his remains. In 1981 he was banished here by President Sadat. After President Mubarak restored him to the papal throne in 1985, he established a practice of returning regularly for prayer and contemplation.

To close, here are a few pictures of the monastery, including other shrines housed therein.

Inside the ancient church of the monastery, which was founded in the 4th Century. These icons likely date back a few centuries.
The shrine of St. Bishoy, which the sign claims contains his uncorrupted remains.
The remains of Pope Benjamin the 8th, 82nd patriarch of the church.
With Rashad, whose living remains are a frequent source of blessing.


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Egyptian Wisdom and Easter Hope

Icon of the Resurrection
Icon of the Resurrection

In Egypt, Easter is celebrated today according to the Orthodox calendar. It is a rather strange holiday as it sets off a bit of schizophrenia in the country. Unlike Christmas, which is a national holiday, Easter is a regular day.

Except it isn’t. Christians are allowed the day off, and many Muslims take it also. The Monday following Easter is a national holiday, called Shem al-Naseem (Smelling the Breeze), which is a social holiday going back to the Pharaonic age in celebration of Spring.

The government grants many holidays, both national and religious, and as Muslims and Christians together recognize the prophet Jesus, Coptic Christmas is designated officially. There is little protest of this fact, save for some Salafis who also oppose recognition of Muhammad’s birthday. For Muslims of this ilk, the only proper holidays are designated by Islam – the end of Ramadan and the sacrifice of Ishmael – and does not include the honoring of a mere man, no matter his prophetic status.

Yet whereas Christmas enjoys wide acceptance, Easter is trickier. On religious holidays Muslims and Christians exchange phone calls, wishing friends a joyous celebration. Can Muslims do so in honor of the resurrection of Christ?

Islam holds that Jesus was not crucified but rather ascended directly into heaven. Therefore, he cannot have been resurrected from the dead, as he never died.

Such a denial undoes Christianity, but it need not undo social pleasantries. Many Muslims wish Christians well on the occasion of this feast. The aforementioned Salafis do not, nor on Christmas, but maintain this is only due to religious doctrine. They argue instead we should greet our Christian neighbors and treat them well on every occasion.

This does not hold too much weight with Christians, who greet Muslim friends despite non-belief in Islam. Regardless, it is not as if this issue is tearing Egypt at the seams. Photos like the one below demonstrate the general spirit seen among many Egyptians.

Translation: the Pharmacy of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs Wishes Brother Copts Happy Holidays on the Occasion of the Glorious Resurrection Feast (Easter)

This sign was placed on the wall of the church in Kozzika, which serves as diocesan headquarters for the Orthodox of Maadi. The pharmacy in question may simply be seeking good business, but in offering Easter wishes in particular it makes a social statement.

The owner of this pharmacy has always evaded the question of his political allegiance with me, but his location is within the complex of a mosque which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. In the days after the revolution he hosted an area wide meeting to esteem national unity, attended by priests of the church, local religious leaders, and representatives of the ruling military establishment.

It would be wrong to say that such public Easter greetings are seen everywhere in Egypt, but they are not uncommon outside of many churches.

One reason why such wisdom is found socially is due to the wisdom of Pope Shenouda. Former President Mubarak established Christmas as an official holiday, and was pleased especially with the Christian response.

Following this decision Mubarak approached Pope Shenouda about designating Easter likewise. Pope Shenouda encouraged him not to, recognizing the majority of the nation did not accept the resurrection of Jesus. Making such a statement on behalf of the state would cause unnecessary social strife and likely a public backlash.

Such an anecdote, whether true or apocryphal, provides a glimpse into the nature of Egyptian society. The state is neither secular nor religious, but maintains an odd balance between the two. Of course, the nature of the state is under deep debate following the revolution, and both fear and hope abound as to the outcome.

Yet the reality of Egyptian society is seen well through the common wisdom displayed by the pharmacist and many others. Despite religious distinctions Egyptians across the nation offer good wishes to their friends and neighbors, even on Easter.

Unfortunately, this reality is also undergoing potential redefinition, as society fractures into different identities and isolated communities. One reason the Salafi refusal to greet Copts on their holidays does not cause much social disruption is that so few Salafis and Copts have a relationship to begin with.

If the Egyptian revolution can be made akin to the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, when the crowds shouted in triumph and celebration, these current days may well represent the caustic debates while in Jerusalem, if not his outright death and time in the tomb.

Is a resurrection coming for Egypt? On this holiest of holidays, Egyptian Christians must maintain their hope. Yet more alike to Mary Magdalene and her female companions, they must confront their grief and visit the tomb – perhaps akin to visiting their Islamist nemesis which they believe has buried their Messiah of a civil state?

Parallels must not be stretched too far, but the Gospel resurrection was first experienced at the tomb. Might Egypt’s be as well? Jesus’ resurrection was entirely a surprise, and his form completely different from that of their familiar companion.

What form will Egyptian resurrection take? What surprises are in store? Will Egyptian Christians remain cowered in the Upper Room? Will the resurrected Egypt still appear to them there?

Or will the women be the herald of the new reality? They upon whom all social relationships depend may hold the secret to this resurrection. Women will always greet their friends.

Yet it was men and women together who carried the news of resurrection abroad to all the land. Egypt’s resurrection must be similar. Copts, Salafis, Muslim Brothers, secularists – solutions must be found and proclaimed together.

For Egyptian Christians, will they approach them, even after the loss of their hope? Resurrection can only follow desperation and defeat. Will they trust their Savior? Will they trust their fellow citizens?

Will they trust Egypt?


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Reflecting on the Papal Shrines

My daughter, not a pope

Five people were killed yesterday at St. Bishoy Monastery, crushed to death visiting the shrine of Pope Shenouda. I was nearly there, along with my three year old daughter.

It was meant to be part two of my visits to the shrines of the most recent popes. The second leg was not planned with the first; a day before Pope Shenouda’s death I was with Coptic Orthodox friends on a trip to St. Mina Monastery near Alexandria, to visit the shrine of Pope Kyrillos (Cyril VI).

These same friends then organized a trip the first weekend after Pope Shenouda’s burial, but postponed it out of fear of the expected massive crowds. Instead we set off on the second weekend, but ran into similar trouble.

Feeling semi-guilty for disappearing for the second time over three weekends, I volunteered to take my daughter with me. I had done so earlier with the oldest child, and we had an enjoyable outing. Of course, the country wasn’t exploding at the time.

To avoid the early morning rush my organizing friend decided to first stop at the nearby Baramous Monastery for breakfast. This monastery celebrates two Roman Christian brothers born into a wealthy family who left all and went to live in the desert. As per her custom, my daughter enjoyed playing in the dirt after mass, and then we enjoyed our shared meal of fried bean sandwiches, French fry sandwiches, and lentil dip.

Making a monastery of her own
With friends from our group

It was then we sat and waited, and waited. Monastery trips with Copts are usually festive times of visiting ancient sites, buying lots of religious trinkets, and taking blessing from the monks while seeking their intercession. On this occasion, understandably more somber due to the pope’s death, there was simply a discontented confusion.

