For the first time in three years the Pope celebrated a Christmas midnight mass before an adulatory congregation of some 6,000 in St. Mark’s Cathedral in downtown Cairo. It wasn’t on December 25, however, but January 7, the day Coptic Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth. And the Pope wasn’t named John Paul II, but Shenouda III, 62, a former monk who is the spiritual leader of Egypt’s six million Copts, as well as 15 million Copts in Ethiopia and one million others scattered worldwide. Shenouda is the 117th successor to the Apostle Mark who, Copts believe, founded their church during the reign of Nero (54-68 A.D.). Dressed in a crown and crimson robe, Pope Shenouda declared, “On this occasion, all Copts open their hearts to their brothers, the Muslims. We feel they are our flesh, our blood, our bones in this beloved nation.”
The message of reconciliation was timely. Only five days earlier, Egypt’s Muslim President Hosni Mubarak had canceled a decree of the late Anwar Sadat that stripped Shenouda of his temporal powers. Mubarak’s gesture thus ended the Pope’s 40-month exile in the desert monastery of St. Bishoi.
Shenouda had no connection with the Muslim fundamentalists responsible for Sadat’s assassination, but he had demanded greater Coptic political representation, called for a census of Egypt’s Coptic Christians and had resisted legislation that would Islamize the Egyptian state. (The Pope insists he never interfered in politics “in any way.”) Amnesty International protested Shenouda’s continued detention, and the Vatican, which maintains cordial relations with the Coptic church (the Copts split from the Roman Catholic church in the 5th century), sent an envoy to appeal to Egyptian officials.
For Shenouda, who studied to be an army-reserve officer and earned degrees from his church’s Theological College and Cairo University before spending eight years as a monk, confinement was simply a test of faith. “Life in the monastery was one of prayer, contemplation, reading and writing,” says Shenouda, who has completed 16 books of lectures. “Once, when joking with a visitor, I said that ‘it is as if I am a prisoner in paradise.’ ”