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February 16, 2011

Egypt: Pope Shenouda's historical sin

The Canadian Charger

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Coptic Pope Shenouda III is not only a religious figure. Largely as a result of the precarious situation of Copts in Egypt, he has also felt it necessary to engage in Egyptian politics. Unfortunately for him, he recently bet on the wrong horse, namely Hosni Mubarak.

A good place to begin this story is with the Coptic Easter celebration in 1981.

There was a wave of attacks on Copts during those times. Unhappy with the inadequate response by the government, Pope Shenouda cancelled the public Easter celebration.  This cancellation was a slap in the face to President Anwar Sadat, as the president was normally invited to participate in the celebration.  Sadat took the snub very badly.  He banished Shenouda to a desert monastery and labeled him “the ex-pope”. 

When Sadat was assassinated, he was replaced by Hosni Mubarak.  Mubarak released Shenouda.  He also proclaimed January 7, the Coptic Christmas, a national holiday.  Copts are thought to be at least ten per cent of the population.  These two actions had a profound effect on Shenouda, making him a firm Mubarak loyalist. He also said that Copts support Mubarak the son if he runs for president.

All was not well for the Copts under Mubarak. 

From time to time there were attacks on Copts, sometimes inspired by intolerance and sometimes abetted by avarice, the opportunity to loot.  These incidents were generally handled tactically: how to placate Copts as well as extremists without upsetting either too much. 

Egypt under Mubarak was authoritarian but not totalitarian.  He played a balancing act among the various elements in society to keep them all at least somewhat satisfied. Some of those committing assaults on the Copts were prosecuted and convicted, though often on reduced charges, while others escaped without punishment.  Thus, he made the Copts, though less than satisfied, at least assured that something was being done.  At the same time the extremists were made aware that, however “understanding” the government was, such behavior could be risky. 

While Shenouda was certainly not satisfied with this situation, he was wary of what might happen if his liberator were gone.  And the plight of Copts in Egypt under Mubarak was far from totally negative.  Many Copts rose to positions of wealth and influence, and relations between Copts and Muslims were often warm and friendly. 

So Shenouda gambled all his money on the Mubarak card. 

Last year, when the word was out that an ailing Hosni Mubarak might not run for another term in the next rigged election, it was widely speculated that his son Gamal would be is successor.  Shenouda went on the radio offering his endorsement.  And as recently as January 31, he phoned Mubarak, telling him, “We are all with you and the people are with you.”

Shenouda’s support for Mubarak was not without influence among members of his faith, but his endorsement fell far short of unanimity among Copts. 

There was a Sunday worship service in Tahrir Square, by Egyptian Anglicans but not Copts.  A good number of demonstrators in the square wore t-shirts emblazoned with a cross inside a crescent. 

At a crucial time in the square, Christian participants stood guard while their Muslim comrades took part in prayer. 

One of Egypt’s Revolution leaders, before, during and after January 25 is well respected George Isaac. Isaac is often smeared by Shenouda.

The Egyptian revolution was in large measure a rising of the youth, and the Coptic Youth Movement sided with the victorious opposition, not with Shenouda and Mubarak. 

While Shenouda was looking for the continued limited protection offered by Mubarak, Rami Kamel, speaking for the Coptic Youth Movement, declared, “The regime is responsible for the sectarian problems suffered by Copts.”

It will be interesting to see how Shenouda dances to the new tune now playing in Egypt. Not a word from him yet.

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M. Elmasry

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