There are many ways to tell whether a specific country mixes politics with religion, but none of them is as striking as the death of the highest religious figure for the citizens of this country or members of one of the main religions/sects that constitute a sizable portion of its population. This is not only demonstrated by the degree of veneration given to a man that many could consider a representative of God on earth or at least the most trusted source on divine laws and the ideal guide through the path to heaven, but also by the way this man’s destiny is believed to be tied to that of his followers.
Take a little look at the death of Pope John Paul II of the Vatican and Pope Shenouda III of Egypt and compare the reactions of Catholics worldwide to the first and Egyptian Copts to the second and you will have a picture of what I am trying to say. It is not about the number of mourners, but rather the form and reason of mourning. It is also about that time lapse that makes our part of the world stick to the balance of power that existed for several centuries since when a word from the pope mobilized millions of Europeans to the Holy Land and when the church could sell you a one-way ticket to salvation. I am aware of how inaccurate, and quiet unfair, the comparison is between the tyranny of the religious establishment in medieval Europe and the technically unforced authority of the Coptic Church in contemporary Egypt. The analogy basically aims at pinpointing the discrepancy between the most common models of the modern state in which faith is personal and politics is public and our case in which the lines demarcating the two are as blurred as can be.
In the case of Pope Shenouda III in specific, it is hard to determine who interfered in whose business first or who wanted to drag who into what. It started when the pope was, much to the displeasure of late president Anwar Sadat, pretty vocal about his objection to the peace treaty with Israel. It was not the pope’s opinion about a political matter that made of him more than a religious figure. The statements on controversial issues made by Pope John Paul II, for example, were not confined to same-sex marriages, contraception, and abortion—all seen as religious as they are social—but he openly condemned the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and expressed, on several occasions, his solidarity with the Palestinian cause as part of his role as a spiritual guide who supposedly represents human conscience in its agenda-free form. That is why the situation started becoming different with Pope Shenouda when Sadat decided to banish him, thus turning him from a religious symbol into an opposition figure.
It is, of course, debatable whether Sadat trapped the pope into the world of politics to create an imaginary animosity through which he is likely to garner support if only because the enemy was Christian and the pre-dominantly Muslim society was heading fast towards sectarian polarization or whether the pope had made a conscious decision to take the role of the church a couple of levels further. This might not matter a lot at the moment, for the end result was the same and everything that followed served to accentuate the pope’s newly acquired character and which was strongly highlighted by threats of excommunicating Copts who go on pilgrimage trips while Jerusalem is under Israeli occupation, which I believe was the real start of the politicization of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the era where “the mind replaced inspiration and planning replaced prayer,” as one of Egypt’s most prominent monks chose to put it. It was also when Christian laypeople were made to think they are answerable to the clergy and the beseeching messages of apology dozens of them published in official newspapers at the time to express deep regret for embarking on the forbidden trip offer the best example of the complicated relationship that started to develop between the two.
From that point onwards, it seemed that Coptic Egyptians, who were feeling increasingly alienated, realized how unwise they would be to disobey the only person who knows what is in their best interest and therefore started looking to Pope Shenouda for protection and adopting whichever stances he espoused no matter how different they would turn out to be from previous confrontational ones that had earned him the title “firebrand”… and four years in the middle of the Nitrian Desert.
It is hard to tell whether it was gratitude to the man who brought him back to the papacy or fear of another standoff with the regime that was not really that different from the one before or a bit of both that drove Pope Shenouda to make himself amenable to Hosni Mubarak for decades to come. There is also no way to ascertain that the pope really believed that Mubarak fended for Copts against radical Islamists who are bound to exterminate religious minorities the moment the regime falls or that this was just the argument he used to justify his alliance with a president who was no less of a dictator than his predecessor. Again, it doesn’t matter, for anyway both pope and flock ended up in total denial as they, consciously or unconsciously, started overlooking the role that the state, which claimed to protect Christians, played in igniting sectarian strife as part of the seemingly outmoded yet timelessly effective divide-and-rule tactic and even abandoning any attempts at seeing justice served in attacks that targeted Copts. The pope, therefore, indirectly took part in suppressing Copts not only by towing the line of a regime that manipulated them to consolidate its power, but also by constantly talking them into following in his footsteps. Copts did not have much of a choice, for even though going against the will of the pope might have sounded like the right thing to do, they were not sure they could face the consequences of losing the only pillar of support they had in the face of the rising Islamic tide and growing hostility towards non-Muslims. They were, therefore, left with the self-imposed conviction that it is only because of how wiser and more far-sighted he is that the pope is doing so.
The January 25 Revolution was no exception and it was not a surprise that the pope, who a couple of years earlier publicly supported the bequest of power to Mubarak’s son, to ban Copts from joining the protests and to call for giving the regime a chance. While many obeyed, others disobeyed, and some of the first joined the second shortly after the revolution had started in an obvious attempt to shed off the different levels of subordination to which they were subjected. That moment could have been the start of a long and winding road towards the de-politicization of the church and it was obvious how a sizable portion of previously-submissive Copts found in the revolution the most legitimate channel to make this possible. The revolution, which called for equality and citizenship, sort of replaced the church as the protector that does not demand submission in return and for the first time in a long while Copts were made to feel both independent and safe.
Not for long, unfortunately. The fast and scary rise of Islamists to power made many of those newly-liberated Copts not only recoil back to the old shelter but also start reconsidering their faith in the revolution and even realizing that the pope was right in his predictions about the status of Copts in post-Mubarak Egypt. So, as the pope befriended the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), presumably the new protector and the only power that can counter Islamist rule, Copts started once again seeing how wisdom coupled with passivity is much safer than rebellion rife with risks. And as armored vehicles crushed Copts under their tracks and Coptic families were forced out of their homes and the rhetoric against Copts grew more belligerent, the pope thanked senior army officers for attending Christmas Mass and few Copts objected.
When the pope passed away, Copts did not lament the loss of a religious figurehead or a spiritual guide. They cried their hearts out for the man who “protected” them and who remained, after all, the only source of security they had ever known, for it can always get worse and the future looks a lot bleaker than the turbulent past and the menacing present. I guess nothing can be more symbolic than keeping the embalmed body of the pope seated on the papal throne for a few days before the burial and mourners flocking to cast a last glance at what they can later refer to as their golden era.
Can anyone blame them?