King of the Copts

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On April 14 1977, at 1 PM, a commercial airliner touched down at Kennedy Airport in New York City, carrying the Patriarch of all the Copts. Few Coptic patriarchs had ever ventured outside Egypt, and those who did went to places such as Ethiopia. Hours before the touchdown the TWA terminal teemed with Egyptians, so many that the overflow crowd stood outside the terminal and into the parking lot. As soon as the Patriarch stepped off the plane a crowd of dignitaries rushed to greet him with enthusiasm and the usual Egyptian insouciance toward personal space. The greeters included priests and bishops, diplomats and notables, common folks who were lucky enough to make it to the front row, and a single cameraman who recorded the venue for posterity in jittery and grainy details. The aural space was occupied by two dozen deacons, in vestments and with cymbals and triangles, who broke into ancient hymns in Coptic. Outside the terminal the crowd turned the place into a festival of traditional reverence, newfound pride, and customary jostling. A young monk, recently arrived from Egypt, stood in the middle of traffic beaming beatifically. A New York City police officer approached him with gentle deference. “Padre, would you mind stepping onto the sidewalk?”. The monk smiled back insisting that “God wants me here”. Eventually he stepped onto the sidewalk, in perhaps a sign of God’s mercy on New York motorists. A man at the back of the crowd, near the parking lot, took up the unwise, and possibly sacrilegious chant “Shenouda, Shenouda Malik Al Aqbat”. (Shenouda, King of the Copts). No one seemed to follow him and he eventually gave up. A couple of Mukhabarat types hung out on the edges, easily recognizable by their sense of fashion, sunglasses and worn out shoes, representing the inability of Egyptian intelligence to blend in, or possibly its desire not to do so.

The raucous reception left one of the organizers of the visit in an ebullient mood. Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed had been seven years a priest, taking up the cloth in middle age after a long career as an academic historian. During these seven years he had become the senior pastor of St Mark church in Jersey City and a roving troubleshooter for all things Coptic in the United States. A few days after the arrival he exclaimed to some of his flock “God took our hand and guided us. We received our Patriarch like a King!”. Later in the year he edited the cameraman’s footage in a newsreel style file, providing the background commentary in a voice over suitable for historic events. Another organizer of the trip was more reserved in his assessment of the reception. Bishop Samuel had obtained more votes in the papal election six years earlier, only to lose to Shenouda in the altar lottery.  For over a quarter century he had been a fixture on the world stage, representing the Coptic church in various ecumenical councils. He wanted the visit to announce the return of Copts to an equal place in world Christianity, and the reception at JFK was too populist for his taste, as he told his close friends. Still, parts of the trip stayed close to Samuel’s plan. The Patriarch visited every major religious group in New York City. Shenouda arrived at the residence of Terence Cardinal Cooke in the company of a dozen Catholic and Coptic bishops and priests and held fairly amiable talks with the representative of a denomination that he clearly regarded as junior to his own. In a sign of brotherly love he gave the Cardinal an icon painted by Ishaak Fanous, considered one of the greatest of iconographers. Those in the know must have smiled at the presentation, for the Coptic Pope had recently prevented several of Fanous’ icons from being mounted in churches on account of their overtly Catholic manner. Fanous made no effort to hide his opinion of the Patriarch’s artistic judgement, and in time the relationship between the two men grew frosty. There were also visits to Greek and Armenian prelates, and a reception for Muslim Imams. There remained the tricky matter of Jewish religious leaders, as Egypt was still technically at war with Israel. Archbishop Iakovos resolved the matter in a characteristically forthright and blunt manner. He invited several Jewish rabbis (including Rabbi Arthur Schneier) to the gathering with the Coptic Pope and thus settled it. Samuel served as the host master for meetings with mainline Protestants, as many of their leaders were his long-time friends, and the meetings went without a hitch, likely to his relief. The visit to the UN was diplomatically correct, although Secretary General Kurt Waldheim did not expect the Pope to expound with vehemence on how to resolve the Middle East crisis. There was also a visit to the White House. Publicly everyone announced that the short meeting was amiable and friendly, but privately many noted that the President and the Pope did not warm to each other. There was the rumor, never confirmed, that Shenouda’s assessment of Carter was rather blunt, “Ragel broustangi ameen tayb wi ghalban” (A Protestant man of faith, kind and hapless). The Egyptian ambassador in DC pulled out all the stops and invited a host of diplomatic and religious leaders to a reception in the Pope’s honor. There was the rumor, again never confirmed, that the diplomat did so on personal instructions from President Sadat himself. These activities were, however, a side show to the real purpose of the Pope’s trip.