Our organizer was incessantly on the phone with someone from St. Bishoy Monastery where we were headed. As the minutes ticked by he received more and more encouragement to stay away. At first it was simply too crowded. Eventually we learned they had closed off the area. Finally he was informed that several pilgrims had been killed.

Even so, it was difficult to convince our group not to continue on. The whole point of this trip was to visit the pope’s final resting place, and for many this meant securing a great blessing. The organizer sought to convince them God would reward them according to their intention, and that even Pope Shenouda himself would be displeased if we continued. Should we contribute to the chaos and disruption of his sanctuary, simply for our personal blessing?

Eventually we left to seek blessing from another nearby monastery, St. Makarios. This 4th Century saint lived celibate with his wife (who was forced upon him by his family) until her death, when he was finally free to devote himself to God. He was the first monk to settle in the Wadi Natrun desert, where four historical monasteries now continue.

The line of buses, after half an hour of waiting to get in

It turns out, however, nearly every other would-be St. Bishoy Monastery visitor had the same idea. We sat in our bus for an hour simply waiting to be processed at the gate. After eventually getting inside, we joined the dispirited crowds milling about the premises for about half an hour, until the monks reclaimed their silence and had everyone leave. From here we had our final meal together, and began the trek back home.

Though disappointed to not see the pope’s burial grounds – the whole reason for the trip – I was pleased to go to St. Makarious where I had resided three days in a monk’s cell and had a few friends. But even this hope failed, as one elderly monk told me there was no way he was leaving his quarters to wade through the masses who would surround him looking for blessing. Then I learned a younger monk I knew also could not greet me, as he was recovering from open heart surgery.

The day was not supposed to be like this, and I am glad I had my daughter with me to pass the time and enjoy her company. She was blissfully unaware of everything but the dirt, happily making her own mini-monasteries wherever she could.

It was supposed to me more like part one of the papal shrine tour, only amplified in both numbers and grief. Two weeks earlier I was among a similar crowd of pilgrims, brought to St. Mina’s Monastery the weekend after the celebration of Pope Kyrillos’ death. St. Mina was a Roman Christian soldier who left the army to practice monasticism, and was later martyred. Pope Kyrillos adopted him as his patron saint.

The grounds were packed, the crowds were in revelry.

Here are some photos of his shrine:

And here is the scene around his tomb:

A Coptic priest seeking the pope's intercession
Ordinary Copts, taking blessing from his tomb

Finally, here is a crowd gathered around his ‘hymn of praise’, chanting his virtues and extolling his life. Click here to watch a video of this scene.

It is difficult to know what to make of such devotion. To provide snide evidence of the backwardness of Coptic spirituality, consider this picture:

At the Baramous Monastery this garden scene has water flowing continually from the ceramic pitcher. Without exploring further, I assumed it was a simple hydraulic function common in many suburban fountains. The assumption of several passers-by, overhearing their conversation, was that this was a miracle of the monastery.

Yet to provide sympathetic evidence of the suffering depths of Coptic spirituality, consider these pictures:

Translation: The martyr Mina Wagdy Fakhry
Our group leader, in contemplation
Translation: The martyr Peter Sami
Translation: Verse from Ps. 65:4; the martyr Sabri Fawzi Wissa
Translation: The righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Mt. 13:43)

St. Mina’s Monastery hosts also the remains of Christians killed on New Year’s Eve 2010, when a bomb exploded outside the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. I have written earlier about the shrine dedicated to these martyrs inside the church, but I had never seen such a memorial previously.

In the United States one can often see a small cross erected on the side of the road where a loved one was killed in a traffic accident. There are memorials for those killed in war, during 9-11, or in other national tragedies. Yet America, best I know, has no religious martyrs.

Egypt, on the other hand, is full of them. The Coptic calendar dates from 284 AD, when Diocletian became Roman emperor and ushered in the bloodiest period of Christian persecution.

Popes Kryillos and Shenouda died natural deaths, but they provided historical leadership for the church of martyrs. Celebrated saints have interceded through miracles for countless Copts through the centuries. Pope Kyrillos has done the same, and now Pope Shenouda is poised as well.

Perhaps the cynic points out: Could he not then have prevented the deaths of three Copts in Cairo, and five at the monastery – all who were there out of love for him?

As I mentioned, it is difficult to know what to make of such devotion.

For those who share in Christian faith, these are your brothers and sisters. As much as they stand to benefit from Western experience in hydraulics, we stand to benefit from Coptic experience in spiritual immanence.

As Pope Shenouda has placed on the lips of every Egyptian Christian: God is present.

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Selecting the Next Pope

From Left: Makram Ebeid, Hulsman, Windfuhr, Casper, Labib

Near thirty journalists gathered at the Cairo Foreign Press Association headquarters to gain insight on the process involved in selecting a successor to the recently deceased Pope Shenouda. Arab West Report presented its research on the subject, accepting also further inquiries.

The March 27 meeting was opened by FPA board member Sayid Ghuriyat, and presided over by FPA chairman Volkhard Windfuhr.

AWR Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman began by mentioning the 1957 regulations which govern issues concerning papal selection. AWR published a translation of these regulations into English on the internet for the first time in history, which can be accessed here.

The 1957 regulations make it clear that all papal candidates must be a minimum of 40 years old and have at least 15 years of experience living as a monk in a monastery. Yet other questions of eligibility can be perplexing.

For example, until the 20th Century only monks were eligible for selection as pope, not bishops. This changed for the first time in the 1920s when a diocesan bishop was selected, breaking with church tradition going back to the Nicene Council. The influential but controversial Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun supports the idea of returning to this ideal.

Hulsman noted another eligibility interpretation allows for the election of general bishops who do not serve in a diocese but rather in specific fields like education. Then Bishop Shenouda was the first general bishop in Coptic history, and was elected as pope from this position. Given the legitimizing popularity of Pope Shenouda, current Coptic consensus would allow for the election of another general bishop.

Finally, a minority position in the Coptic Church believes it is acceptable for a diocesan bishop to be elected pope. Though done in the past, it is widely believed such an action would contradict the 1957 regulations. The number two man in the church, Bishop Bishoy, is general secretary of the papal council, but also the bishop of Damietta, thus disqualifying him in the process.

Hulsman concluded his presentation by summarizing the research of AWR Managing Editor Hany Labib, introducing the leading candidates for the papacy from the community of bishops. Details of this research can be accessed here.

AWR Researcher Jayson Casper then presented the influence of expatriate Copts on the selection process. Though the population of Copts both within Egypt and abroad is disputed, both high and low estimates establish that between 10-25% of Coptic Orthodox Christians live outside of Egypt.

Many expatriate Copts logically complain they have no voice in the process of selecting the next pope, given the 1957 regulations reflected a situation before widespread Coptic emigration. Two factors limit this complaint however. First, ordinary Copts in Egypt also have little to no voice in the selection process, as it is a largely internal process conducted by the church, and explained further below.

