CAIRO (Reuters) - Pope Shenouda, who died on Saturday at the age of 88, was Egypt’s highest Christian authority, working for more than 40 years to keep the peace between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.
On the occasions when Christian protesters took to the streets to complain about discrimination against them, the late Coptic Pope chose to stay silent so as not to inflame tensions.
When Egypt’s Islamists won the majority of seats in parliament earlier this year in a move that privately alarmed many Christians, he chose to keep his counsel for the same reason.
“The church decided to take a silent stance and wait to see what would happen,” a church official said.
Pope Shenouda was appointed the 117th Pope of Alexandria, the state’s highest Christian rank, in November 1971, and was respected by Egypt’s Christians and Muslims alike.
Christians constitute the largest minority group in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation of over 80 million people. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, but it is estimated that there are around 12 million Christians too.
In the last three years, Egypt has been convulsed by an average of two serious outbreaks of sectarian violence a year. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured.
On most occasions, the Egyptian church under the leadership of Shenouda refrained from making any public criticism of the Egyptian authorities even when his its followers protested, complaining of discrimination and lax security around churches.
Shenouda and the Coptic church endorsed ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when he ran for his fifth term in 2005, reflecting the views of many Copts, who saw Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamists such as the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.
Shenouda’s detractors sometimes accused him of authoritarian tendencies. In the mid-1990s, he faced a backlash within his own church over allegations he was marginalizing or ex-communicating priests who did not agree with his policies.
His decision to reject Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel and to speak out against a small Islamist insurgency in the 1970s that targeted some Christians temporarily saw him lose his freedom.
President Anwar el-Sadat banished him to the Wadi el Natrun monastery northwest of Cairo, accusing him of fomenting sectarian strife and meddling in politics. He was also stripped of his temporal powers.
He was released and given back his authority by Mubarak in 1984, three and a half years after Sadat’s assassination.
Born on August 3, 1923, Shenouda started to take religious classes in Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church at the age of 16, continuing his studies at Cairo University until his graduation in 1947 with a Bachelor of Arts in History.
He then joined the Coptic Orthodox Seminary, and later entered the seminary’s faculty after graduating from college.
In 1962, the late Pope Cyril VI asked him to become the Bishop of Christian Education and President of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary.
In November 1971, Shenouda became the 117th Pope of Alexandria, the state’s highest Christian rank. He appears to have been widely respected by both Muslims and Christians.
“He is a very wise man. He always placed the interest of the nation above any other thing,” said Mustafa el-Fiki, a political analyst and a former member of Mubarak’s ruling party in a televised interview in January.
“I remember that President Mubarak has suggested to him to make the death of Christ a national holiday like Christmas but he refused, saying that Muslims agree that Christ was born but don’t agree on his death,” Fiki added.
Shenouda travelled to Europe and the United Sates many times in recent years for medical check ups and minor surgery. Most recently, on March 14, he had visited the United States for medical tests.
Editing by Andrew Osborn