Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III is often praised, in particular by his own followers, for his ecumenical stances. The reality is, however, somewhat different, as the decisions of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod show. All synod meetings were presided over by Pope Shenouda, a strong and charismatic leader, who has often selected bishops on the basis of their loyalty to him (see for example John Watson’s “Among the Copts.”). The decisions in the Synod therefore strongly represent Pope Shenouda’s own positions, which show a strong defensive approach to perceived intrusions from Christian denominations, in particular Protestants, with different views from those of the Coptic Orthodox. The Catholics have made strong efforts for dialogue, but on issues such as on the purgatory, the immaculate conception of the Holy Virgin and the place of the church of Rome in the early church the two churches could not come to an agreement.
This text is an review of: Al-Qarārāt Al-Majma'īyah fī 'Ahd Sāhib al-Qadāsah al-Bābā Shenouda al-Thālith
In translation: Council decisions in the era of H.H. Pope Shenouda, 1971-2011
Prepared by: Sikritāriah al-Majma' al-Muqadas
In translation: the Secretariat of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, August 3, 2011
Publisher: Al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-Qibtī
In translation: Coptic Orthodox Cultural Center
Third publication, 2011
The title of the book refers to decisions, but the book is much more. It also mentions meetings and reports presented to the Holy Synod. The order of presenting relations with different church families is mine. I have added explanatory notes where needed.
Relations with other Oriental Orthodox Churches (Syrian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox)
August 1976 – The Coptic Orthodox Church had received an invitation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to participate in the consecration of the new Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch. The Holy Synod disagreed because the previous Ethiopian Patriarch Theophilos was forcibly removed (by the Ethiopian Marxist regime) from the throne which, the council noted, was in violation of the protocol of agreement between the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Church in June 1959.
March 1980 – The Holy Synod rejects pilgrimage to Jerusalem as long as Dayr al-Sultan (now in hands of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) has not been returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
November 1990 – Statement of the joint commission for the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches about the need to lift the mutual anathemas made against churches involved in dialogue in the past. The text of the Holy Synod referred to the document on p. 311.
May 1991 -- Eritrean people in the West ask the Coptic Orthodox Church to help them with priests. The Coptic Orthodox Church sends two Eritrean monks from the Coptic Orthodox clerical college of Cairo. One of them goes to Chicago and the other one to the UK.
September 1993 – The Coptic Orthodox Church consecrates the two Eritrean priests as bishop, initiating the independence of the Eritrean Orthodox Church from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
March 1994 - Agreement between the Oriental orthodox churches in the Monastery of Saint Bīshūy or Dayr Anbā Bīshūy (residence of Pope Shenouda in Egypt) specifying that for unity with other churches the anathemas that in the past have been formulated against other churches should be lifted unanimously and simultaneously.
The Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches propose a new protocol for cooperation between the two churches (Ethiopian Patriarch Takla who had replaced Patriarch Theophilos had passed away in 1988. He was replaced by Patriarch Mekorios who abdicated or was forced to abdicate in 1991. He was replaced by Patriarch Paulos. Thus under this Patriarch an effort was made to repair the relations between both churches).
March 1994 – The Holy Synod agrees to consecrate five Eritrean bishops. The five monks who were to be consecrated visit Egypt to know more about Coptic Orthodox Church.
June 1994 – The five Eritrean monks are consecrated in the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo with the agreement that Pope Shenouda would consecrate the Eritrean Patriarch after he would have been elected in his church in Eritrea.
June 1994 - The Ethiopian Orthodox Church informs the Coptic Orthodox Church that it rejected the consecration of a new bishop in Eritrea by Pope Shenouda.
May 1998 – Pope Shenouda consecrates abuna Philippus I as Patriarch of Eritrea.
June 2006 – The Holy Synod rejects Eritrean government pressure to make Eritrean Pope Antonios I resign.
May 2007 – Pope Paulos from Ethiopia accepts requests of Pope Shenouda (not specified).
June 2009 – July 2007 Pope Paulos visits Egypt and in 2008 Pope Shenouda visits Ethiopia to make a new protocol for cooperation.