Fr. Ghobrial arranged the visit to be a total of 40 days, conscious of the iconic number. For most of these days, the Pope advanced through the American countryside in the manner of a royal claiming a new possession. He visited many churches, and dedicated as many as half a dozen new ones. The flock in every parish competed to show off their new churches. The lack of a church did not dissuade some congregations from availing themselves of a papal visit. The Long Island parish, totaling a 100 families, had no church.  A plot of land in Woodbury, meant to build a new house for a local doctor, was hurriedly contributed to the church by its generous owner, and the Pope blessed the first stone to be laid down. At the dedication, Catholic bishop McGann and the county executive, Ralph Caso, sat through the ceremony with commendable patience. New churches were dedicated in several states. The scripts was always the same. The Pope celebrated liturgies before retiring to the basement of the church to break bread with the faithful, answer their questions and offer his guidance. Some stood up to describe the “situation” in Egypt in unvarnished and unflattering terms. But the Pope would not hear of it. It is not that he disagreed with their assessment, but rather he felt that such matters are best not left to his children. Obedience and loyalty were his due, and for the most part his children agreed. It was the rare man or woman who disagreed with the Pope, or felt as one man said “in Egypt Sadat shuts me up, but in America the job falls to the Pope”, We have no record of what the patriarch thought of all of this, beyond the fulsome praise he publicly gave to his American flock. But time would show that it was the beginning of a dramatic change in the lives of the Copts.

Up until that trip the Pope had a distant interest in the American flock. His predecessor, Pope Kyrillous, thought little of immigration. For the previous decade the task of ministering to the new immigrants had fallen to Bishop Samuel. He came to America often, taking personal interest in the new immigrants; on most occasions staying in their homes, praying in their living rooms and sharing meals at their tables. The immigrants developed genuine love for the thoughtful and dynamic man. From the 1960s until his passing he offered practical solutions for their problems and thought deeply about the issues likely to be raised by immigration. He was neither a gifted speaker nor a natural writer and as a result the loyalties and the affection he earned were largely retail and personal. His care and actions should have made him the natural pastor to immigrant Copts. But the trip had changed something in the life of the community. Shenouda, a charismatic leader, secured loyalty with ease, and in the difficult decade to come, these loyalties played a dominant role in the lives of immigrant Copts, and would influence observers in Egypt deeply. The influence of Samuel would fade, and dramatically so four years later after his assassination alongside Sadat. Shenouda shaped the American Coptic church, even while in exile in a monastery. Few now remember that in the early 1980s an American federal court in Houston reaffirmed his role as the sole leader of the church rather than the papal committee. The case was brought on his behalf by American Copts. The community was divided, sure enough, but the force of Shenouda’s personality and Egypt’s history would reside with Shenouda’s partisans. Beginning in the 17th century Coptic lay “notables” assumed larger roles in the community, and in some cases sidelined the church in such matters as appointing bishops and managing church assets. That began to change in the late 19th century, and the century before the trip marked a tug of war between lay and church leaders. The 1952 revolution reordered the power relationships in Egypt, and wealthy lay Copts were on the decline in influence, both in the church and in the country at large. The immigrants that began to come to America in the late 1960s and 1970s were of the middle classes, many had benefited from Nasser’s educational reforms, but were marooned in their country with a degree and no decent job prospects, and increasingly uneasy about the islamization of the public sphere. Shenouda spoke to their needs, and seemed like one of them, while Samuel, for all the affection he garnered, seemed to recall an earlier age. A small incident illustrates the changes afoot at the time. An older women, a daughter of the old Coptic aristocracy, was in the reception line for Shenouda, with Samuel next to him. She bent down to kiss Samuel’s hand, and as expected he pulled his hand away and thrust the cross he carries forward so her lips touched the cross. She repeated the movement with Shenouda, but this time the Patriarch left his hand firmly in place. Afterwards, she was outraged, declaring to her friends that “even my father never asked me to kiss his hand!”. The rest of the people thought nothing of kissing Shenouda’s hand.

