ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — The death of Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria, comes at a time of deep political uncertainty in Egypt and rising fears that the country’s already beleaguered Coptic minority could be further marginalized by Islamists.

The death of Pope Shenouda, who led the worldwide Coptic Church for four decades until his death March 17 at the age of 88, comes just over a year after the “Arab Spring” popular uprising that forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of office.

In the year since, Egypt’s Islamic parties have made major gains during ongoing national elections. It remains to be seen how much influence these parties will wield in the yet-to-be-formed government.

By all accounts, Shenouda’s successor will have big shoes to fill. The patriarch was a charismatic figure who vastly expanded the Coptic Church beyond the Middle East. He gained the support of the Mubarak regime and was a great proponent of dialogue between Christians and Muslims and between Christian denominations.

In his condolence message, Pope Benedict XVI said “the Catholic Church as a whole shares the grief that afflicts the Orthodox Copts.” He recalled Shenouda’s “commitment to Christian unity and his memorable visit to my predecessor, Pope Paul VI, when, in Rome, on May 10, 1973, they signed the Joint Declaration of Faith in the Incarnation of the Son of God.”
Though a unifying force in the Coptic community, the Coptic pope, or patriarch, nevertheless had his critics. Some Copts criticized his determination to maintain good ties with the often-harsh Mubarak government, as well as his opposition to anti-government protests. His stand against divorce angered the more socially permissive members of his community. 

His successor will not be named for at least another 40 days, after the official mourning period is concluded, Father Antonious El-Ourshalimi, general secretary of the Coptic Patriarchate in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, told the Register.

“We cannot say now who the next pope will be,” he said. “We pray that God will choose someone like Pope Shenouda, with his breadth of knowledge and spirituality, and who can help bring peace to Egypt.”

He said that although Pope Shenouda “was a spiritual leader, not a politician, he found a balance between political and spiritual life. What we need now is stability between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians.”

Father David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholic communities in Israel, believes that whoever succeeds the patriarch “will be someone formed by him,” if only because Pope Shenouda led the 10-million-strong community for so long.

“No one from Shenouda’s era is left,” Father Neuhaus noted.

Father Neuhaus said the late patriarch’s worldliness — he was a university graduate and author of many books — helped him navigate the many political minefields in Egypt’s tumultuous history: “He was very involved in all aspects of Egyptian life. His predecessors were much more monastic and closed. He really universalized the church in the diaspora, including the U.S., built many monasteries and promoted the Coptic Church as the authentic church in Africa.”

Asked what qualities the Coptic community is looking for in its next leader, Charles Smith, professor of Middle East history at the University of Arizona, recalled a famous Jewish saying: “Ask three Israelis a question, and you’re liable to get five answers.”

The same is true in the Copt community, Smith said. 

Despite its members’ differing opinions on how best to weather the Arab Spring, any candidate to succeed Pope Shenouda “must be forceful and diplomatic at the same time, and perhaps more politically minded regarding both communities than Shenouda was,” Smith said.

Certainly, any future Coptic leader will have to deal with the new political balance of power emerging in Egypt. 

Smith called the Salafis, the most extreme Islamic party, “the major problem” facing moderate Egyptians, due to the Salafis’ strong showing in national elections.

“They are funded by the Saudis [and] would want a traditional Muslim society,” Smith said, referring to sharia (Islamic law). He added that the Muslim Brotherhood, another Islamic party, appears to be more interested in moderation than many might believe, “not an [overtly] Islamist society.”

Whether Copts are more vulnerable without Pope Shenouda at the helm is a difficult question to answer, said Todd Nettelton, an official for Voice of the Martyrs, a U.S.-based organization against persecution of Christians.

“Even when he was alive, we have been concerned about the growing influence of Islamist groups. Copts were vulnerable before, and I think they’re still vulnerable.”

Nettleton said his organization hopes that whoever ultimately rules Egypt will be a strong leader, so that “the rights of religious minorities to worship and follow their religious beliefs will be assured. That includes the right to leave Islam and choose another religion. Right now, that’s not happening.” 

Smith said that Pope Shenouda’s alliance with Mubarak “did not fully” protect the Copts from attacks against their people and churches: “So it’s hard to say whether they are more vulnerable now.”

In the best-case scenario, he said, leaders of Egypt’s military and the Muslim Brotherhood “will be eager to assure Copts of their place in Egypt,” if only to ensure the continuation of U.S. government aid to the country.

U.S. security and economic assistance to Egypt has expanded greatly in the wake of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. military aid to Egypt totals more than $1.3 billion annually.

Hopeful though some analysts are, no one denies that the death of Pope Shenouda has left a void not easily filled.

Emad Gad, a Coptic legislator, told Al-Ahram, a major Egyptian newspaper, “At this critical juncture, we need a wise pope ... like Pope Shenouda.”

Michele Chabin, the Register’s Middle East correspondent, writes from Jerusalem.