Relations with Byzantine Orthodox churches
March 1994 – Bishop Bīshūy and metropolitan Damaskinos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate travel around the world for the unity of Orthodox churches.
June 2000 – Deciding that mixed marriages between Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox are sensitive (Referring to appendix 13 (p. 325)). No decision is mentioned how to solve these sensitivities.
June 2002 – Pope Shenouda visits Ecumenical Patriarch Pope Bartholomeus in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul but the name Istanbul is not mentioned).
June 2003 – Pope Shenouda and Pope Bartholomeus - meeting in Athens, agreement about anathemizing Nestorius, accepting the dogma of Saint Dioscorus.
The Council discuss meetings with the Russian Orthodox Church in 2001, 2002, and 2005 about the nature of Jesus Christ in an effort to create greater unity between both churches.
June 2006 – Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodorus II, states in the Al-Ahram Weekly that the Coptic Orthodox Church is adhering to the monophysite heresy. (Find here)
Bishop Bīshūy publishes a response in the Al-Ahram Weekly explaining the Coptic Orthodox point of view towards Nestorians and Monophysism.
June 2007 – Meeting with Orthodox metropolitan Emmanuel in France to discuss cooperation between the Oriental and Byzantine Orthodox churches.
Discussion about one nature or two natures of Jesus Christ starts at Pro Oriente in Vienna in September 1972.
June 1986 – Discussion about a letter of Cardinal Willebrands about the one nature or two natures of Jesus Christ, in particular the differences between the two churches. The Holy Synod decides on a statement that is acceptable to both the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church and anathematize Nestorius and Eutychus and their doctrines (p. 120)
May 1988 – Agreement about the nature of Jesus Christ between the two churches, appendix 14, p. 329-330
June 1990 – Discussion about the purgatory and Holy Spirit but no agreement reached. The Synod decides that the baptism of Catholic Church cannot be accepted as long as there is no agreement about the Holy Spirit, the immaculate conception of the Holy Virgin and the teaching about the salvation of non-believers. In the Orthodox point of view differences with the Catholics in these areas are substantial.
May 1991 – The Synod concludes that dialogue on the purgatory and the immaculate conception of the Holy Virgin have brought no results. The Catholics in Egypt are following a way that is not in agreement with dialogue. They established new social services, new parishes, and new convents for nuns which is in disagreement with promises made to Pope Paul VI in 1973 (these promises are not explained).
June 1992 – The dialogue on the purgatory and the immaculate conception of the Holy Virgin brings no results. They (the Catholics) “insist in adding the Son.” These are Vatican decisions, the council concludes (the comments are not further explained).
June 1996 – The Holy Synod rejects an agreement between the Nestorian Assyrian Church with the Catholics (no mentioning is made of the details of that agreement but it might be related to the Nestorian Assyrian Church asking to become a member of the Middle East Council of Churches).
May 1999 - Warning for Jesuit publications for the study of the Holy Bible. The synod decisions mention no details.
June 1999 – The Holy Synod rejects a Catholic proposal in the MECC to admit the Nestorian Assyrian Church as a member of the MECC.
June 2001 – The Synod reports that the Roman Catholic Church wants a theological dialogue with the Coptic Orthodox Church. Cardinal Walter Kasper, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (1999-2001), visits Pope Shenouda in March 2000. Cardinal Kasper meet in May 2001 with Pope Shenouda and Bishop Bīshūy to discuss Nestorius and the Nestorians.
June 2002 – Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidi, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (1989 – 2001) for preparation of the agenda fora meeting at the Vatican in December 2002.
June 2003 – Bishop Bīshūy presents a report following the international dialogue meeting between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Catholic churches held in Rome in January 2003. The report of Metropolitan Bīshūy discussed the differences and agreements in Christology, the Holy Spirit, the purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, the assumption, the apostolic succession and the authority of the heads of churches. His report also discussed mixed marriages between adherents of different churches, not permitting divorce except for adultery, salvation of non-believers, the meaning of the concept of sister church and the oriental churches who are cooperating with Rome. The Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church elects Bishop Bīshūy to be the co-chair of the international dialogue meeting between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Churches together with Cardinal Walter Kasper.
