Recently, the Coptic Holy Synod released a list of 17 candidates for the papacy, one of which will be chosen as the next pope. As the process begins to wind down to selecting the next pope, it’s interesting to look at what kind of church they will be inheriting.
An Uncertain Political Landscape
As mentioned before, the next pope will have to play a very delicate balancing act to set a new relationship with a new set of political figures and authorities in the country. It’s difficult to imagine that things will go back to the way they were during Pope Shenouda’s time, where it was expected for the Pope to be the foremost spokesperson on Coptic issues. Since the Revolution, the option of protesting has become a viable alternative, and it has emboldened Coptic activists to join larger protests to ensure that the issues that face Copts are included in the larger reform agenda. But even in this case, it’s difficult to predict what the relationship between the Coptic Church and the increasingly-stronger Muslim Brotherhood will be like: will it be downright hatred and animosity between the two, or will it continue to be an uncomfortable working relationship between two socio-religious authorities? Are there any common grounds for reconciliation between the two that can at least begin to form something that resembles cordial relations? These are the questions that the next pope will have to answer on behalf of the church.
Reconciling dissenting opinions on religious matters
Some observers note that the general trend over Pope Shenouda’s reign was a move towards conservatism, which has resulted in strict enforcement of some laws in a seemingly unbearable way. For example, this blog post from the International Herald Tribune talks about the strict enforcement of the no-divorce rule in the Coptic church, despite evidence of spousal abuse. The important thing to note about this particular issue is the interpretation of the scripture where this comes from, as well as the effect that this will have on Coptic women looking for divorce in these situations. It’s not unlikely to find that women unable to get a divorce from the church turn to more extreme measures, such as converting to Islam (despite the ostracism they face for going to such extremes). Will the next Pope ease the conditions for divorce? Or will he continue to apply the same church law that has been enforced for centuries? And if he does so, how will he address these petitions for change?
Continuing (and incorporating) the Growth of the Church Abroad
One of the main accomplishments of Pope Shenouda’s reign is the increase of consecrated churches and priests in countries outside of the Middle East. The increased number of churches is a reflection of the the continued exodus of Copts from Egypt and their attempts to exercise the religious rights they were denied in Egypt. It has been a particular bright spot for these countries as a way to demonstrate to the world their commitment to religious freedom, and Copts have been generally keen on exercising that freedom to build strong, close-knitted communities that practice their Christianity without obstruction. What has resulted is presence of very strong Coptic diaspora that can become a powerful political and social force in the church’s future if its efforts are properly utilized.
I’ve been personally involved with the Coptic activist movement for some time and, while I cannot claim any of the accomplishments to be my own, I feel that there is no longer a need to highlight the issue and ‘raise awareness’, as many activist efforts were aimed for. In my opinion, the issue has been highlighted over the past several years, and anyone who denies it at this point risks going against the mainstream dialogue and, more importantly, the evidence. The revolution highlighted how the issue is starting to come to light in Egypt, and how some people are trying to fix this problem as a way to achieve the aims of the revolution.
I would like to see more cooperation and coordination between Copts in Egypt and Copts abroad to ensure that there is little disagreement about the aim of our collective activist efforts. With continued calls from emboldened Copts in Egypt for justice and rights, and the continued pressure from Copts abroad, the Coptic issue can be finally addressed and can begin a new era for Copts living in Egypt.
The reason I wrote this three-part discussion on the role of the Coptic pope is to understand what the Pope can do in bringing this about. My main concern was whether a pope has the sufficient political and social powers to bring about this change, and whether it simply relies on political will from the pope himself. I have arrived at the conclusion that while the pope has a lot of power at his disposal, he cannot change nor solve the problems that face the church by himself. Therefore, like I said before, the dynamics of Copts’ political activism must change to relieve some of the pressure on what is expected of the Pope, and if these dynamics are to change, it must be through a dialogue between the decision makers and those who are affected by the decisions.