Tribute to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III


In the Legislative Council

As Leader of the Labor Party I express my condolences at the passing of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. Today we reflect on the extraordinary life of His Holiness, a life that has bequeathed great legacies not only to Coptic Christians but to people of all faiths. His Holiness left this world with an impressive title which, in full, reads: 117th Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic Seat of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He was the head of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.

However, he was born to far humbler circumstances. He was born Nazeer Gayed Roufail on 3 August 1923 in the small town of Asuit in Upper Egypt. He was the youngest of eight children, sadly losing his mother shortly after his birth. His early life and education were not remarkable. However, like many in the town of Asuit, the young Nazeer had a close connection with the Coptic Christian Church. He was strongly involved in his local church as a youth and, while working as a teacher, commenced study at the Coptic Theological Seminary. While he initially balanced both civic and religious life, this changed in 1954 when he entered the Syrian Monastery of Scetes. This marked the start of a life of total dedication to his church.

His period of monastic life showed incredible discipline and dedication, including the six-year period of isolated living and meditation. This isolation concluded when he was called by Pope Cyril VI to share his devotion, and his knowledge, with the world. Pope Cyril VI appointed him Bishop of Christian Education and Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Seminary. It was at this point that he took the name Shenouda. The choice of name was significant as it honours not only two previous Coptic popes but also arguably the greatest scholar and writer in Coptic history, Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite. The reference and the honour in that naming would prove to be both apt and prophetic, as Shenouda commenced a life of great spiritual and intellectual leadership both in and out of his church.

Shenouda proved to be an inspiring and charismatic advocate for his church, articulating a renewed sense of identity and pride in the Coptic faith. He helped forge a new sense of identity among growing generations of Copts; and they literally voted with their feet, with enrolments to the Coptic Seminary tripling. At the passing of Pope Cyril VI in 1971, Shenouda's record of great and popular leadership within his church saw him as a natural successor to the papacy. His vision for democratisation of the Coptic Church, and his desire to see it integrated into a more democratic and proud Egyptian civil society, now truly had a chance to thrive. And it did. Under his leadership, monasteries—an institution that the Copts introduced to the world 1,600 years ago—found themselves overflowing with novices. The Coptic Church, and the Coptic identity, flourished in Egypt and across the world as hundreds of new churches were consecrated to represent an expanding Diaspora. Pope Shenouda appointed the first ever bishops to preside over North American dioceses as well as bishops in Australia. I note that during his papacy the Coptic Church in Australia has grown to dozens of parishes, with over 70,000 Coptic Christians in Sydney alone.

But the legacies we note today have relevance far beyond those of our citizens who count themselves as Copts, because arguably Shenouda's greatest leadership lay in his ability to integrate Coptic life with civic life, and Coptic faith with the three great Abrahamic religions: Christianity, in all its denominations, Islam and Judaism. Shenouda was known for his commitment to ecumenism, that is, promoting a common Christian church in which central faith triumphs over interpretations or jurisdictions. In 1973 he became the first Pope of Alexandria to meet the Pope of Rome in over 1,500 years. The result is the historic Common Declaration on Christology, signed by both Shenouda and Pope Paul. This document reads today as almost radical in articulating an approach to relationships between followers of varying beliefs. It is something of a blueprint for describing the curious, open and charitable relationship between faiths that makes a society like Australia possible.

I was particularly struck by how the two Popes highlighted the central Christian value of charity, a value that all major religions share, and articulated how this charity includes charity of belief; that is to say, that a Christian philosophy includes being charitable in how we accommodate and accept the beliefs of others. I note that this value is higher than that of simple "tolerance", a word we hear so much of today. Pope Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI did not call on us merely to tolerate each other's beliefs, but to welcome them. For just as welcoming a stranger into our home does not make us that person, so too welcoming a different belief into our life does not change our own. With this in mind the pontiffs expressly called for a prohibition on proselytising, that is, seeking to convert people from one faith to another, which they regarded as the antithesis of charity.

This 1973 landmark signalled a papacy dedicated to interfaith dialogue and to support for multiple faiths within the rule of law. Shenouda devoted his writings, teachings and actions to spreading understanding, peace, dialogue and forgiveness. In the process he not only earned the respect of leaders of many faiths but also helped contribute to Egypt's journey to a more democratic space. Today that journey is incomplete and imperfect. Egyptian Copts continue to face persecution, particularly from radical Muslim elements which have only flourished in their intensity with the so-called Arab Spring. It is no wonder that the death of Shenouda has been taken so personally and deeply by Copts around the world, for he was not only their spiritual leader but also their voice in a period of ongoing political and societal change.

I remain confident of two things. First, that Egypt's progress to democracy, while under challenge from those whose interests serve to resist it, will ultimately succeed. Democratic revolutions may be delayed, frustrated, disrupted or oppressed but seldom are they stopped. Secondly, when that democracy, with full respect and in accordance with the rule of law, does settle in Egypt it is certain that history will judge Shenouda's contribution to it to be substantial and transformative. The idea of citizenship itself, underpinned by the belief that all Egyptians are united and equal, has flourished during the reign of Pope Shenouda. Indeed, his funeral was notable for the attendance and respect of leaders from across the Egyptian and Arabic communities.

But there is no doubt that the greatest loss that Pope Shenouda's passing represents is to Coptic Christians. Because Shenouda achieved his transformation of the Church during a period of upheaval and struggle in Egyptian society he came to personify the struggles of the Copts themselves. Accordingly, his death is felt very deeply by the Coptic community as a whole. I am sure that members have seen the moving images of hundreds of thousands of mourners amassed outside the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. Here in Sydney, where His Holiness visited no less than six times during his papacy, that loss is felt just as deeply. Indeed, his philosophy and his achievements strike as particularly true in New South Wales where we have long understood that the charity of belief that Shenouda sought is never an affront to one's faith but it is an enrichment and strength to all our personal faiths, and it is a foundation of our civil society. It is one of the greatest beauties and strengths of New South Wales.

While Pope Shenouda could not live to see that strength fully achieved in Egypt, his contribution to its progress is undeniable. Hence today this democratic institution pauses to note not only a great spiritual leader but also a great democratic pioneer. We celebrate his life for both those reasons. I am sure that all members will join me in advocating that Egypt's progress to democracy must continue. Coptic Christians have been suffering persecution since the eleventh century, and they continue to fear for their safety. But it is my sincere hope that, thanks to his great works, Pope Shenouda's successor may yet preside over a Coptic Church that is free from the persecution that always weighed on his mind. May the next Pope of Alexandria ultimately provide leadership not to a spiritual minority but to equal citizens of Egypt, America, Australia and many other countries who proudly and freely call themselves Coptic.