The Archbishop of Canterbury has offered his condolences to the Coptic Orthodox Church following the death of Pope Shenouda III on 17 March 2012.
“His Holiness has been an exemplary and outstanding Christian leader both within Egypt and far beyond its boundaries,” Dr. Rowan Williams stated on 19 March. “His long ministry in the See of St Mark has seen the most extraordinary revival in the Coptic Orthodox Church, not least in its monastic life; and his own personal witness as a man of prayer, a peacemaker, a teacher of the faith and a disciple willing to suffer for the sake of his Lord has been an inspiration.”
Born Nazeer Gayed on 3 August 1923 in Egypt, the future pope was educated at Cairo University and Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. On 18 July 1954 he was tonsured and become a monk, known as Fr. Antonious El-Syriani.
He lived in a cave as hermit on the edge of the Egyptian dessert for six years, but on 30 Sept 1962 he was named president of the church’s seminary and consecrated as bishop, taking the name, Shenouda.
On 4 November 1971 following the deliberations of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the General Lay Council of the Church, the names of three nominees were written on three slips of paper. A blindfolded child then chose one of the three slips of paper at random and by this action, symbolizing the power of the Holy Spirit, Shenounda was named the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark.
The Presiding Bishop of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt told The Church of England Newspaper Pope Shenouda was “well known for defending the rights of Christians, and because of this he was put under house arrest by President Anwar Sadat. He was released after the death of Sadat. In spite of this he continued to love Egypt and often said, ‘Egypt is not the country in which we live but the country lives in our hearts’.”
Dr. Anis noted that in the midst of the country’s political turmoil it “is not easy for Egyptian Christians to lose Pope Shenouda, the father of the church in Egypt, at this time of uncertainty about the future. I was not surprised to see hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Cairo yesterday, immediately after the announcement of the passing away of the beloved Pope, who was such an important symbol for the nation.”
Dr. Williams and Dr. Anis noted the Coptic pope had been a staunch friend of the Anglican Church. “Our relationship to the Coptic Orthodox Church is the strongest among the different denominations in Egypt,” Dr. Anis said, adding that “several times he mentioned to me how much he appreciated the fact that he started his career as a teacher of English in our Anglican School in Cairo.”
Dr. Williams said he had first met Pope Shenouda in the late seventies and had “always found in him a depth of Christian love, welcome and wisdom. He has shepherded his flock through very difficult times, always accessible to his people and keenly aware of the pressures they have faced and still face today. He has been a good friend to the Anglican community in Egypt and to the Communion at large.”
In his forty years as leader of the Egyptian church, Shenouda has seen its ecclesiastical expansion to the U.S., Brazil, Australia, and the United Kingdom as well as a revival of the monastic tradition in Egypt. As of 2009 over 20 communities each with over 100 monks are active in Egypt. Since 1971 he has ordained more than eighty Metropolitans and Bishops and over 600 priests.
Dr. Anis stated that “every Wednesday for the last 41 years, he met with his people (between 5000 and 6000 each week) to answer their questions and teach from the Bible.”
“In our churches we have prayed for the Coptic Orthodox Church and we have thanked God for Pope Shenouda, his life and his ministry in the assurance that he now celebrates eternal life with his Lord Christ,” Dr. Anis said.