As he celebrated the 36th anniversary of his papacy last week, Pope Shanouda III, patriarch of the See of St Mark at Alexandria granted Watani a special interview. Our young reporter from Alexandria felt especially elated and honoured to be able to conduct this talk.
The Lord’s work
As Pope Shenouda III marks 36 years at the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, what most stands out?
“Thirty-six years is a long time as pope,” Pope Shenouda smiled. The longest sitting Coptic pope was Pope Kyrillos V who was pope for 52 years, and the briefest was Pope Macarius III who sat for 18 months.
“A lot has happened in these 36 years, His Holiness said. It has been the work of the Lord not us. The Coptic Church has expanded worldwide. We now have some 120 churches in the United States. In Australia there are two Coptic bishops and more than 50 priests to serve the congregation. In the UK there are four bishops, two in France, two in Italy, one in Austria and one in Armenia. We have churches in Switzerland and Japan, and four in Black Africa. Especially in Africa the Coptic Church has a large following; our clergy has been baptising and teaching. In Libya we have three churches, in Sudan two bishops, as well as churches in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. I consecrated a patriarch for Eritrea and five bishops. All this necessitated huge efforts in training well-prepared clergy, in supervising the service and care offered to the congregation, and in fostering cordial, friendly relations with the State officials concerned. We thank God for all that.
“New Coptic monasteries have been established in Egypt and outside Egypt, and existing ones have grown and been revived. Germany, Ireland, Texas, California, Sydney, and Jerusalem are now home to Coptic monasteries. We have also established clerical colleges and schools in Australia and the US.
“In Egypt, we were able to build churches, thanks to the support of President Hosni Mubarak who used to intervene frequently to solve many problems. When I became pope in 1971 Egypt’s population was about 30 million; it has now ballooned to some 70 million, with many living in new urban communities. All these people need to worship, Christians as well as Muslims. This is why we need more churches.
“Besides, the Pope laughed, a churchgoer is surely a person who would never be a terrorist or an outlaw. I once said, as I was laying the foundation stone of the church in Sharm al-Sheikh, that it is in the interest of the State to build churches.
In those 36 years, was there something Pope Shenouda wished to achieve but could not? “The work of a pastor is never done, Pope Shenouda said. What with the responsibility of being supreme head of the clergy, the Holy Synod, the monastic movement including monasteries and convents, and the Coptic Community Council, this is a huge load. In addition, the pope is a teacher; I still teach at the Clerical College and the Institute of Coptic studies, as well as through my writing in books and the weekly al-Kiraza. To say nothing of having to be in charge of handling problems concerning Coptic grievances and churches, social peace between Muslims and Copts, and maintaining good relations with the State. There is also the vital issue of the Coptic Church’s relation with other churches east and west, official and non-official.
“All this, the Pope said, would never have been done save for the abundant grace of God. The Psalm says: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.’ So if there was anything I wished to achieve it would have been done by God’s grace.
“I am happy, however, that I always mingled with the masses. It used to be said that ‘A pope should be visited but should not visit’. This was seen as respect to the pope. But I insisted I should visit wherever and whenever necessary, be that churches, hospitals, journalist institutions, social foundations, or whatever.”
“When I took orders, the Pope reminisced, I aimed at leaving the ‘world’ for good. I remember thinking, as I drove to the monastery where I intended to become a monk, that this was the last time I would set eyes on an asphalt road. But God’s will had it otherwise.
“As a monk I led a solitary life in a cave outside the monastery walls. I saw no human for weeks on end, and went down to the monastery at only specific times. But I was taken, through a ruse, and ordained a bishop. I never in my life cried as I did that day. A bishop has to live with the people and share their grievances. I realised my days exclusively with God were over. But this was His will.”
Man is free
Talking of the different Churches, why was it God’s will that such differences exist? “There is a huge difference between what God wills and what He allows, the Pope explained. God’s will is all-benevolent; He wills nothing but good for all mankind. But God created man a free being, free-willed to make choices, even if these choices are incorrect or even sinful. God does not impose choices upon man. Otherwise how can man be rewarded for good or evil?
“But, Pope Shenouda said, people frequently confuse this issue. A reckless driver who kills a passer-by more often than not says it was God’s will that the victim dies. God of course knew that the victim would die, but He did not will him to die. It was the driver’s fault; he drove recklessly of his own free will.
“More importantly, we are endowed with the freedom to think, reason, and assess matters. People are free to choose whatever to believe in, whatever to have faith in. This holds true in religion, in politics, in thought, in everything.”
It was very important to ask His Holiness about the mounting sectarian violence in Egypt. “The containment or cure of sectarian tension and its aftermath is not exclusively our duty, he said; it ought to be the chief concern of other authorities, such as Islamic and public leaders, and the government itself.
“We try as much as possible to soothe matters, the Pope added, but some matters cannot be artificially cooled down. When violence erupts and Copts are attacked, their property plundered or set aflame, then the police intervenes and calms matters down, so-called reconciliation sessions are held. But what reconciliation can that be? The root cause still exists; the reconciliation is but a cover-up. When a knife-wielding man attacks a church attempting to stab everyone there, and it is claimed he is but a mentally deranged person, it does not make sense. The problems need a radical cure not a cover-up.