Second, the most influential voice in the electoral process belongs to the bishops of the church, of whom roughly 20% preside over foreign dioceses. This is in approximate accordance with the population of Copts living abroad, so through their bishops they maintain an influence.

Casper provided statistics for these bishops, mentioning them by continent:

  • Africa: 4 bishops in 14 countries with 90+ churches and three monasteries, most of which are indigenous
  • Asia/Australia: 3 bishops in 11 countries with 70+ churches and two monasteries
  • Europe: 10 bishops in 10 countries, including the indigenous dioceses of England and France
  • North America: 5 bishops serving 240+ churches and two monasteries
  • South America: 2 bishops in 2 countries, including an indigenous movement in Bolivia

Nevertheless, foreign Copts have put forward a proposal to have each overseas bishop present ten or so lay members of his diocese to serve on the committee selecting the pope. Approximately half of these bishops are conservative and traditional say these Copts, and ignore the issue. The others have at least sympathetically listened, but it is not anticipated this proposal will be adopted.

Finally, Casper noted that among the often overlooked achievements of Pope Shenouda’s reign was his ability to institutionalize the Coptic Orthodox Church around the world. Not only may this extension of the hierarchy prevent Copts from dissolving into their adopted culture, but positively may result in a revival of Orthodox Christianity around the world, fitting with the church’s original missionary posture.

AWR board member Amin Makram Ebeid, from a prominent and historical Coptic family, then briefly provided his personal reflection on the process. He hopes the next pope will be transitional, so as to eventually return the church to its traditional spiritual role. He nevertheless noted that the sacred and the secular have been mixed in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs, noting the difficulty of the task.

Finally, Labib provided the details of the selection process through the forum of questions and answers. Specifically, those who will select the pope are constituted from the Holy Synod (the presiding bishops), the Community Council (20+ lay members who tend to administrative affairs), and the managing group for Coptic properties. In addition to these are a select number of public figures, journalists, and politicians.

This group of over 100 members first selects a nomination committee of 18, to be composed of nine clergy and nine laity (their names have been made public here). These will tend to all proposed candidates, of whom either five or seven will be accepted. These names return to the larger group for the official vote, and the top three names will then be put forward by ecclesiastical lot, with the final choice made by God.

Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the process should take between two to three months.

Labib noted that interim chairman of the Holy Synod Bishop Pachomius insisted the 1957 regulations will remain unchanged. New interpretations, however, will be considered. Some journalists present believed this would open the process up to undue controversy, but Labib and others disagreed. They found it to be an appropriate adjustment to changed circumstances as well as favoring greater transparency.

For example, Labib returned to the question of whether or not a diocesan bishop could become pope. Though often reported as ‘no’ in the media, the 1957 regulations stipulate that any bishop may become pope. Regulations stipulate also the candidate must be celibate, but herein lies the rub. In traditional Coptic understanding, a bishop is ‘married’ to his diocese. Should this then preclude eligibility for the papacy? Traditionally, yes, but the question is open for reconsideration. Labib echoed church voices, however, in insisting the church is not Tahrir Square. It is an ancient institution not subject to the whims of the street.

Labib was asked about the different trends present in the church. He described two, suggesting the choice of pope might be determined as a choice between these two trends.

One trend he labeled the rigid, almost confrontational. Labib believed this trend was growing due to tensions over the emergence of Islamist groups. Bishop Bishoy is at the head of this trend, as is Bishop Armiya.

The second trend he described as moderate, seeking consensus and conciliation. Bishops such as Musa, Yu’annis, and Marcos represent this trend.

In answering a separate question Labib noted Pope Shenouda was between the two trends, especially over time. While very confrontational before his banishment to the monastery in 1981, he became much more conciliatory after his return. Thereafter his conduct varied issue by issue as he deemed best.

Another question concerned whether or not these trends pertained to intra-church issues such as divorce and relations with other denominations. Another pertained to whether or not ordinary Copts are putting pressure on the selectors for their papal preference.

Labib stated that social issues are not a resonating factor and do not serve to be discussed by the church at this time. These intra-church matters must wait until the election of a new pope and then probably about six months or so afterwards, before they re-emerge for discussion or decision. In any case, if there is a semblance of popular pressure, it consists in the fact that the ordinary Copt is fearful the community no longer has a representative or protector in front of the state and/or Islamists.

One question wondered if the current constitutional crisis and threatened Islamist dominance affects Coptic concerns over the selection of the pope. No, Labib replied, as the selection is a wholly internal matter unaffected by parliament or the constitution. If the church purposed to amend the 1957 regulations this would have needed ratification in parliament, which could have complicated the issue.

To close the press conference after this note Windfuhr remarked that which binds Egyptians together is much stronger than that which divides them, believing Egypt would ultimately succeed in its transitional phase, however difficult it may be. Along these lines he noted that the great majority of all Egyptians received news of Pope Shenouda’s death with emotion and sympathy. Even those who made a show of their rejection in parliament by failing to stand for a moment of silence probably went home and regretted it, he remarked. If not, they were surely rebuked by their families upon arrival.

In appreciation, the Foreign Press Association ended the press conference with everyone standing for a minute of silence.


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A Salafi Speaks in Church on Shenouda

Fatima Naout and a surprise Salafi guest

The evening was supposed to be about Fatima Naout and Pope Shenouda. It turned out to be so much more.

That it included Fatima Naout is semi-exceptional in itself. St. Mark’s  Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi invited her to be the keynote presenter for a memorial service for Pope Shenouda. Naout is a Muslim.

Yet she is well known in Egypt – and celebrated by Copts – as a staunch defender of citizenship, liberal principles, and Coptic rights. There are many Muslims like her, of course, but she goes further. She has memorized many verses of the Bible and lauds Christians over the sublime teachings of their religion.

She stated she loves to go to church because she is jealous of Christians. She finds much in Islam to be their antithesis.

During her presentation Naout made many beautiful remarks about Pope Shenouda, and was received warmly. It was not until the end, however, that the evening got really interesting.

Mahmoud arrived, complete with the full length beard marking a Muslim of Salafi persuasion.

He was noticed quickly, and must have explained himself sufficiently, for before too long he was brought to the front to speak. He apologized for being late, and offered his condolences over the death of Pope Shenouda, offering kind words about their spiritual leader.

The church was electrified. In the days after Pope Shenouda’s death a popular Salafi preacher forbade Muslims from saying the common cultural expression over a death, ‘God have mercy on him.’ Shenouda was an infidel, and the head of the infidels, and God would not have mercy on an infidel, especially one who brought such sectarian tension to Egypt and wished to create an independent Coptic state.

In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood speaker Saad al-Katatni paused proceedings and asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence out of respect for Pope Shenouda. The Salafi members stayed in their seats, except for those who chose to walk out.