Shenouda wanted the immigrant churches to be disciplined outposts of the Egyptian church. His exile to a desert monastery and the growing social and official discrimination towards Egyptian Copts had the effect of binding the immigrant churches closer to Egypt. People close rank when under attack. The majority of Egyptian Copts felt that Shenouda stood up for them, and in his struggles they saw a reflection of their own. Slowly but inexorably he drew them inside the church walls, until the church became the center of their lives, and he, their father in both spiritual and worldly terms. But the immigrant Copts by and large suffered little discrimination, and their lives did not need to center around the church. Shenouda claimed them by presenting the Egyptian struggle as their own, and by a number of edicts and decisions, some theologically dubious such as insisting on rebaptism of the non-Coptic spouse in intermarriage. The tactics favored closing ranks over erecting an open tent. Influencing events in Egypt was, for many immigrant Copts, their due, a small compensation for the psychic pain they endured as a marginalized people in the country before immigration. For many Egyptians, including some Copts, the immigrants’ interest was a mixed blessing. But Shenouda felt that on the whole they represented an asset, and cultivated them through multiple visits, where he baptized their children and consecrated their churches and priests. But his tactics, and the immigrants’ acceptance of them, also delayed the necessary redefinition of a Coptic identity in immigration and away from simply being the Christians of Egypt. The immigrants were more reliable supporters than the old Coptic elite, of which he spoke derisively, “Are the elite just people with a particular philosophy or are they people with actual influence on the Copts in the Church?”, he asked of Abdel Latif El Menawy. The extinction of public intellectuals and civil society brought about by the Nasser revolution fell especially hard on the old Coptic grandees and intellectuals, but for Shenouda it was neither a calamity nor a trend to be resisted. He viewed these men, and the occasional woman, as lacking the fiber necessary to hold the community together during difficult times. He often said that any patriarch would have acted as he did, but this is hardly a statement of modesty; rather it is an attempt to forestall debate over his actions. In seeking to set up the church to make up for the deficits of the Egyptian state, especially towards the Copts, Shenouda fell into the trap predicted by Matta El Meskeen. A church that imitates the state will likely also inherit its corruption. The immigrant churches did nothing to counter such deviations, and in some cases unintentionally furthered them. A people living in economic security and cultural freedom chose to inherit the flaws created by a repressive society. The man who hailed Shenouda as “King of the Copts” in 1977 was wrong at the time, but prescient about the things to come.

Sooner or later new generations outside Egypt were bound to ask the question of what it means to be a Copt and seek their own path and their personal answers. They are beginning to ask for a different deal from the one their parents accepted from Shenouda. Their passions and support for Egyptian Copts still burn, but they are unlikely to accept a shushing in a church basement. Any patriarch succeeding a man who served for four decades, much less one with an outsized personality, is bound to have his hands full. There are entrenched interests with old loyalties, there are habits once novel now ingrained, and many who feel they could do a better job of leading. This is hardly unique to the Coptic church; it is simply human nature. Pope Tawadros’ II task is made more difficult by many circumstances, some outside his control, others of his own making. The tumult in Egypt and his own involvement with its politics are perhaps the lesser of all the issues that will matter on a historic scale. For the first time in 15 centuries, since Chalcedon when the Egyptian church chose its lonely path and when the common folks followed their leaders and withstood much oppression, the “Copts” will need an identity that transcends Egypt. The immigrant community, now more than 10 times larger than what it was 40 years ago, will likely play a major role in the evolution of the church, constructively or otherwise. The question will be as to what end is the value of social freedom and economic prosperity if they are not harnessed to affect a wider cultural improvement? Egypt will always matter, but its ways can be pushed aside, and some of what is learned in the new lands substituted for them. The rude but direct question is, do the Copts need a king or a patriarch? Will they bend down to kiss a hand or a cross?

— Maged Atiya

 

 


2 Comments on “King of the Copts”

  1. […] This article was reprinted with permission by Maged Atiya; it was originally published on https://salamamoussa.com/2018/08/21/king-of-the-copts/ […]


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