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Washington, D.C. March 21 (ICC) – The death of Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of the Coptic Church, has left many Egyptian Christians fearful that persecution and discrimination will increase as Islamist parties gain political power.

Shenouda, who led the Coptic Church for more than 40 years, died on Saturday at age 88 after a long battle with liver and kidney problems. Not only regarded by the Coptic Church as its spiritual head, Shenouda was also a political leader who defended the rights of Egypt’s Christian minority amidst the rise of political Islam and during the presidencies of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

He left us in such a crucial time,” a tearful Michael Boles, an engineer from Cairo, told the BBC. “I just hope that the successor, whoever he is, has the same kind of wisdom this man had.”

Shenouda’s leadership carried Coptic Christians through a series of attacks targeting the church since Egypt’s uprising in January 2011. In the most deadly incident, 27 Christians were killed by the Egyptian military in Maspero, Cairo on October 9, 2011 for protesting the destruction of a church.

He was a very strong leader. If there was any act of violence against the church, like what happened in Maspero, he would call for days of fasting and prayer and he would comfort the church,” Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub told ICC. “Although I disagreed sometimes with the church interfering in politics, [Shenouda] was very wise and he knew how the government acted. When we didn’t see things, he saw them… We loved him lots. We are going through a very hard time now.”

With Shenouda’s death, the Coptic Church has also lost a respected voice in Egypt’s Islamist-dominated government. Christians fear persecution may worsen as the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafist movement, which together hold more than 70 percent of the seats in the country’s parliament, gain greater influence.

On March 17, Egypt’s parliament voted in favor of a quota that entitles parliamentarians to half of the seats on a 100-member panel that will draft Egypt’s new constitution. While liberals and Christians preferred a panel of outside experts and activists to draft the constitution, the Islamist-controlled parliament wants a dominant voice in the process.

We should not come under pressure and waste the right of the majority by falling in the trap of giving the minority the right to write the constitution,” warned Mustafa Khalifa, a representative of the Salafist al-Nour party, who advocates that Islamist parliamentarians should have the greatest voice in writing the constitution.

The constitution could drastically alter Egypt’s government and determine the role of Islam in policymaking. Many Christians fear the Islamist majority parliament will use its power to base the constitution on Islamic Sharia law.

With the constitution coming and the presidency, we needed the wisdom of Pope Shenouda,” said Yacoub. “I cannot deny the fact that Christians are scared. [Shenouda] was our father. Now there is no one to represent us.”

The pope’s successor will be determined within forty days. While some Christians believe it will be difficult for the new pope to garner the respect Shenouda had with both the Christian and Muslim community, the church remains hopeful that their future leader will guide them through this time of immense uncertainty.

God has determined the times and seasons, and appointed Shenouda in His wisdom,” Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Presbyterian Church located near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, told Christianity Today. “God will not leave us as orphans, and in a few years we will speak of the new pope as was spoken of Joshua after Moses, and Elisha after Elijah. Our Lord will always raise new leaders.”

 

Aidan Clay is the Middle East Regional Manager for International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington, DC-based human rights organization that exists to support persecuted Christians worldwide by providing awareness, advocacy, and assistance (www.persecution.org). For more information, contact Aidan Clay at clay@persecution.org