The entrance of a Salafi into a memorial for Pope Shenouda, then, caused quite a stir. Later on Naout’s Christian secretary apologized to Mahmoud publically. When she saw him come in she immediately feared he was going to blow himself up in the church.

Mahmoud stated he was afraid himself. Before coming in he thought he would be searched rudely, if not barred at the gate. Instead, he was astounded at his welcome.

These confessions came later. After his two minute offer of condolences the service ended with a final hymn, and all exited. Mahmoud, however, had a crowd around him outside.

Naout and Mahmoud

Some wanted to get a point across, though were friendly in doing so. It was certainly an opportunity to address a Salafi on their own turf, with numbers in their favor. Mahmoud was gracious and didn’t seem to be bothered by his instant celebrity.

Most of those present, however, simply offered their welcome, and thanked him for coming. He was invited back, so that he might see how Christians pray and get a fuller picture of the faith and the community. He appeared willing to do so.

The whole while Naout was still inside speaking with the organizers of the service, but made a point to speak to Mahmoud. When she exited and found him, the crowd around them doubled in size.

Eventually it led to a spontaneous second seminar. Naout and Mahmoud sat at a quickly arranged table and simply talked about their understandings of religion. Several in the crowd asked questions.

By this time Mahmoud’s story was known, though he repeated it for those who did not hear. He came only to hear Naout speak.

After the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign entitled, ‘Listen to us, don’t listen about us.’ Aware of their poor reputation in the press and their late entry into the revolution, the Brotherhood enjoined people to learn directly from the organization about its principles and values.

Mahmoud wanted to do the same, in reverse.

Given that Naout has such a poor reputation among Salafis, he heard about her presentation and came to the church to listen. Unfortunately, he was late and missed most of it. Yet the swell of attention and the interest of Naout to engage with such an open attitude led to his invitation to speak directly to the whole assembly.

I identified with him, had respect and sympathy for him, but advised him to think twice about doing it. I probably shouldn’t have, but it was my reaction after having been in his shoes. I will never regret wearing them, but I feared he was unprepared, and I feared the Coptic audience.

Several weeks ago I was in Tahrir Square, and I stumbled upon a tent representing the Coalition to Support New Muslims. This was a group that provoked/responded to – depending on perspective – great sectarian tension over the summer concerning a woman named Camilia Shehata. She was the wife of a priest who disappeared, fueling rumors she had been either, one, kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or two, converted willingly and was kidnapped by the church to prevent the announcement.

The Coalition to Support New Muslims rallied behind her according to their interpretation, and led multiple marches of thousands of conservative Muslims. On one occasion they marched threateningly past the Coptic Cathedral, the seat of Pope Shenouda.

I had long been curious about this group, but had no idea how to get in contact with them. By this occasion in Tahrir Square the Camilia Shehata issue had long since passed, but here I was at their doorstep.

I was received warmly and learned extensively of their perspectives. Despite the fact that Shehata appeared publically with her husband and child on satellite television and confessed her belief in Christianity, the Coalition held to the fact that she had indeed converted, and the church pressured her to return. Of note, the television station she appeared on was foreign based, and she spoke from abroad.

After a little while, though, the conversation changed. There were ten to fifteen people in the tent, and they began asking accusatory questions about Christianity. The Coalition, incidentally, had begun as individual members identified themselves on Paltalk, a popular chat service that hosts multiple rooms for interfaith, um, dialogue.

In reality it is a place of proselytizing, on all sides. The Muslims of the Coalition were long practiced at combating Christian witness on the site, and doing their best to convince in the other direction.

Unlike Mahmoud, they did not have the attitude of ‘listening to us, not about us’ to learn, but to pick Christianity apart. After finishing the basics about the Coalition and Camilia Shehata, they turned their sights on me.

It was not pleasant. A question would be posed, an answer attempted, and then someone else would jump in from a different direction. They were not rude, just purposed, and in the end, annoying (not all, of course, mostly one in particular). It was as if they had never interacted with a real live Christian before, and certainly not a foreigner.

And now, Mahmoud was in the same place.

He handled himself well, as did the audience. The only challenge came from Naout. She asked him about the difference between Quranic verses composed early in Mecca, which are largely irenic, with those from when he later resided, and ruled, in Medina. This is from where ‘verses of the sword’ issue, and most Muslim exegetes consider later revelation to abrogate the earlier. How could he, a kind and open-minded Muslim, accept such commands to kill and discriminate?

It was the sort of question I feared for him, as Naout is well versed in these matters and a strong personality, while Mahmoud, presumably, just wanted to learn. He ducked deftly enough, and no one was out for blood. The overwhelming sentiment in the audience was gratefulness that a Salafi had joined them. The evening ended with the idea Mahmoud could return with other Salafi colleagues, ones able to answer the question well, and the church could host them in seminars to get to know each other better. Fr. Butrous of St. Mark’s Church even offered to visit a Salafi mosque to do the same on their turf. Mahmoud indicated these were good ideas.

They are, in fact, beautiful ideas. The beauty stems from both sides, though in different manners. Mahmoud made the effort to get to know the other. He risked his own community’s condemnation by offering condolences for the pope. He even risked the chance the police guard outside the church might have misunderstood his intentions and gotten into trouble.

The beauty of the church stems from their reception. Copts feel under tremendous pressure from Islamists in general, and Salafis in particular. By and large, they did not take their unprecedented opportunity to lay into a Salafi who was actually kind hearted enough to listen to what could have been their many legitimate complaints. Instead, they welcomed him, and made certain his visit was appreciated.

It is beautiful, but it is also revealing. The Coptic Church is widely panned as being an insular institution whose people have grown more and more isolated within its walls. Salafis can be understood somewhat similarly. There is very little connection between the two groups, and as such, acrimony is frequent on both sides.

I cannot say what the real Salafi attitude is toward Christians, if it differs from that of many of their high profile leaders. Yet the church attitude demonstrated that even if Christians are isolated, they desire to be known. Most may not desire it enough to be as brave as Mahmoud, but when offered a chance to interact with a Salafi, they jumped at the chance. They are desperate to give a good, and corrective, impression.

Naout closed the impromptu session by referring back to Pope Shenouda. She claimed this evening was ‘one of his miracles’. Indeed, had the pope not died, this memorial service would not have been held, Naout would not have been present, and Mahmoud would never have set foot in a church. Is it a miracle?

The answer is probably dependant on theology. Is it safe to say it is a miracle of the revolution? Is God arranging to bring the diverse strands of Egyptian belief closer and closer together? Is it just a token sociological accident? Or has good already begun to emerge from Pope Shenouda’s death?

Regardless, greater interaction between Copts and Salafis, Islamists and liberals, urbanites and villagers, and all manner of Egyptians is desperately necessary. Tonight, Pope Shenouda, Fatima Naout, and Mahmoud all circumstantially intertwined to begin a small chapter.

Or should it be labeled ‘providentially’?


