Questions about a possible successor mar the 36th anniversary of Pope Shenouda III's consecration, reports Gamal Nkrumah
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, author of more than 100 books and a prolific columnist and public speaker, officiated over celebrations marking the anniversary of his consecration on Wednesday.
Speculation about his health has prompted intense debate over the succession to the papacy, both in private, among members of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt and overseas, as well as in the press. Several papers have reported that he is suffering from kidney failure that requires dialysis, and gall bladder problems requiring specialised treatment in the US and Germany. Indeed, he had only just returned from a trip to Cleveland, Ohio when he was re- admitted to hospital in Cairo. Officially, however, the Coptic Church insists Pope Shenouda has recovered and is fully capable of carrying out his duties.
"Longevity is in God's hand," Anba Moussa -- tipped as a possible successor to Shenouda -- told Al-Ahram Weekly, citing an Arabic proverb. "I recently officiated at the funeral of three young people killed in a car accident. There is no direct correlation between age and death."
While the church has stressed that rumours that Pope Shenouda will soon be travelling abroad for yet more medical treatment are untrue, many Copts worry over who will assume the papacy in the unfortunate event of Pope Shenouda's death. Currently, the selection process and eligibility of future popes are governed by church bylaws promulgated in 1957.
"Pope Shenouda III acknowledges that the 1957 church bylaws need to be amended. But it will be a long process and one in which I believe laymen and women must play a dynamic role," says Anba Moussa.
Concern over the succession to the papacy comes at a time of great change for Egypt and the region as a whole. The regional political map is fast changing and Egypt is in the throes of radical political and socio-economic upheavals. Many Copts see this as perfect opportunity to alter what they see as anachronisms within the church.
"The 1957 bylaws under which both Pope Kyrollos VI and Pope Shenouda III were selected are ill-suited to contemporary society," Gamal Asaad, former MP and a specialist on Coptic affairs, told the Weekly.
There is a powerful sense of history in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. Its adherents account for 95 per cent of the country's Christian population, officially estimated at 10 million but thought by many to be higher. The church's dogged determination over the millennia not to be brushed aside as an anachronism in an antique land is as strong as ever, while the challenges the Coptic Church faces in contemporary Egypt have never been more complex. This is, indeed, a defining moment for the Copts of Egypt.
"Copts are capable of solving their own problems without any intervention," remarked President Hosni Mubarak, who is in close touch with Pope Shenouda III and regularly briefed about the Coptic Patriarch's health.
The three names that come up most often in discussions of a successor to Shenouda are Anba Bishoi, a close associate of the current pope, Anba Moussa, the bishop in charge of youth, and Anba Yoannis, a graduate of the Medical College at Assiut University and ordained as a bishop in 1993. He is the youngest of the three, only taking monastic orders in 1986.
Many Copts question whether a diocesan bishop should become pope. Asaad contends that, strictly-speaking and in accordance with Coptic tradition, the current pope and his predecessor should not have been consecrated, and that their consecration set a precedent that led to confusion by allowing bishops to stand as papal candidates.
Many leading Copts pin their hopes for survival in the country on aligning themselves with the government and the ruling National Democratic Party, arguing that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes a major threat to their continued existence in Egypt. Brotherhood political ascendancy is viewed with undisguised alarm.
"It is not proper to talk about succession when the Pope is still alive and reasonably healthy," Milad Hanna, a prominent Coptic intellectual, told the Weekly. "However, what can be said is that in the past Coptic tradition stipulated that the Pope be a relatively unknown monk. Anecdotally, he was referred to as 'an uncut watermelon', that is to say little was known about his character. He was literally snatched from some obscure monastery and pushed into the papal limelight. The system was deliberately devised to ensure that there would be no power struggle between the bishops over the papacy. But today things have changed and papal candidates are expected to be well-known. They must prove that they have served their parishioners well. This means that the pope is expected to be an exceptionally active and learned bishop."
Kyrollos VI was one such pope, and so is Pope Shenouda, who was consecrated 36 years ago, on 14 November 1971. He has revolutionised the entire church, reactivating several key community-based institutions and instigating other fundamental changes. He has represented the Coptic Church at numerous ecumenical forums abroad, even though he remained deeply attached to monastic life. Shenouda was appointed personal secretary to Pope Kyrollos VI in 1959 and later became the bishop in charge of education. In effect he was a bishop without a diocese, though one who was well known and much-loved by many church- goers.
Politics has played a crucial role during Shenouda's papacy. He has been vociferous in his defence of Coptic rights and has aired fears concerning the rising tide of Islamist militancy. Following a brush with the late President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 he was exiled to the remote monastery of Saint Bishoi by presidential decree. Sadat set up a papal committee to discharge his duties, but in 1985 Mubarak revoked Sadat's decree. The interests and concerns of the two-million strong Coptic Christian community overseas have become an increasingly important factor in church politics during Shenouda's papacy.
Caption: Pope Shenouda II
C a p t i o n : Pope Shenouda II
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