Sydney Copts Honour Passing of Pope Shenouda III

Sydney Copts Honour Passing of Pope Shenouda III
Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
19 Mar 2012
More than 3000 of the city’s Egyptian Coptic community will gather tonight at St Mary and St Mina’s Coptic Cathedral at Bexley to mourn the death of their Patriarch and Pope, His Holiness Shenouda III who died in Cairo on Saturday, 17 March.
“His Holiness served for more than four decades as the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church; in this time with the grace of God, he has impacted profoundly on the lives of those who are within and outside the Church,” says the Very Rev Father Tadros Simon, Vicar General of the Coptic Orthodox Sydney Diocese. “He will be remembered as the charismatic spiritual leader of this era, the Athanasius of the 21st Century.”
Known to many as Baba Shenouda, the Pope of Alexandria and 117th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III was spiritual leader to Egypt’s 10 million Copts as well as the more than 3-5 million Copts worldwide, including Australia’s 80,000-strong Coptic community.
Yesterday, Melbourne’s Copts joined Bishop Suriel, the leader of the Australian Coptic Orthodox Church to mourn the passing of their popular and charismatic Patriarch. For Bishop Suriel, the death was particularly poignant.
Secretary to Pope Shenouda III for five years, he broke down in tears during his morning sermon yesterday. “He left his mark on his church and his people. He got on well with Muslims, was a great ascetic and scholar, wrote more than 120 books and some very beautiful poetry in Arabic,” Bishop Suriel said, and reminded the faithful of the six visits Pope Shenouda had made to Australia and his  love of the country and pride in the work being carried out by the Coptic Church, and in Coptic schools in Melbourne and Sydney.
Tonight, Monday 19 March, Sydney Copts will mourn the passing of Pope Shenouda. The Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Bexley will be open from 7 pm until 9 pm to receive condolences and tributes from the Sydney Coptic Diocese’s many clergy as well as members of Diocesan committees, associations and various boards. This evening of prayer will also give Sydney’s Coptic community an opportunity to remember, pray and grieve for the loss of their Patriarch.
A religious thinker, charismatic and known for his sense of humour and quiet diplomacy, Pope Shenouda III led Egypt’s minority Christians for 41 years. For several years the Coptic Pontiff had suffered lung and liver problems. Finally on Saturday, 17 March at the age of 88 he lost his struggle.
Patriarch of the Copts who trace their origins back to the time of St Mark the Apostle, believed to have brought Christianity to Egypt, Pope Shenouda III fought to protect Egypt’s ethnic minority in the face of increasing persecution and tensions between Christians and Muslim fundamentalists.
With his death, there is great fear in the vacuum left by his passing, the escalating tensions between Islam extremists and Egypt’s Christian minority will be exacerbated. During his leadership as Patriarch, the Coptic Pontiff often found himself in an invidious position. Wary of speaking out too loudly in defence of his flock in case he was accused of fomenting sectarian divisions among Egypt’s people, he was equally aware he could not stand idly by while Egypt’s Christians suffered violent attacks on themselves, their businesses and their churches.
The delicacy of his position in protecting and leading his congregation was best illustrated in 1981 when outraged by the government’s failure to rein in Muslim extremists, he publicly criticised the then president, Anwar Sadat. Sadat responded by banishing the Coptic Patriarch to a desert monastery in Wadi Al-Natrum where he was forced to remain for four years.
From then on, Pope Shenouda worked more quietly to protect his people and it is a measure of his tact and careful diplomacy that at the time of his death, he had won the respect of all sides.
Since news of his death became public at the weekend, political leaders including Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard have paid tribute to the Coptic Patriarch.
“On behalf of all Australians I offer my condolences to the Coptic community in this very said hour,” the Prime Minister said. “We know the 10 million Coptic Christians in Egypt and millions more worldwide have lost their Patriarch at a most difficult time in their history. I also know the Australian Coptic community looks to events in Egypt with great anxiety for their fellow faithful and their holy places. I want them to know today that the Copts of Egypt are not without friends in the world, or in Australia.”
Born Nazeer Gayed on 3 August, 1923 in a town 200 km south of Cairo, he took an early interest in religion. But on leaving school, rather than theology he studied history at Cairo University and on graduation in 1947 entered the military as a soldier. He swapped his uniform after a few years to become a journalist and a teacher before discovering his true vocation and entering Cairo’s Orthodox Seminary.
Ordained a priest in 1954, he modelled his life on St Anthony, the third century ascetic whose letters were the earliest original writings in the Coptic language. Shenouda then spent the next four years in prayerful retreat at a monastery in the Eastern Sahara. But in 1959 he was appointed private secretary to Coptic Patriarch, Pope Cyril VI and three years later was consecrated Bishop Shenouda. Then in 1971, on the death of Pope Cyril VI, he was elevated to the See of St Mark and named His Holiness Pope Shenouda III.
The Coptic Pontiff had a good relationship with Hosni Mubarak, who released him from his exile in 1985, but since the toppling of Mubarak in February last year, the Egypt’s Christians have faced escalating attacks not only from Muslims but from hardline security forces and the military.
In October last year during a peaceful demonstration by Copts to protest the burning of their churches, they were set on by Islamic extremists and then by tanks and army personnel carriers. More than 24 Copts were killed and many more injured. But no one has been brought to justice for these killings and the Interim Government’s inquiry led nowhere.
Official mourning of His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III began in Egypt yesterday with many hundreds of thousands crowding into Cairo’s Abbassiya Cathedral to view the embalmed body of their Patriarch lying near the altar and dressed in his elaborate gold robes of office.
Tomorrow, Tuesday 20 March, the funeral for the Coptic Pontiff will be held followed by burial at the Monastery at Wadi Al-Natroun where he spent his four years of exile from 1981 to 1985.

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