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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Pope Shenouda and the Constitution


Give comfort to the Copts in the loss of their pope. Pope Shenouda was a father figure and the only spiritual patriarch many Copts have ever known. May his death remind them that all die, but their confidence rests in the one of whom their faith claims resurrected the Messiah.

As they find this confidence, God, nurture it through provision of the next suitable pope. Many in the church are divided: Some desire another champion, others wish for a church of spiritual leadership leaving politics to the people. You know what is best, God. Provide the man who will strengthen the church and further your kingdom principles. May he have the Copts be a blessing to all, no matter the manner he interprets your will.

God, may the process of his selection be transparent. In the vagaries of post-revolutionary Egypt, help the church to honor its ancient traditions, while honoring also the public eye. In the end, may the choice be yours, but may the people find consensus with their leaders. Heal division, curb ambition. Preserve the unity of all.

Thank you, God, for the outpouring of condolence offered by Egypt. May it unite also Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, and give them common cause in rebuilding their nation.

Yet there is fear, and the coincidence of history is concerning. During the interim between Pope Kyrollos and Pope Shenouda the state placed Article Two into the Constitution. Young Pope Shenouda railed against it, for it established the principles of sharia law to be the basis of all legislation.

Old Pope Shenouda, however, relied on sharia law to secure what he believed to be Biblical interpretation in divorce and family matters. It is likely the new constitution will be formed in the interim between two popes. Meanwhile, as Egypt prepares, almost no Copts ask for the removal of Article Two.

Yet almost all Christians – and many Muslims – have at least slight concern Article Two will be amplified Islamically. According to the rules of the game as received so far, very little can be done to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis from crafting a fully Islamic constitution, if they so wish.

God, give wisdom to the Copts in these major issues. Should they labor and protest for a liberal constitution seemingly against the wishes of the majority? Should they embrace an Islamic vision and within it trust the protection offered? Or should they fully partner with Islamists to grant a religious charter that guarantees citizenship and full political and religious freedom?

The choice is no longer in the hands of Pope Shenouda, God. Raise up leaders who can guide the Copts in the way of wisdom.

Yet bless the process, God. May the constitution be a document to unite Egyptians, not divide them. May Copts share liberally in the process, while humbly recognizing their minority voice. May Muslims be generous and inclusive. May they hold to the truth nobly as their wisdom suggests. Honor all as they honor the other. May each hold the interests of Egypt above their own. From this, God, grant the interests of all.

Give Copts a good pope, God; give Egypt a good constitution.



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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Pictures, Video, and Observations from Pope Shenouda’s Funeral

The atmosphere at Pope Shenouda’s funeral today was not what I expected. At first it was dull, and then sympathetically chaotic.

Entrance to the church itself could only be secured with a personal invitation, so I made my way early to the courtyard of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral to witness the swelling throngs. Over the past few days since his death thousands upon thousands of Copts gathered to collectively mourn both outside and inside the church, where Shenouda’s body was sitting-in-rest, perched upon his papal throne.

The only issue: The crowds did not come.

The inside of the church was packed with dignitaries, as was visible from the giant movie screen set up both in the courtyard and in the garden below. I maneuvered to a platform by the side of the stairs, to try to capture a picture of when the whole area would lurch with mourners.

As the sun beat down and I tired from standing as the funeral service proceeded, it became apparent the crowds were not coming. The upper level of the courtyard at the entrance to the church was packed, but with hundreds, not thousands. This entryway was shut to seal off the proceedings, while dignitaries entered from a smaller door to the side.

I walked around wondering. The entrance I came through amid tight security had now been shut, as had the other gates to the cathedral. Temporary cloth walls cordoned off other areas.

Apparently, authorities wanted to keep the official funeral as peaceful and ordered as possible. The day before three Copts died and dozens were injured as a semi-stampede erupted among those trying to pay their last respects.

At this point I wondered what would happen if all the doors remained closed. Despite the fewer numbers there were still over a thousand people outside the church, not including the several thousand inside. Might there be another stampede when the service ended?

Yes, but in the other direction.

Near the close of service the funeral leader read off the list of names present. These included top military brass, major presidential candidates, senior figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties, and ambassadors from around the world. Nearly all major religious denominations were also present. It was an impressive list.

But not to the crowd waiting outside. They listlessly attended to the names, and awaited the final farewell video of Pope Shenouda.

When it came, they raised their hands and tearfully waved him goodbye.

Video: Copts Wave Goodbye to Pope Shenouda

Then when they were bid farewell in peace, the crowd rushed across the entranceway courtyard to the balcony for one last glimpse of his physical body. He was taken from his throne and escorted outside to the street, where he would be flown for burial at St. Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natroun.

Video: Copts Rush to Balcony to Witness Shenouda’s Final Departure

When this scene ended, as most were unable to see, a small contingent started to physically break down the cathedral door to enter inside. Only the rapid reaction of the church’s scouts prevented this from happening.

I did not quite notice how it happened next, only that a few minutes later another door was forced open. It may have been aided by those inside seeking a more rapid exit, but before long the crowd was jamming itself through the narrow entrance, past the cries of those inside forbidding the action.

Video: Copts Enter Orthodox Cathedral for One Last Look at Pope Shenouda

Once inside, all propriety was lost as many started climbing over the pews to get to the front.

Video: Copts Scale Church Pews to Approach the Papal Throne

The object was Pope Shenouda’s throne. Before too long scores of Copts had surrounded it, trying to get close enough to touch. These were seeking blessing, as the pope had only minutes early been occupying the seat. Most would never get that close to either a pope or his chair again.

Video: Copts Seek Blessing at Papal Throne

Many Copts believe in the physicality of blessing, and they have scriptural warrant to do so. It says in Acts 19:11-12,

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

The Coptic Orthodox Church believes itself to be an extension of the original apostolic authority. As Peter became pope in Rome, so did Mark the gospel writer in Alexandria. Their power given to work miracles continues today.

I cannot say whether the following is official doctrine or not, but one mourner told me that no injections had been given the corpse of Pope Shenouda. He died three days ago but his body has not yet begun the process of decay. He has sat-in-state since then, for public display and affection, as a mark of God’s approval.

I found the example of the priest in the video to be inspiring. His spiritual leader had just died, all order was breaking down inside the cathedral, and he sat patiently in the papal chair serving the crowd. Instead of rebuking them, he assisted the gathering of tissues from those who were too far away, touched the chair, and gave them back. May God bless him.

Today was a sad day, and I wish I was not so occupied with gathering pictures so as to more fully join in. The Bible commends us to mourn with those who mourn. At times I did, especially when witnessing others shed tears. But for the most part I was too distracted with the surroundings.

May God bless the Copts, give them space to mourn and sympathy from their neighbors, and an eventual next good pope to come.


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Christianity Today Middle East Published Articles

Christianity Today on Pope Shenouda

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of the Co...

Just a short post today to direct to the article I contributed to Christianity Today on why the death of Pope Shenouda is also mourned by Egypt’s Protestants. If you click on the link above today you will see it highlighted as the lead story. Afterwards, please click here for the permanent link.

