As thousands the world over gathered to mourn the death of Pope Shenouda III, the Organisation of African Instituted Churches’ (OAIC) remembers him in a special way; as the founder and patron of the organisation.
The 88 year old Egyptian Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III died on Saturday from old age and complications in health according to his advisor Hany Azizi. He led an estimated 12 million Christians in Egypt, and had recently returned from abroad where he had been seeking medical treatment.
Among many other contributions made by the late Pope to the Coptic Church, was the revival of the Church’s ministry to Black Africa. Despite the early ministry of the Coptic Church in Ethiopia and Nubia, there had been no further outreach within Africa for many centuries.
From the 1930’s, however, numbers of African Instituted Churches’ – AIC’s – began to be attracted by the idea of a link with the ancient indigenous churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, and began to write to the Coptic Patriarchate for assistance.
The Church’s first response to such requests was that of Pope Joseph III, who in 1949 sent a Bishop to Durban to establish a short-lived Bishopric of South Africa and Nigeria. This resulted ironically in the establishment of an AIC with the name ‘Coptic’. Later, Pope Cyril VI planned the training of Black Africans and Coptic Priests as missionaries to Black Africa. This project too was largely unsuccessful.
In 1966, however, a Coptic missionary surgeon, M.S. Mikhail sought the advice of Bishop Shenouda who by then was a Bishop of Church Education, before departing for a nine year ministry in Ethiopia. This meeting was the beginning of a significant friendship between Mikhail and Shenouda. After Shenouda’s enthronement as Patriarch in 1971, Mikhail facilitated the Pope’s visit to Ethiopia. Shenouda shared Mikhail’s vision for a renewed Coptic mission to Black Africa, both believing this to be the true calling of the church that had originally been founded by St Mark, ‘the Apostle to Africa’.
After Mikhail left Ethiopia in 1975, Shenouda sent him to the Baramos Monastery to become a monk and then priest, with the name Antonious. In 1976 the Pope sent Fr. Antonious to Nairobi to meet with Kenyans from AIC’s who called themselves Coptic or African Orthodox to explore possible initiative. On his return to Cairo the same year, Shenouda took Antonious and consecrated him Bishop for African Affairs with the name Antonious Markos, recognizing that this title would give him an appropriate gravity and status for his work with AIC leaders.
Shenouda’s recognition of Bishop Markos’ divine calling, his remarkable leadership and diplomatic gifts, and his pioneering spirit, was to prove crucial for the founding of the Organization of African Instituted Churches. This took place at a meeting of AIC leaders in 1978 in Cairo, organized by Markos and hosted by the Pope, where all present were impressed with the Pope’s humility and wisdom. (At this meeting Bishop Markos was chosen as OAIC Organizing Secretary).
Furthermore, the Pope’s sensitivity to the size and spiritual strength of the Kimbanguist church – the largest of all the AICs – had prompted him to send two monks to the Kimbanguist Theological College in Kinshasa in 1977, and in 1979 to visit himself the Kimbanguist Church in DRC.
The Coptic church’s leadership of the OAIC in its early years gave the AICs ecumenical recognition at a time when the main African ecumenical bodies continued to cold-shoulder them, and also acted as a guarantee to the AICs that the OAIC was not simply a project of the western ecumenical churches and agencies that were supporting the OAIC financially and with personnel.
In January 1994 Pope Shenouda visited the OAIC office in Nairobi in the presence of the bishop of African Affairs Antonious Markos and Bishop Serapion. The Coptic Church continues to be a member of the OAIC sends delegates to its meetings. Pope Shenouda is still regarded by AIC’s as the original patron and founder of the Organization.
Bells tolled in Cairo’s Abbasiya district, the site of Egypt’s main Coptic cathedral, as the news of his death spread. The Pope became the 117th Pope of Alexandria in November 1971, and was popular among Egypt’s Christians and Muslims alike during his four decades in power.
He has died at a time when Christians in Egypt are facing a tumultuous situation especially after President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011. Coptic Christians, who comprise about a tenth of Egypt’s 80 million people, have long complained of discrimination and it will be a tough job for his successor who will be required to play a central role in forging the church’s position in Egypt.
Shenouda’s criticism of the government’s handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s, in which Christians were targets, and his rejection of Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel landed him in trouble with then-president Anwar Sadat. He opposed Islamic militancy as he strived to quell growing anger among Copts over attacks on churches as well as sectarian clashes. During President Mubarak’s presidency, relations between the Government and the Coptic Church were generally smooth, as the Pope was largely seen as a symbol of religious harmony, despite occasional outbreaks of sectarian violence.
The Pope effectively handled challenges that included the bomb attack in a church that left 23 people dead on a New Year’s Day in 2011 in Alexandria. Authorities blamed Islamic militants based in Gaza for the attacks. In October 2011, at least 25 people were killed when Christians clashed with military police in Central Cairo.
Religious leaders from across the world, including a delegation of senior Catholics from the Vatican, joined thousands of Copts in the Orthodox Cathedral to pray over Shenouda’s body which lay in an open coffin, a golden mitre on his head and a gold-tipped staff in his hand. Bishop Bakhomious, head of a church district in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, will hold the post of pope for two months until a new one is elected.
The Pope was buried in Wadi el Natrun monastery in the desert Northwest of Cairo, where he had asked to be interred.
Profile prepared by John Padwick, Reverend John Gichimu and the General Secretary of OAIC Reverend Nicta Lubaale.