Pope Shenouda III, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, dies

Pope Shenouda III  was arguably one of the most important figures of 20th century Egypt, and one of his ancient church's most transformative figures.  Shenouda  guided his flock, the largest congregation of Christians in the Middle East, to massive political, social, economic and religious change. In doing so he broke with tradition of a more spiritual role for the pope and embraced a political role that made him  one of the pivotal figures of the last 40 years. on this blog in the past I have been critical of the Pope, notably for his for his politicization of the church, his  autocratic tendencies,  and misplaced bet on the Mubarak regime — most notably his unprecedented 2005 endorsement of the reelection of Hosni Mubarak.

But I'll leave discussion of that to another day, and  instead urge you to read this overview of his life by one of the best non-Egyptian experts on the church and religious life in Egypt, Cornelius Hulsman of the Arab West Report:

Egyptian Christians are mourning the death of Coptic Orthodox Pope and Patriarch Shenouda III, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 88. Pope Shenouda (August 3, 1923 - March 17, 2012) was extremely popular among millions of common Christians. A charismatic reformer and an advocate of Christian rights and interests in a predominantly Muslim country, many considered him as their father. Common Muslims liked him for his critical stance towards Israel, but both Christian and Muslim intellectuals were critical of his mixing politics with religion. No doubt he was the most influential Christian leader in 20th century Egypt. He was co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Sunday School Magazine in 1947, was consecrated as monk in 1954, became Bishop of Education in 1962, and Pope in 1971.

Metropolitan Bishoi, secretary of the Synod since 1985, described in 2002 the dramatic changes during Pope Shenouda’s reign. The number of monks, priests, bishops, church servants, and churches dramatically increased. Monasteries expanded as never before since the arrival of Islam in Egypt. During Pope Shenouda’s rule, the emigration of Copts increased tremendously as a consequence of better economic perspectives and a search for greater freedoms outside Egypt. Pope Shenouda responded to this trend by building hundreds of churches outside Egypt, whereby most (if not all) were personally consecrated by him.

And the conclusion that hints at the succession battle that has been rivaled only by the Mubarak succession question in Egypt's public life:

For at least the past ten years there have been discussions about the succession of Pope Shenouda. Until 1928 only monks had been elected to the papacy. Three diocesan bishops had been elected to the papacy in the 20th century but that had also resulted in resistance by those who believe that the church should adhere to its ancient principles for the election of a new pope. Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma stated that Pope Shenouda himself saw no problem in the election of general bishop as pope as opposed to a diocesan bishop.

Just as the death of Pope Yousab in 1956 resulted in a struggle around the succession, so Father Musa of Beni Suef suspects a struggle over the succession of Pope Shenouda. There is division over who could be eligible (monks only or monks and general bishops). There are furthermore several ambitious bishops. For whoever will be elected, it will not be easy to stand in the shoes of a pope who had such a tremendous impact in his church and who has enjoyed so much popularity. Yet, for the church, it is important to soon have a strong new leader again in order to be able to safeguard the position of Christians in a country that is in transition following the Revolution of 2011.

At a time when bishops and other church leaders are publicly disagreeing on what presidential candidate they support, you bet this succession is going to be heated.