I hope the article will help the largely evangelical American audience better understand Coptic Christians, and the great affinity between the two communities. May they pray for the church here during this period of mourning, and for wisdom, in selecting a successor.

Here is the article opening:

Pope Shenouda, the controversial yet beloved head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, passed away on Saturday after 40 years of leading and reforming the ancient Christian sect. His death complicates the uncertain position of Orthodox believers—who represent 90 percent of Egyptian Christians—now that Islamists have surged to leadership following Egypt’s revolution last January.

Coptic Protestants respected and appreciated the pope.

“Shenouda was a pope of the Bible,” said Ramez Atallah, head of the Bible Society of Egypt. “We are the fifth-largest Bible society in the world because [he] created a hunger for the Scriptures among Copts.”

Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, described Shenouda’s commitment to interdenominational understanding. “I have known him since before he was pope, and we served together on the Middle East Council of Churches. He would meet with us for hours and listen to our views.”

Please click here to continue reading at Christianity Today.



A Few Thoughts and Links on Pope Shenouda

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria

Living here in Egypt as a writer, I have long worried over the looming death of Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Speaking only personally, it seemed a daunting task to try and summarize his life, as long, influential, and controversial it has been.

This mostly has to do with my preference for writing analysis and context, as opposed to news. Yet the death of a major figure demands quick production. Doing justice to the man and the future of the church of Egypt seemed incredibly complex a task. There is so much about the Coptic Orthodox Church which still escapes me.

Arab West Report has produced a fine obituary on Pope Shenouda, one submitted the day of his death with substantial analysis and contextual content. The author and director of our center has lived long in Egypt and is clearly well researched and contemporary to the events described. I hope to attain such proficiency some day.

Please click here for the link.

Another good report comes from the Guardian, a UK based newspaper. I provide this link not only for its content, but also because it links to a report I wrote several months ago after the Maspero massacre. I was the only foreigner present during a press conference hosted by the Maspero Youth Union, and after all this time it was picked up by the major media.

I hope a more extensive analysis of this situation can come in a few days. I spent today surveying Egyptian Protestant leaders for their reaction, and hope to make this report available tomorrow.

For now, let us pray for Egypt’s Copts, as they are mourning. Analysis can come later. Below are a few pieces I have written about him in the past.

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Church, State, and Revolution in Egypt

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of the Co...
Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Many Christians in America are keen on emphasizing that the ‘separation of church and state’ is found nowhere in the constitution. Rather, they state, it was from the personal letters of Thomas Jefferson – his guiding opinion, of course, but never adopted in America’s founding documents.

This is true. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion for the individual, while also keeping government from imposing a religious test for any public office. Many Christians, however, find that the modern interpretation of these clauses – read through Jefferson – squeeze religion from public life.

They don’t know how good they have it.

Coptic Christians in Egypt are currently caught between two relatively good systems. The modern secular state, as in America, allows personal freedoms and independence of religious institutions. This was somewhat the promise of Mubarak, but never really arrived. Especially in light of the Arab Spring, many Copts look to the west and hope for the implementation of such enlightened policy.

Yet on the other hand, also driven by the Arab Spring, is the understanding that Islam-as-state protects a subservient church. This also is enlightened, and for many centuries Christians lived comfortably under the caliphate, participating in society, economy, and government. There were abuses in history, and it is not the equivalent of modern citizenship. Yet many Copts are fearful of such a return, while Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are head-over-heels trying to assure them their fears are baseless.

Unfortunately, Mubarak muddled between the two.

While the church was officially independent, it was not free. Relations between the president and the pope were conducted along the lines of the old caliphal system. No jizia was paid, but in exchange for guaranteeing the subservience of the Christian community, the pope received a direct line to the leader and relative freedom of internal rule. If Christians got out of line, though, or if it was necessary to hold them in line, a measure of sectarian strife was allowed. Some say it was even encouraged, if not promoted.

A few days ago I posted about a controversy in the church, which erupted during Christmas celebrations. With the massacre at Maspero in the background, Pope Shenouda welcomed the military council, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. The church has regularly welcomed representatives of the state, which in the past have been members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

This year, it is members of the military council, and of the triumphant Islamist powers. Though the faces have changed, the pope was following a protocol long established.

Revolutions, however, disrupt protocol. Many young Copts invested themselves heavily in the revolution, seeking greater freedom for society at large. Instead, at Christmas, they find the pope continuing the same pattern. The military, they believe, killed demonstrating Copts at Maspero, and no one has been held accountable. The Muslim Brotherhood is an open question; will they simply continue politics-as-usual, with a democratic face?

If these young Copts desire freedom throughout the society, they desire it on the part of the church as well. It was humiliating, or else cowardly and insulting, to see the pope receive those who shed Coptic blood, as well as Islamists who seem very comfortable with the military.

They want the pope to be revolutionary. They want him to refuse greetings until justice is met. To a large degree, they want a western version of freedom of religion.

They are not alone. Many Egyptians desire this, including many Muslims. The question is: Is it best for the church?

The pope is a man of tradition, and old men are set in their ways. He is also a fountain of wisdom, and he knows his society. He believes the church is safest under the protection of the state.

Is he wrong? Maybe. Jesus was a revolutionary, though of a different kind. But he was willing to sacrifice himself for what was right. If the church challenges the state – currently constituted as the military council – it might rally both Christians and Muslims to continue the revolution until military rule is abolished. Then, with governance in the hands of civilians, even an Islamist parliament would be free to … well, what would it do?

Or, if the church challenged the state, the state might hit back. Would Muslims rally behind it? If so, would they be strong enough? Or would this only push them deeper into Islamism, seeing Coptic comeuppance, ‘those ungrateful Christians’?

One might pragmatically say the church should stay by the side of the military against the Islamists, as under Mubarak. Activists, and most Copts, would now say that Mubarak did not work out so well for them. They were certainly very critical of him before the revolution. But will Islamists be worse?

Pope Shenouda is probably not making bets for one side or the other. In all likelihood, he is simply following protocol. He is not promoting the military council or the Muslim Brotherhood. He is acknowledging their place in the governance of Egypt.

History is riddled with examples of minorities who backed the wrong side. If Pope Shenouda is licking the boots of the powers-that-be, this is beneath the dignity of his position – indeed of any Christian, or of any individual human being. But if he were to thumb his nose, this also is a threat to dignity, and more.

Perhaps unfortunately, revolutions demand one choose a side. This puts Christians in a very difficult position. On the one hand, their religion encourages them to sacrifice themselves for others, for truth, and for the cause of justice. On the other, it encourages fealty to the ruling powers, with prayers offered on their behalf. How, then, should a first loyalty to God drive a Christian in Egypt today? How should it drive the pope?

Perhaps Pope Shenouda leans a bit too much in deference to the state. This is certainly the activists’ charge. Yet it must also be noted this criticism is leveled from the perspective of a western system of religious freedom, or at least from the longing thereof.

