20 November 2011
The occasion called for celebration. Last Monday marked 40 years since Pope Shenouda III has been patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church and, given the Pope’s overreaching popularity, festivities would have been the order of the day. Yet the week also marked the Maspero arbaeen, 40 days since the death of the 27 Copts and one Muslim who fell during the attack against the Copts at Maspero, a theme which crept into celebration. Marking the arbaeen, literally forty, is a tradition which goes back to ancient Egypt and was related to the mummification process.
For the first time, four patriarchs of eastern Orthodox Churches gathered in Cairo to mark the papal anniversary. Together with Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, there was the Syrian Pope Ignatius Zakka I of Antioch, the Armenian Pope Aram I, and the Ethiopian Pope Paulos. Their meeting yielded a joint declaration on the strong links between the eastern Orthodox churches.
A long list
At the St Mark Coptic Cathedral at Abbassiya, Cairo, the grounds of which house the papal quarters, a large assembly was held to honour Pope Shenouda. It began with Thanksgiving Prayer and praises, followed by a choir performance, then words by top clerics and public figures.
Dr Ishaq Ibrahim, Dean of the Institute for Coptic Studies, said the institute was publishing a book on the Pope’s work inside and outside Egypt throughout the forty years of his papacy—a monumental work which included the establishment of some 550 churches in 60 countries.
Pope Shenouda III, Dr Ibrahim elaborated, founded 50 dioceses inside Egypt—20 in the Delta and 30 in Upper Egypt—and 28 outside Egypt. During his papacy, 35 new monasteries were established, ten of them outside Egypt. He paid 102 pastoral visits to 38 countries. The Clerical College expanded to include 17 new branches—seven in the Delta, four in Upper Egypt, and six branches outside Egypt.
Pope Shenouda, according to Dr Ibrahim, cooked the Myrun, the Sacred Ointment, seven times during his papacy, and wrote more than a hundred books most of which were translated into English, French, German and Dutch. Thousands of his sermons and teachings were taped and put on CDs. He also gave numerous radio and TV interviews, and wrote booklets on Christian life and teachings especially for the young. To say nothing of the several honorary degrees and honours that were bestowed on him.
First time in history
Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Anba Bishoi, remarked that this was the first time in the history of Egypt that four heads of eastern Orthodox churches meet in Cairo. Pope Shenouda III, Anba Bishoi said, represents the Alexandrian See of St Mark and brings memories of the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt. Pope Ignatius Zakka I Iwas of Antioch reminds us of the prophecy of Isaiah on a link between Egypt and Assyria. Pope Aram I of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia reminds of Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark landed. The Ethiopian Patriarch, Abune Paulos, reminds us of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; and also of the first Bishop of Ethiopia, Abune Salama, who was ordained by none other than Pope Athanasius the Apostolic himself.
The Papal Secretary, Anba Yu’annis, handed Pope Shenouda a gift of a cross and branches of the vine which, he said, symbolised the Church which has been watered with the blood of the martyrs in Nag Hammadi; Giza; Alexandria, and recently in Maspero.
In his speech, Bishop of Youth, Anba Moussa, reminded of the Pope since he ministered to young people in the 1940s as the layman Nazeer Gayed; and later as the monk Fr Antonius al-Syriani in the 1950s; then as Anba Shenouda III, Bishop of Education and editor-in-chief of al-Keraza weekly magazine since the 1960s, and finally as Pope Shenouda III since 1970s.
Father of the martyrs
“Many titles have been bestowed upon you, Your Holiness,” Anba Moussa said, “But I would like to add a new title which I find especially apt: that of ‘Father of the Martyrs’.” Anba Moussa went on to cite the major attacks against the Copts, which left scores dead and thousands injured, since the 1990s. As he talked, deep sadness gripped the pope’s features, and reminded of the double occasion the week marked.
Many of the family and friends of the Maspero martyrs were present, lifting pictures of the loved ones they had lost. The arbaeen of the martyrs was commemorated on Friday 11 November by a 50,000-strong funeral march from across the St Mark cathedral to Tahrir Square.
Source of strength
Among those who had come to honour the Pope were Tahani al-Gebali, vice-president of the Higher Constitutional Court, Kameel Seddiq, secretary of the Melli Council of Alexandria, Anba David, Bishop-General of the US, and Georgette Qellini, a former member of parliament.
Judge Gebali affectionately asked the Pope to pray for Egypt and its safety. Dr Seddiq reminded that the Pope had never been confined to Church matters nor separated from Egypt’s national issues. “No one can forget,” he said, “that Your Holiness was the first to establish the tradition of holding a ‘Ramadan table’ to celebrate breaking the Ramadan fast with our Muslim brothers and neighbours, emphasising the nation’s harmony and unity.
“You were also a symbol and source from whom we all drew strength,” Dr Seddiq said. “Your words after the Maspero massacre ‘our sons’ blood will not go to waste’ were unforgettable.”
Anba David, for his part, also made the link between the two 40s, as he relayed to Pope Shenouda the congratulations of the Copts in the US.
“Pope Shenouda, you have gone to more than 60 countries in the world,” Ms Qellini said. “You have taken over the world, not by power but with love and wisdom.”
Love and peace
Expressing his deep gratitude for the patriarchs who came to Cairo expressly to celebrate with him, and for all others—Muslims and Christians—who honoured him, Pope Shenouda III thanked the Lord for counting him among six of the Alexandria popes who sat for some 40 years on the seat of St Mark. “Only one patriarch,” he reminded, “holds the record for 52 years of papacy: that was Pope Kyrillos (Cyril) V from 1875 to 1927.”
“No matter how numerous the achievements,” the Pope said, “we ought to acknowledge that it is all done through the grace of God not through our own strength.”
“As for Egypt,” he stressed, “the most important thing now is to build our country with love for one another. Love is a very potent tool to realise peace.”
As many women sounded the traditional, joyful zaghareed (ululations), the Pope with his famous sense of humour said, “wherever I go in the world, I can tell the Egyptians in any crowd because they receive me with zaghareed. This made me curious about the origin of the word; when I asked I discovered it derived from taghreed which means the singing of the birds.
Once the Pope finished his word, the attendants applauded chanting, “We love you, Pope”.