“THE FIRST responsibility of the Church is teaching,” Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and North Africa, told the Register on the occasion of his silver jubilee late last fall. The 73-year-old Church leader teaches spirituality every Wednesday in the main cathedral in Egypt. “When I teach spirituality [the lecture] may be attended by thousands,” he says. “When I teach theology, hundreds might attend. It all depends on the subject—the spiritual life attracts people.”
Pope Shenouda thinks of the Coptic Orthodox Church as a missionary Church. Coptic Christians have emigrated in large numbers to the West. “Twenty-five years ago there were only seven Coptic Orthodox Churches outside Egypt,” the Patriarch said. “Since then, 150 new Churches have been established.
Pope Shenouda started his religious career in 1939 as a Sunday school teacher. Many other Coptic bishops have their roots in the Egyptian Sunday school movement that started in the 1920s. To this day, the Patriarch emphasizes the role of the educator. “The concern for our youth is very important for us,” he says. “We care for youth. Churches which suffer problems with youth confess that they didn't care for the youth when they were young. We have established Sunday schools. In Cairo alone we have more than 30,000 Sunday school teachers. We have a bishop [who is responsible] for youth. It was the first time in history that a bishop for youth was consecrated.”
The Patriarch reports a spiritual revival in the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Both the re-establishment of theological colleges and the movement of the Sunday schools played a role. Theological colleges prepare priests for pastoral care. Sunday schools provide pastoral care for youth. We started in Cairo, then [went on to] villages, until we had Sunday schools everywhere.”
The schools aimed to provide students with more than the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Pope Shenouda says. They also impart practical experience in the spiritual life. “We do not aim to give them just knowledge, but knowledge to improve their spiritual life.”
Vocations went up, which in turn led to further strengthening of the schools. “We began to get spiritual and very energetic priests and monks, and those spiritual, educated monks became Sunday school teachers and began to form the center of pastoral care in the Church. That was the cause of the revival, to have good pastors and bishops, and priests who can carry on the work of mission,” said Pope Shenouda.
When Pope Shenouda graduated in 1949, there were only five students. Today there are 100 in Cairo alone. The Patriarch has taken other steps to strengthen the Coptic Church. He ordained more than 75 bishops and divided some Sees to bring the local prelate closer to the people. He ordained five bishops in Eritrea, and is considering appointing a patriarch there.
Pope Shenouda was the first Coptic Orthodox Patriarch to visit Rome. The Coptic Orthodox Church has signed an agreement with Rome to end the conflict that began at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 over the nature of Christ. Both Churches now recognize that both communities believe Jesus Christ was both human and divine. They just formulated this understanding in different ways. It is no longer appropriate to denounce the Coptic Orthodox Church as monophysite.
Christians are a small minority in Egypt. “Islamic groups in Egypt are very dangerous,” the patriarch said. “They are aggressive. Not only against Christians but also against Muslims. They have killed many Muslim policemen, including police generals, government ministers, the president of the Parliament and Farag Foda, a well-known author.”
“The fanatics work through aggression, violence, discrimination. They burn churches. We want to overcome this. But we cannot overcome this through complaints or through articles written in [the United States] or elsewhere overseas. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not revolt against the Roman Empire, but he suffered and gave a good example,” the Patriarch said.
“Christianity without the cross is not Christianity.… We try to deepen the faith of our people. Only in that way we can confront the enemy and the difficulties raised by those fanatic groups.”
In the summer of 1981 the late President Anwar Sadat arrested hundreds of Muslims and Christians. Pope Shenouda was put under house arrest in his monastery. Muslim extremists assassinated Sadat at a military parade in Cairo in October 1981. The next president, Hosni Mubarak, allowed the Patriarch to leave his monastery in January 1985.
The four years of relative captivity changed him, however. He insists today more than ever that violence needs to be answered with love and that the behavior of Christians has to show that they are different.
Cornelis Hulsman is based in Cairo, Egypt.