It may well be Egypt is moving back to an official caliphal system, where the pope represents his community. Or perhaps the mixed-Mubarak system will stay in place. The future could be very bad, or it might not be bad at all. Activists must continue to labor for what they believe in, and convince others of the same. The pope must be given room to do the same. Indeed, his conduct now may be guaranteeing activists their relative freedom of operation.

Americans, imagining themselves in the middle of all of it, might wish for a little more Jefferson.


Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A Christian Face to the Protests

Translation: Christian + Muslim = Egypt

Sunday, February 6 witnessed a peculiar exhibition amidst the drama unfolding in Tahrir Square. Christian Egyptians publically conducted a prayer service, honoring their fallen co-demonstrators who have died in the effort to topple the Mubarak government. Calling them ‘martyrs’, as is common Egyptian custom to designate all who perish in a cause or as a result of oppression, the opportunity was also used to demonstrate religious cohesion among all protestors. ‘Eid Wahida!’ – ‘One Hand!’ was the most popular chant uttered, exclaiming the essential unity between Muslims and Christians. Within context, a similar chant began when the Egyptian army took to the streets to restore order to society after the disappearance of the police, and was greeted with open arms by the protestors. They cried, ‘The people and the army are one hand.’ No less was the sentiment today confessed along religious lines.

This text was not composed based on first-hand experience, although the author was able to personally witness two days of previous demonstrations. Rather, it is compiled based on nearly eighteen minutes of footage posted on YouTube by the Coptic website, and an additional two and a half minutes posted by BBC Arabic. It is also bolstered by the first-hand account of Dr. Amin Makram Ebeid, a board member of the Center for Arab West Understanding, which cooperates with Arab West Report.

It is noteworthy to begin by stating that each day’s protests have not been monolithic. Tahrir Square is a large area, and protestors have by necessity grouped together in several ‘stations’, each pressed up against the next. Other protestors ring the square in procession, and the chants that break out in one location soon dissipate into the cries of the next one over. Dr. Ebeid, who went specifically to attend the announced prayer service, had much difficulty finding the right location.

Nevertheless, the YouTube videos demonstrate that the crowd assembled was very sizeable. Christians, despite the Orthodox Church stance against participation, and the statements of Pope Shenouda on state television to end the protests and support President Mubarak, have joined in the thousands from the very beginning. During the service these were accompanied by many Muslims, who stood with their Christian co-demonstrators, holding the Bible and Qur’an aloft together.

This spirit of unity was exhibited by the service leaders. The popular Christian chorus ‘Peace, Peace’ had a line changed from ‘Peace to the people of the Lord in every place’ to ‘Peace to the Egyptian people’. Jesus was addressed as both ‘Yesua al-Masih’ (Jesus the Messiah, in Christian parlance) and ‘Eisa ibn Maryam’ (Eisa, the son of Mary, the preferred Islamic title). Some of the chants were political in nature, including the ubiquitous ‘Irhal’ – Leave! Others emphasized common human rights, proclaiming ‘Life, freedom, and the principles of humanity’, and the nationalistic ‘Egypt for all Egyptians’.

Excerpts from the spoken portions of the service included:

  • Egypt is free: Muslims, Christians, and those of no particular faith. Freedom and peace to everyone; we are looking for a civil state.
  • Let us pray together for the martyrs, help us to love each other and to love Egypt. Preserve Egypt, and its Muslims and Christians.
  • Quoting John 10:10 – I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Christianity, Islam, and all religions want this; we are all together, we do not fear each other.

Many of these types of statements led to the repetition of Eid Wahida, Eid Wahida, and the Christians celebrated together with their Muslim partners. One statement, however, led to an odd proclamation. When the speaker proclaimed, ‘We stand with the martyrs, in a spirit of love, chanting for peace, standing for peace’, the crowd erupted in ‘Allahu Akbar’, the typical Muslim chant confessing ‘God is great!’ Apparently, as is possible theologically, both Christians and Muslims asserted this truth.

It seemed that this chant unnerved the service leaders somewhat, and they proceeded to lead the crowd once more in singing the popular Christian chorus, ‘Bless my country’. Other aspects of the service were more distinctively Christian, which did not seem to unnerve the crowd at large. One song declared ‘Son of God, you are our king’, despite the Muslim abhorrence at the thought that God might have a son. A prayer invoked ‘Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’, despite the Muslim belief that Jesus was only a prophet, however elevated. Even so, it seemed the organizers were very careful to be Christian yet not offensive and supportive of the protests. A main line in the sermon quoted I John 4:18, proclaiming, ‘The Gospel says that perfect love casts out all fear; we saw this love on January 25[1] and on January 28.[2] Let us cast out all our fear in the name of the martyrs’.

Yet even so, Christian principles cannot simply serve the celebrated status quo. At one point the service leaders spoke the Lord’s Prayer, and after each line the people responded ‘Amen’. Upon the conclusion, however, the leader asked for God to forgive President Mubarak, and the people shouted, ‘No, no, no!’ Again, apparently, Christians and Muslims in attendance were united.

At this point it will be fair to introduce the service leader. He was Dr. Hany Kharrat, a psychologist and an elder in the Anglican Church. The flavor of the meeting was fully evangelical, lacking the gravity of the Orthodox mass, as well as its identifiable priestly leadership with its black robes and long beards. Instead, the service employed a guitar and was led by youth, representative of the makeup of the protests in general. It resembled a revival meeting in its fervor and participation. Yet it insisted on speaking on behalf of all Christians in Egypt, as Dr. Kharrat insisted, ‘All denominations of Egyptian Christians have come to share with you and to pray with you’.

This is less clear in conversation with official leadership. The bishop of the Anglican Church in Egypt is Bishop Mounir Anis, also a board member of CAWU. He has also taken a cautious approach to the protests, stating that most Christians fear that extremist elements will take these peaceful demonstrations in ultimately untoward directions. Instead of shouting slogans, he has encouraged his people to pray, which they have done in abundance. He believes people should be gracious to President Mubarak, though he supports a civilized transfer of authority. Otherwise, there might be chaos.

Rev. Radi Atallah is an evangelical pastor in Alexandria, who has worked extensively with local Muslims to secure dialogue and understanding, especially following the bombing in his city on New Year’s Eve. He also expressed concern that the protests were the organizational work of the Muslim Brotherhood, and worried they could go down a wrong path. Even so, he encouraged individual Christians to follow their conscience concerning participation. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Committee for Peace and Justice, associated with the Council of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops, has stated that these peaceful demonstrations are as important as the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi in India and as the emancipation of American slaves. Ezzet Boules, a Coptic Orthodox activist living in Switzerland, believes that if Christians shy away from participation, it will lead only to their further isolation from society. Church efforts to prevent this, he believes, are counterproductive.

As such, the absence of Coptic Orthodox official representation at the Tahrir prayer service is noteworthy, especially given Bishop Anis’s comments that some were present at the pro-Mubarak rallies organized on behalf of the government. What should be made of their abstention?