To balance accounts, violence is frequently attributed to ‘Muslim and Christian extremists’. But is there so-called Christian extremism?
His Holiness answered, “Even if there is extremist thought or speech, how can this compare to extremism which translates into violence? There is no Coptic violent-oriented extremism.”
Does the Coptic Church have a crisis management policy? “No, the Pope said, every bishopric deals with its problems on its own, in cooperation with the local authorities. Yet I wish State officials would treat sectarian issues with the firmness they warrant so they would not recur”.
Watani asked for His Holiness’ opinion of the proposed unified law for places of worship. “I have not seen the wording of the draft law, the Pope said, so I am not in position to comment on it. But if it includes a condition stipulating a minimum number of Copts in the region in order to build a church, it would be unfair. Even if there is a small number of Copts, do not they have a right to worship?”
That tricky political question
“Your Holiness, do you feel that Copts refrain from engaging in politics? Watani asked. Does the Church encourage them to participate?” “Copts take an active part in politics, the Pope said. They join political parties and other civil bodies but are frequently spurned and given no chance. When they then withdraw they are accused of isolationism.
“And we do encourage Coptic young people to engage in public life, be that in sports, arts, politics or suchlike. We ask the State to give them a chance to participate. You may observe that there are a few Coptic names in these fields; there is only one Coptic football player, Hany Ramzi.”
As to discrimination against Copts in jobs, especially in high-ranking posts, the Pope said that the Constitution disallows discrimination, but on the ground discrimination does exist.
On the other hand, Pope Shenouda himself has been accused of meddling in politics. “There is a difference, he said, between voicing an opinion and meddling in politics. We have no time nor is it our aim to do politics, but we cannot isolate ourselves so that we have no opinion of what goes on in Iraq or in Palestine for instance. It is impossible not to form any viewpoints of current events. Besides, every member of the clergy is entitled to a voting card. Is this meddling in politics?
“Extremism in whatever form is wrong. Involvement in what is not one’s concern is wrong, and abstinence from participation is wrong.”
Reform and conversion
Religious conversion is a very thorny issue today, and the Pope’s comment was that it is a deep-rooted problem. Some people consider conversions as some kind of triumph to a specific religion, but the matter has serious repercussions on social peace.
Recently, there has been a movement by some who call themselves laymen reformists to demand reform of the Church. “They exposed themselves, the Pope said. In their conferences, which were mostly attended by media people to cover the event and not by researchers or members of the public, they did not deal with issues of reform as much as they attacked issues of faith and creed. Besides, all non-clerics in the church are laymen, not merely those 15 or so individuals who term themselves so.”
Marriage, divorce and annulment
Watani asked Pope Shenouda about a matter which bothers many Christians, that of the problems concerning marriage, divorce or annulment. His Holiness said, “The Bible says: ‘What God has united let no man put asunder.’ The Coptic Church has a viewpoint that, if a marriage is built upon cheating, such as one party concealing from the other some physical or mental disability, the marriage should be annulled. In this context, the need for a medical check-up prior to marriage cannot be underscored enough. If the bride was forced into a marriage she does not desire as is sometimes the case in rural communities, the marriage in invalid, and should consequently be annulled. As to divorce, it is permitted only in case of adultery or conversion.
A common complaint of Copts is that Coptic history is disregarded in curricula. What does the Pope think? “The Coptic era covers six centuries of Egypt’s history, which are frequently referred to as part of the Roman era. History is taught basing upon the rulers and powerful men of a specific era and not on the people. The Coptic era is the history of the Egyptian people at the time, those who embraced Christianity. But their rulers were the Romans, so the period is frequently termed and taught as the Roman era. However, this is not to say that disregarding Coptic history is right; it is a definite shortcoming.”
Throughout the 19th and 20th century the Coptic Church was pioneering in establishing schools; in fact Coptic schools upheld a very high standard of education. Whatever happened to those schools today, and is the Church no longer interested in education, Watani asked? “The Coptic Church never lost interest. Following the 1952 Revolution all schools was nationalised and the Coptic schools passed into the hands of the State. Now that establishing private schools is again permitted, the Coptic Church has re-entered the field, with several high-quality education schools. A technical school is also in the pipeline, to supply the vocational training so direly needed by many young men.
That warm smile
One of Pope Shenouda’s pet concerns is monastic life. Yet, Watani remarked, monasteries have not become the study centres they have the potential to be, while many produce excellent agricultural and agri-industrial goods. His Holiness commented that most Orthodox monks and nuns today have university degrees. Monasteries and convents are moreover equipped with well-stocked libraries, and many monks and nuns do valuable research.
Agriculture work, the Pope explained, serves to make monasteries self-sufficient in food supply, and is a form of hand work which is one of the basics of monastic life. But it should never keep inmates from worship and contemplation.
Finally Your Holiness, Watani asked, how do you manage to maintain your smile and your obvious love for everyone?
“I bear in mind a very important principle, Pope Shenouda said, that no matter how many problems engulf me, I deal with them from the outside; I never allow them to creep inside me. As to smiling, I believe a man of God should be cheerful, otherwise people would get a grim impression of religion.”