(Photo: Reuters/Ismail Zetouni)
Millions of Egyptian Copts feel they have been left vulnerable after the death of their spiritual leader, Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church, and many fear an increase in persecution from the Muslim-majority population in the country.
Mourning Copts who attended the pre-funeral ceremony in Cairo Sunday where Pope Shenouda III's body was set on his throne for the last time repeatedly called the dead patriarch their "protector" and suggested that their grief is now also marked by fear of what the future might bring in the country now ruled by Islamist parties – and where Coptic Christians have already been experiencing an increase in violence since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring uprising.
Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, passed away of longtime illnesses Saturday, after over 40 years of leading that persecuted church.
"The very existence of Shenouda made us feel protected," a young Copt attending the ceremonies amid large crowds told the media.
"I feel worse that our protector has gone. God knows what is going to happen," a Christian woman added.
The Coptic pope was known to be "an advocate for tolerance and harmony," as President Barack Obama described him upon news of his death.
Although Shenouda III was very involved in politics, he managed to be an authority with his church as well as with Egypt's political leaders and many fear that once he is gone, it will be hard to find a leader capable of evoking such respect, Aidan Clay, a regional manager at International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group, told The Christian Post Monday. Clay is an expert on relations between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
Currently, there are feelings of "desperation" over the Copts' future, Clay added. Copts feel "a lot like they lost their leader and spokesman. They lost someone; even though they might have disagreed with his political views, they still respected his knowledge of the political situation" which "no one else in the Coptic church really seems to have."
"I don't know if persecution will necessarily increase" after Pope Shenouda III's death, Clay told CP. But the spiritual leader "knew how to make peace with the church and the government."
When the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt last year, Shenouda discouraged Copts from participating in protests, although his reasons were never clear, as he spoke out very rarely.
Although many Copts did not agree with Shenouda's policies (he was reportedly an unofficial supporter of Mubarak in exchange for a slightly bigger role of the church in the country's public life) he was still very respected, Clay pointed out.
"I think there's fear that there are no bishops in line to become the next pope that can have the respect of both -- Muslims and Christians, and of the government -- like Shenouda was able to maintain over more than 40 years as pope of the country," he said.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is a branch of Christianity founded in Egypt, but has devotees across Africa and Asia, predominantly in the Middle East. Copts constitute around nine percent of the Egyptian population, which is largely Sunni Muslim. That is about eight million people, although some sources estimate the Coptic population to number even between 10 and 12 million.
Since Mubarak's fall last year, Copts have protested against discrimination amid fears that Islamic figures rising to political power will impose strict Sharia law. Copts also have been complaining that they are treated as second-class citizens and being denied top jobs.
In addition, since the toppling of the authoritarian president, several acts of violence against Christians and churches have taken place. In May, 15 people were killed, 242 injured and the Virgin Church was burned down in clashes with Muslims. A demonstration by Copts in October saw the death of 27 Christians.
"Since the revolution of January 2011, levels of violence against Christians have increased," according to Open Doors, a Christian advocacy group. "In rural areas, Copts are constantly terrorized, while security forces turn a blind eye; Coptic girls are abducted and forced into Islamic marriages."
Some experts fear that the revolution might create sectarian violence that would push Christians out of the country all together, as with the Assyrian Christian population in Iraq.
Others are slightly more optimistic. Thomas Farr of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs at Georgetown University told CP in a recent interview that Egyptians must assimilate religious minorities if they want their post-revolutionary country to be a true democracy.
"If the Christian minority in Egypt cannot be assimilated, cannot be made equal citizens under the law and in fact in society, then Egypt will fail as a democracy," Farr told CP. "Democracy of course means more than free and fair elections. You can have free and fair elections, and still proceed to persecute minorities. It's called majoritarian tyranny. The key to a stable democracy in a highly religious society is not only free and fair elections, but constitutional safeguards for minorities, like the Christian Copts, and even more importantly, cultural and social acceptance of those protections."
"The people of Egypt, the Muslims of Egypt, must recognize that these people have every single right that they have. Whether they're men or women – they have the right to run for office. And the right to make arguments in the public square," Farr said. "Based on their own religious beliefs they have a right to criticize Islam. People have a right to leave Christianity and become Muslim. They also have a right to leave Islam and become Christian or anything else, or become non-religious. That is what a democracy has to have if it's going to root, especially in highly religious societies."