The Coptic Orthodox Church represents the vast majority of Christians in Egypt, who represent perhaps 6-8% of the overall population. Since sectarian troubles began plaguing Copts in the 1970s, Pope Shenouda has taken a leadership role in speaking on behalf of the Christian community, seeking to secure its political rights and its protection against extremist Muslim elements. Though the relationship has been wobbly, Pope Shenouda has largely succeeded in crafting a positive political stance vis-à-vis the government of President Mubarak.

Having molded Coptic opinion behind his leadership, however, Pope Shenouda has faced accusations of turning the church into ‘a state within a state’, while President Mubarak has been accused of allowing the inflammation of sectarian tension when necessary to achieve political goals, either against the church or in larger society. Whether or not these opinions have merit, they do not mask the essential reality that all groups in society depend on the power of the state for police protection and preservation of order. Neither do they mask the Biblical reality that calls Christians to ‘honor the king’.

Therefore, though the reasons and motivations behind abstention may be many, it may be true that Pope Shenouda early on expressed sentiments similar to Hillary Clinton when she declared the Egyptian government to be ‘stable’, and when Vice-President Joe Biden declared President Mubarak to be a longstanding ally. Inertia in relationships is difficult to overcome. Falling on the wrong side of the state could be a great miscalculation.

Yet as a hierarchical organization, the Coptic Orthodox Church is built upon obedience and respect for the positions of its pope and bishops. In this regard some bishops have condemned the ‘spirit of insurgency’ that is pitted in some quarters against Pope Shenouda. The spontaneous and widespread Christian riots following the bombing of the church in Alexandria was interpreted by some as church leadership losing its grip on its youth. Youth participation in the Tahrir protests may rightly be seen as a second blow. Whether or not the Coptic Orthodox Church is right or wrong in its decision to abstain from the demonstrations, on February 6 they yielded ground to the evangelicals.

Long term, and even short term, this should not be understood as a significant challenge to Orthodox hegemony in Egypt. Although occasional flare-ups occur between the leaders of the Christian denominations, many ordinary Egyptian Christians dismiss the importance of distinctions. For these, when Christians represent less than 10% of the population, insistence on doctrinal divisions takes on less importance. They will not deny the specifics of their peculiar creed, but they will also not shy away from cross-participation in different congregations, and especially not from warm individual relationships of respect. A Christian, they believe, is a Christian.

In Tahrir, this has been extended to assert that a Christian, like a Muslim, is an Egyptian. What does this mean for the widespread fear that these demonstrations bear an Islamic stamp that will marginalize Christians in the end? Bishop Anis reflected the testimony that over time the composition of the protests has changed, and that some groups are trying to ‘take advantage of the youth’. Is this the case?

During the protests on February 1, the March of a Million, I witnessed one of the changes. As compared to the demonstrations on January 28, the Day of Rage, there was this time a large contingent of Muslim sheikhs, distinguishable by their deep crimson fez. Between 30 and 50 such individuals grouped themselves together in a section of the square, and led those around them in chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and calls for the implementation of God’s law (sharia). Yet they declared at the same time that this was a demonstration representing all of Egypt, and that God’s law grants freedom to Muslim, Christian, and non-religious alike. A sign upheld celebrated the fact that since the protests began, not one church in all of Egypt had been attacked.

After Islamic prayers there was a pause, and I sat down to discuss their message with Sheikh Mukhtar, one of the primary chant leaders. He is an employee of the Ministry of Endowments, which oversees mosques and religious establishments in Egypt. His particular position is as a ‘caller’ to Islam, that is, to full practice of Muslim religious requirements.

His testimony reflected anger at the government and its corruptions. He called for the deposing of all figures appointed by the government, including the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, the highest Muslim religious authority in Egypt. He bore no malice whatsoever toward Christians or non-practicing Muslims, but, emboldened by the successes of the demonstrations, now desired to take part. As an Egyptian, no matter an Islamist, he wished to display his share. He recognized, though, that leadership was in the hands of the youth, and he was a latecomer.

I asked him about his chanting of ‘Allahu Akbar’. I confessed that many either through ignorance or willful distortion seek to disfigure the Islamist position, especially in reference to these protests and this chant. Yet all the same, Allahu Akbar is an Islamic cry. If he was insisting that these demonstrations were Egyptian, and not Muslim, why employ it? Would it not only serve to confuse Westerners and scare Egyptian Christians? Would this not be against your own interests?

His reply initially suggested that he had never considered such a question. Among Muslims, the Allahu Akbar cry is near-instinctual, and does not necessarily convey a call to jihad. When there is a cause to rally behind, however, it is jihadic in all positive senses (and at times negative as well), and comes quickly to their lips.

Upon reflection, though, he stated that in this situation Allahu Akbar does not express a sense of belonging to a particular creed. Rather, it is a challenging directive against the government. It is meant to state deep, religious dissatisfaction against a power believed to have violated the Islamic principles of justice, equity, and good governance. Besides, in its meaning, he stated, a Christian should not disagree. God is great. Apparently, at the February 6 prayer service, many Christians agreed, and cried Allahu Akbar all the same.

The impression received across the board is that protestors are eager, even desperate, for validation. They know their movement is subject to suspicion, criticism, and accusation – certainly from the government but also from Western liberal supposed allies who fear an Islamist imprint. For the past several decades religion has been a dividing point between Muslims and Christians. Many, however, have insisted these difficulties are invented or engineered, not reflecting the essential national unity that exists between the two groups. Among the makeup of Tahrir protestors, this certainly reflects their reality.

Yet they go forward to make certain this message is heard. When Muslims bow during their prayer times, Christians have encircled them to offer protection. Now, when Christians conduct a prayer service, Muslims participate freely. Has protection been necessary? Yes, but have attacks been immanent? No. Are such sentiments sincere? Yes. Are they meant to be a picture representation before the outside world, and therefore at least partially staged? Perhaps. Should they be criticized for this? No. Should the outside world consider its guilt in assuming religious relations are bad, therefore making these exhibitions necessary? Probably.

What does all of this mean for the uprising? What does it mean for Christian participation? As throughout Egyptian society, opinions are divided. The question now appears to be congealing into a discussion for the long haul. Protestors have established control over Tahrir Square, and the government is in negotiations over demands and concessions. The atmosphere, only a few days earlier a war zone, is now conducive to church services. Things change rapidly, and wisdom is necessary. Will good come about, and if so, who should define it? What should a Christian do? What should an Egyptian do? These are monumental, historical days for a six thousand year old civilization. Rarely does life have such weight. When it does, what is demanded?

Perhaps the Western reader’s life does not bear such weight at the moment, but allow your mind to process the questions as if you shared in the Egyptian experience. How should you think? Who should you support? How should you pray?

We do not share in their struggles, but we share in their humanity. Where does the good of all lie?

[1] Police Day, on which the protests began.

[2] The Day of Rage, the Friday on which protestors emerged from the mosques and marched downtown.