Religion & Society
- Published on Wednesday, 21 March 2012 18:28
- Written by The News Newspaper
Tearful and wearing black, tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians joined a funeral mass for their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, led by senior clerics at the main cathedral in Cairo.
St Mark's Cathedral was packed with local clerics, visiting clergymen and dignitaries as deacons chanted sombre hymns and bearded, black-clad priests and monks recited prayers and dispensed incense smoke from censers.
Shenouda's body lay in a white casket in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services, complete with an ornate golden crown.
Shenouda died on Saturday aged 88 after 40 years at the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world's oldest Christian denominations.
Most of Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians are Orthodox Copts.
Many in the congregation broke down in tears, while others frantically waved goodbye as the mass came to a close.
Clerics, deacons and laypeople gathered around the casket, kissing it, standing in silence or bowing in respect.
Tens of thousands more who could not get in followed the mass outside the cathedral, carrying crosses and portraits of Shenouda.
Many wept, wiping tears off their faces as the melancholic tunes of the hymns reached them through loudspeakers.
Scores of military police were deployed to maintain security outside the cathedral, on one of central Cairo's main arteries, with traffic backed up for hours because of the crowds.
"I know he is now in a better place, but it is difficult now he's gone. We miss you," said a grief-stricken Marianne Saad as she stood in the crowd outside the cathedral.
"After God, he was our only protector," lamented another young woman in the crowd. "We will miss him, but he will always be in our hearts," said a young Christian man, Hani Suleiman.
After the mass, Shenouda's body was ferried to a military airport east of Cairo, from where it was to be flown later on Tuesday to the desert of St. Bishoy monastery north-west of the capital, where he will be buried.
The monastery, which dates back to the 4th century, was a favourite of Shenouda's.
Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, declared a nationwide state of mourning on Tuesday.
A successor to Pope Shenouda has yet to be found and it could take months before the complex process is completed.
Egypt's Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the nation's Muslim majority. The political ascent of Islamists since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak a year ago has added to their worries.
"Words, my beloved, can never do Pope Shenouda justice. He left us an example of leadership that we should all follow," a senior cleric said in an address to the congregation. "It is because of him that we have national unity with our Muslim brothers."
During his 40 years as patriarch, Shenouda strove to ensure his place among the Muslim powerbrokers, pressing demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check. It was a delicate balancing act.
Shenouda maintained a high media profile, giving interviews, speaking on key domestic and regional developments and never showing anger at times of crisis.
Egyptian authorities deny any discrimination, but Christians say it happens in numerous and subtle ways. Christians, for example, rarely assume leadership jobs on the police force, particularly the security agencies. The Islamist-dominated parliament only has a handful of Christians, and there are never more than one or two Christians among 30-plus cabinet ministers.
As Egypt grew more religiously conservative over the past 40 years, the discrimination became more manifest in everyday life, particularly when Christians came into direct contact with government departments or enrolled their children at state schools, where Islamists often dominate teaching staff.
“What Is Coptic Christianity, And What Do Coptic Christians Believe?"
“Coptic” means “Egyptian,” and Christians living in Egypt identify themselves as Coptic Christians. As a denomination they originated in the city of Alexandria, one of the most faithful, respected, and fruitful cities during the Apostolic Period. Proudly, the Coptic Christians acknowledge and herald John Mark, (author of the Gospel of Mark), as their founder and first bishop sometime between A.D. 42 - A.D. 62. The Coptic Church was actually involved in the very first major split in the Church, well before there was such a thing as "Roman" Catholicism, and it was also well before the East/West split.
Prior to the “Great” East/West Schism of A.D. 1054, the Coptics were separated from the rest by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. The council met to discuss the Incarnation of Christ and declared that Christ was "one hypostasis in two natures" (i.e., one person who shares two distinct natures). This became standard orthodoxy for Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches from then on. The Coptic understanding is that Christ is one nature from two natures: "the Logos Incarnate." In this understanding, Christ is from, not in, two natures: full humanity and full divinity.
Some in the Coptic Orthodox Church believe that their position was misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon and take great pains to ensure that they are not seen as Monophysitic (denying the two natures of Christ), but rather "Miaphysitic" (believing in one composite/conjoined nature from two). Some believe that perhaps the council understood the church correctly, but wanted to exile the church for its refusal to take part in politics or due to the rivalry between the bishops of Alexandria and Rome. To this day, 95 percent of Christians in Alexandria are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The tradition says that when John Mark arrived on a missionary journey to Egypt, the Coptic form of religion of that day was god-centered worship, but focused upon the pyramids. However, John Mark and the Gospel message were well received by the Coptic people as they also believed in “eternal life.” The Coptic people, under Roman rule and societal influence, consisted of Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians; therefore, Christianity had to take into account the different cultural, language, and religious backgrounds when evangelizing and in establishing its church. The Coptic Christians were originally well founded in theology, and other churches in cities throughout the Roman Empire looked up to them with great admiration and respect, willingly following their lead in doctrinal like-mindedness and unity.
It is interesting to note that when the Coptics were under the rule of the Roman Empire, they suffered severe persecution and death for their steadfast faith and beliefs in Christ while refusing to worship emperors. However, by A.D. 641, yet another tribulation began when the Arab conquest took place, overthrowing the Romans' rule in Egypt and, at first, relieving the Coptic Church from persecution. What appeared to be their liberty and freedom became yet again bondage.
The societal strength and control of the Arabs caused the Coptics to endure a major language and culture change as well as confront the Islamic faith. Unfortunately, over the centuries, Christianity lost foothold and most Coptics converted to Islam.
Today, there is a small population of Coptic Christians remaining in Alexandria, but most are located elsewhere. Estimates of the current population of the Coptic Church range from 10 million to 60 million members worldwide. Theologically, Coptic Christianity is very similar to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. They profess to be genuine followers of Jesus Christ and a part of His worldwide Church. But, as with Catholicism, they tend to emphasize meritorious works in salvation along with liturgical ritual rather than salvation through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.