Thousands welcome back Coptic pope
Nadia Abou el Magd, Foreign Correspondent
- Last Updated: October 23. 2008 11:32PM UAE / October 23. 2008 7:32PM GMT
An Egyptian monk kisses the hand of Pope Shenouda III, the ailing head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, before he gives a sermon at Cairo's St. Mark's cathedral. Amr Nabil / AP
CAIRO // “Where is your cross?” asked the Coptic Christian guards outside the Abbassiya Cathedral in Cairo on Wednesday, where thousands of Copts had gathered to see their beloved Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic church, speak after returning from a four-month stay in the United States where he was receiving medical treatment.
Several incidents of sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians occurred during the pope’s absence, giving extra significance to his return.
“The church and our lives are not the same when the pope is not around,” said Mourad Weisa, 35, an accountant. “He’s everything to us.”
The throngs clapped and roared, and began chanting “We love you pope” as he arrived at the crowded cathedral and made his way to the altar.
The gathering hushed into silence as he prepared to speak.
“I apologise for not being able to hold our weekly meeting for the past 19 weeks,” said Pope Shenouda, 85, smiling and tearful, visible on a huge screen erected inside the church. “Our weekly meeting is not just a sermon, but is a meeting of hearts, and I listen to your problems and your spiritual needs,” he said.
“I thank God for sickness as well as for health.”
Shenouda returned to Egypt on Monday after being treated for a broken thigh bone in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. He can now walk, but with difficulty.
The Coptic leader also suffers from back pain and kidney problems, and has previously sought care in Germany and the United States.
Holding the title Pope Shenouda III, 117th and incumbent Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Apostolic Throne of St Mark, he has been head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria since 1971. The church has a following of 16 million members worldwide.
Egypt’s Copts – the largest Christian community in the Middle East – account for an estimated six to 10 per cent of the country’s 78m inhabitants. Many Copts complain of widespread discrimination and say the government does not do enough to protect their rights.
Muslim critics bemoan the growing role of the Church, which they say is becoming a state within a state, and accuse Copts living abroad of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
While the pope dedicated Wednesday’s sermon to “the meaning of being angry but not doing something wrong” and “God’s kindness, which comes from his mercy and love, and our weakness and the strength of our enemies”, he did not directly address tensions between Copts and Muslims, which have spiked in recent months.
The ageing patriarch tends to avoid confrontation, instead withdrawing to the Wadi el Natroun Monastery for prayers as a sign of protest.
In the past few months, the country’s fragile sectarian balance has been rocked by clashes, accusations of discrimination and rumours of disruption being instigated from abroad.
Three monasteries closed their doors this month following threats of vandalism after the rumoured killing of Wafaa Constantine, a priest’s wife who had reportedly converted to Islam in 2004 and then reverted to Christianity.
The security threats came on the heels of an interview with Zaghloul el Naggar, an Islamic scholar, in which he accused the Church of killing Constantine for refusing to return to Christianity.
They bring the total of monasteries that closed due to security threats to six; three other monasteries in Wadi el Natroun had closed their doors between Sept 23 and Oct 14.
Like the rest of Egypt’s 2,300 churches, there is a constant police presence outside the Cathedral. Copts need presidential permission to build or repair a church, a restriction they have repeatedly asked authorities to lift.
In two incidents of violence in the past two months, a Muslim and a Christian were shot dead and many others were injured.
Efforts to set up reconciliation meetings between Copts and Muslims have been discussed, but were turned down by Pope Shenouda, who said official law should be used to solve such problems.
His followers agree; and the pope’s return has reinvigorated their hopes for an equal footing in Egyptian society.
“I feel life has come back to me and my heart is dancing with happiness after I saw the pope today, in good health and spirit,” said Mariz abdel Massih, 24, as she was leaving the cathedral.