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Associated Press
Mourners and journalists gather for the interment of Pope Shenouda III at the Saint Bishoy monastery in Wadi Natroun, northwest of Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. Pope Shenouda III, an iconic figure for 40 years at the helm of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, was laid to rest Tuesday in a desert monastery after a moving funeral Mass at a Cairo cathedral attended by tens of thousands. Shenouda's death brought an outpouring of expressions of Muslim-Christian unity, but it has done little to hide the alarm of Egypt's 10 million Christians and liberal Muslims over the political ascent of Islamists. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

On March 17, 2012, the Pope died. We're not speaking, of course, of Benedict XVI, the current Bishop of Rome, but of Pope Shenouda III (1923-2012), the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Arguably the most important Christian leader in the Middle East, Shenouda III has led the world's roughly 15 million Coptic Christians for the past 41 years.

The Christian heritage of Egypt dates back to the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt to escape persecution by Herod (Mt. 2:13). Christian tradition records that St. Mark, the author of the gospel, was ordained by Peter to be the first bishop of Alexandria. Pope Shenouda was the 117th successor in an unbroken line of patriarchs stretching back to Mark.

Egypt's Christian heritage is ancient and enduring. Christianity spread rapidly in Egypt, and Alexandria soon ranked with Rome and Antioch as one of the greatest patriarchates of Christendom. Alexandria was a booming intellectual center already in pagan times, and once claimed the largest Jewish population of any ancient city, including Jerusalem. It was in Alexandria that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, was produced, and that the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Christ, read the Bible allegorically and discovered, rather unsurprisingly, that it taught precisely the Platonic philosophy that Philo followed. Egypt made enormous contributions to Christian thought by means of such Platonically-influenced writers as St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 A.D.) and the brilliant but controversial Origen (d. 254). By the late fourth century nearly all Egyptians had converted to Christianity.

The impact of Egyptian Christians on the history of Christianity has been enormous. In the early fourth century, Christian monasticism began in Egypt, founded by St. Anthony and others, and the fame of the Egyptian monasteries spread throughout the world. Egypt boasts the oldest continuously operating monastery in the world: St. Catherine's at Mt. Sinai. St. Athanasius (d. 373 A.D.), one of Shenouda's predecessors as bishop of Alexandria, played a pivotal role in the struggle to formulate the Nicene Creed's doctrine of the Trinity.

But the controversies of the fifth century that surrounded the relationship between Christ's divinity and his humanity were rendered even more bitter by political rivalry between Alexandria, the proud and ancient cultural center of Egypt, and the upstart imperial capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). At the Council of Chalcedon, in 451, the assembled bishops deposed Alexandria's patriarch and attempted to impose a "Definition" of the two natures. Overwhelmingly, however, the Egyptian church rejected the decisions of Chalcedon, accepting instead a monophysite (or "single-nature") theology, and Egyptian Christianity thereafter become more and more isolated from European Christendom.

It is out of these events that the Coptic Orthodox Church, the predominant Christian institution of Egypt to the present day, arose. The word "Copt" comes indirectly from the Greek "Aigyptoi" ("Egyptians"). Coptic, a late form of the language of the pharaohs written in a modified Greek script, was spoken by most of the native population of Egypt from about the third to the 10th century A.D.

Much of Coptic literature, including the famous Gnostic writings from Nag Hammadi, consists of translations from Greek – not infrequently from texts whose original versions have since been lost. However, a number of legends of the saints were composed in Coptic, and Shenoute (d. 466), abbot of the so-called "White Monastery" of Upper Egypt, is a major if rather neglected early Christian writer.

A major cultural transformation occurred in Egypt in 642 with the Arab Muslim conquest of the country. Arab migration into Egypt, combined with the slow but steady conversion of Christian Egyptians to Islam, led to the gradual decline of the Coptic language. Still, there seem to have been isolated Coptic-speaking villages down to the end of the 17th century, and Coptic continues to be the liturgical language of the Coptic Church.

Christianity in Egypt gradually dwindled under Islamic influence, and the Copts are now a relatively small but significant minority — perhaps 10 percent of the population. There is also a vibrant Coptic diaspora, with Coptic dioceses in Jerusalem, the Sudan, Kenya, and France, with nearly a million Coptic Christians and 200 Coptic churches in the United States. (One of us learned Arabic from a Coptic Christian whose name was Abdelmassih, meaning the "Worshiper of the Messiah/Christ.")

In the 20th century, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism created new stresses for the Christians of Egypt and the Sudan, with discrimination, persecution, and even murder of Coptic Christians. The increasing political instability associated with the recent "Arab Spring" revolution in Egypt has aggravated these social tensions.

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