Egyptian novelist Yusuf Zidan said the recently-deceased Coptic Pope Shenouda III was wise enough to deal with critical situations in a way that does not compromise the security of Egyptian Christians.
“Pope Shenouda knew that Copts were being used as a tool for political balance by the regime in Egypt and this gave him a lot of pain, yet he never acted impulsively and had to endure a lot during the time of both Sadat and Mubarak,” Zidan told Al Arabiya’s Studio Cairo.
The Pope’s priority, Zidan said, was to protect Copts and that is why he never involved them in any political confrontations.
“Instead, he chose to protect them with religion and that is why he gave a lot of care to Sunday schools and focused on the fact that Christianity does not call for involvement in politics and that Christ’s kingdom is not on earth.”
However, Zidan added, the Pope took several firm political stances and this is what started the dispute between him and late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.
“Pope Shenouda rejected the peace treaty with Israel and canceled pilgrimage trips to Jerusalem as long as it is under Israeli occupation. The majority of Copts agreed with him and only the secular amongst them objected.”
Zidan explained that no matter how he had tried to stay away from politics, the position of Pope Shenouda forced him at time to play a political role.
“This was especially seen in the way he dealt with clashes between Muslims and Christians.”
Sectarian tension, Zidan pointed out, was not new to Egypt. Zidan cited the example of the time when Fatimid Caliph ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher and clashes erupted in Cairo.
“However, clashes can happen between members of the same religion and this proves that no religion is by nature fanatical. It is the way this religion is perceived and practiced that is the crux of the matter.”
Zidan found it unlikely that Bishop Bishoy, expected by many to succeed Pope Shenouda, will be ultra-conservative. However, Zidan admitted to having a dispute with Bishoy over his novel Azazil, which tackles the murder of pagan Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia at the hands of a Christian mob.
“We had our differences over the novel while the Pope kept trying to calm things down and to stress that the issue is personal rather than religious. Yet, no one can deny the important role Bishop Bishoy plays in the Coptic Orthodox Church.”
Zidan argued that people change when they assume the papal position and that is why a man who starts out by being conservative can later become lenient and vice versa.
“In all cases, it is very unlikely that the next Pope will be totally immersed in religion and not involved in politics at all. The Pope has a political role to play. The religious and political roles of the Pope, Zidan noted, have merged since the year 325 A.D. and are now very difficult to separate.”
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)