The Pope and The State: An Uneasy Past (Part I)

The late Pope Shenouda III (front, with staff) with the Holy Synod in a file photo (Date Unknown)

Since the arrival of Christianity to Egypt, the patriarchal line of succession has been maintained by 117 men, each with a unique story of their accession to the throne of St Mark the Evangelist. Throughout the years, the tradition of accession to the Patriarchal throne has differed; some were nominated by predecessors, some were agreed on by consensus of bishops, presbyters and lay leaders, and others through divine messages (Gabra, Gawdat. The A to Z of the Coptic Church. Plymouth: Scarecrow Inc., 2008. 221. Print). In the years since the 1952 Military Revolution, however, the process has been much more formalized. There is a specific law that governs the selection of a new pope, and involves a unique combination of consensus by election, nomination, and divine intervention.

But how did it come to be so? How did the throne of St Mark become such a vital piece of the puzzle that is Egyptian politics?

Throughout history, the trend of Coptic marginalization increased with the aim of breaking the spirit of Coptic faithful to be more in line with the state’s wishes rather than the Church’s wishes (we see this many times in the Coptic Synexarium, a book outlining the stories of martyrs of the Church). However, as the progression of persecution increased, so did the people’s will to maintain their faith and identity as Coptic Christians. The common connection between all those persecuted was their faith, and they sought to unite with one another through that identity rather than any other banner.

Early Coptic Dissent

قد علم التاريخ من يقرؤه ان لا يدوم قهر, وعلم التاريخ من يكتبه ان الحروف حمر

History has taught those who read it that oppression does not last, and has taught those who write it that its letters are bloodied red

–كاضم الساهر, “ألرعاه والنار”–

–Kazem El Saher, ‘Al Ro3a wal Nar’–

As the waves of persecution continued to come about, the voices of dissent were no longer silent. Shortly after the Arabs conquered Egypt in 640 AD, and following many years of oppression under Roman and Byzantine rule, there was a Coptic Revolt in 693-694,  (Gabra, Gawdat. The A to Z of the Coptic Church. Plymouth: Scarecrow Inc., 2008. 74. Print). The revolt was about the declining status of Copts in an Islamic Egypt, and the continuous marginalization that Copts faced in their daily lives under these new rulers. The bulk of the revolts came out of the Delta region, where a group known as the Bashmurites lived. In 749, Muslim authorities captured and abused the Coptic Patriarch, Kha’il, in a city called Rashid (more commonly known as Rosetta, where the famous Rosetta Stone was discovered years later)(Gabra, Gawdat. The A to Z of the Coptic Church. Plymouth: Scarecrow Inc., 2008. 74. Print). Upon hearing about this, the Bashmurites burned Rashid to the ground and killed many of its citizens. It seems that this was a fairly cyclical event that occurred every 50-80 years in Egypt, as the last known revolt happened in 832, again at the hands of the Bashmurites. This last revolt was apparently so serious that it required the personal intervention of Caliph Ma’mun from Baghdad. Despite attempts to assure the Bashmurites that they would be pardoned for their dissent, and despite attempts made to reason with the Coptic pope, the Bashmurites refused to surrender. They were brutally murdered by the Arab army, and many of their churches and homes were burned (Gabra, Gawdat. The A to Z of the Coptic Church. Plymouth: Scarecrow Inc., 2008. 74-75. Print).

An artist's depiction of Caliph Ma'mun, the Abbasid Ruler of the Islamic Empire at the time of the Bashmurite Coptic Revolution in 832.

The revolts were mercilessly crushed, but that was certainly not the end of the voices of dissent. The revolution marked the beginning of a long-standing feud between Egypt’s minority Copts and the governing authority. It seems, however, that at that point, a stark contrast in the relations between Muslim authorities and the Coptic minority.

A shift to the Pope

It seems as though one place for common ground between both sides became the Pope. Perhaps, out of distress in an increasingly desperate situation, the persecuted Copts turned towards God to seek relief from their situation. In doing so, they seem to have turned towards the Pope as a man of profound spiritual connection with God. Perhaps, in a way to manipulate this understanding, the Muslim authorities also maintained most of their relations with the focal point of the Coptic community as a way of normalizing relations. After all, it is easier to reason with one man, whether in agreement or dissent, rather than an entire group of people.

But just as it is easy to reason with one man, it is also easy to ignore one man. The fluctuating status of Coptic rights and freedoms in Egypt seems to indicate that if it ever seemed to be inconvenient to secure Copts’ rights, it was simply disregarded without consideration for a Pope’s protests.

The pope, despite the backing of the Holy Synod and the Coptic populace, probably has limited interest in dealing with men of politics. His position is one of spirituality and, like many other priests and bishops, takes on the spiritual responsibility of ensuring salvation for an entire populace. Indeed, this is reflected in his life experience; an overwhelming majority of the popes come from a monastic background, with very few serving as laypersons prior to ascending to the Papal throne. To add to the spiritual burden the role of normalizing relations with a very different set of authorities is only one more ball to juggle in the already difficult life of a pope, and one that many may not have been capable of handling.

But the interesting thing to note about this (very) brief history of Coptic relations is that few authorities want to deal with a dissenting Coptic minority. Historically, it may have been because they were physically capable of wreaking havoc (like the Bashmurites), but today, many would scoff at such a notion. Today, Coptic revolts (if they were to ever happen) would take place in a much different fashion, but would have a similar effect as the Bashmurite revolution in that it could negatively affect the legitimacy of the government.

Could this really be the reason why every government seems to disregard Coptic rights – is it a tactic aimed at demoralizing a potentially powerful minority? If so, is maintaining relations with the Pope rather than the populace truly the best way to deal with this minority?

Stay tuned…

The Late Pope Shenouda III with the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed Tantawi (Date Unknown).
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