May 2004 – Reporting on the international dialogue meeting of January 2004 between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Catholic churches in Cairo.
June 2005 - Reporting on the international dialogue meeting of January 2005 between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Catholic churches in Italy about the commonalities in belief and sacraments. The Synod refers to Ephesians 4: 5 which reads “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” And thus, the Synod concludes that only when there is one faith there can be one baptism.
June 2006 – Bishop Bīshūy writes a letter on behalf of the three Oriental Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Benedict XVI formulating concerns about a document issued in 2005 by the British Catholic Church about the historical and literal interpretation of the Holy Bible. The British church had, according to this letter, also stated that homosexuality has to be accepted and is not a sin if this feeling of homosexuality is not practiced. Bishop Bīshūy also refers to the bishop of Dublin who, he wrote, had stated that homosexuality is not a reason for not consecrating someone to become a priest.
Cardinal Waltar Kasper responded: The Holy Book is inspired by God and acknowledged as fixed teaching without any mistake. Practicing homosexuality is abnormal and is a sin. We have to distinguish between the practice of homosexuality and the tendency of homosexuality. When someone has the tendency of homosexuality that person has to get rid of this before being consecrated as priest.
June 2007 – Fourth international dialogue meeting between the Oriental and Catholic churches in January 28- February 3, 2007 in Rome. Oriental Orthodox Churches present papers about the level of similarities and understanding between the Oriental and Catholic churches, the role of bishops and heads of churches and councils. The unity needs unity in sacraments and faith which means complete agreement.
June 2009 – Fifth meeting in Syria, January 27 – February 2, 2008, and the sixth meeting in Rome from January 26 – 30, 2009 about formulating a document about the nature of the church, her hierarchy and the authority of the church. Listing the points where churches agree and disagree.
May 2010 - Seventh Meeting in Antilias (Lebanon) with Bishop Bīshūy and Father Dr. Shenouda Maher in January 2010. Bishop Bīshūy presents a research paper in English about how the church has understood the councils of the early church and the unity of the church in the first five centuries. The paper addresses the question whether Rome received a special place in the early church and the position of he heads of churches. The paper of bishop Bīshūy refers to a book of Pope Shenouda about St. Marc in which Pope Shenouda wrote that the apostle Paul established the church in Rome and not St. Peter.
The Episcopal Church
June 1989 – Discussions about consecration of women as priests, polygamy in Africa and homosexuality.
June 2001 – Agreement that a special committee will be formed for dialogue. New concerns are expressed about the consecration of female priests.
June 2002 – Reporting about a meeting with Anglicans about Christology, explaining to the Episcopalians that the doctrine of the Assyrianchurch is rejected by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
June 2003 – Agreement about a statement about the nature of Jesus Christ with the rejection of Assyrian teaching.
June 2004 – Statement of the Coptic Orthodox Church rejecting the Episcopal acceptance of consecrating homosexuals as priests.
June 2007 – The dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox and Episcopal churches stops following the consecration of Bishop Robinson, who openly stated he was homosexual, in 2003.
May 2010 – A lesbian woman is consecrated as bishop in the Episcopal Church. Egyptian Episcopal Bishop Mounir Hanna organizes meeting of conservative Anglican bishops stating to be in disagreement with homosexuals and lesbians being consecrated as bishop. This results in these churches breaking with the Episcopal church in the USA. For the Holy Synod this opens the possibility to open dialogue with Bishop Mounir Hanna and the churches he represents.
March 1993 - Paper describing the main positions of both churches on Bible and Tradition.
June 1994 – Meeting September 1994 in Driebergen, points prepared on Christology, the Bible and tradition, misusing the Holy Bible in mission and evangelism, proselytism.
June 1995 – Discussion about Christology. The Reformed Churches have to stop talking about the Oriental Orthodox churches as Monophysist churches.
June 1997 – Reporting about a meeting in India about the inspiration and authority of the Holy Bible, inspired by God or made by humans. The Reformed state that the Bible is a human book reflecting a human understanding of the word of God which gives a change to everyone to understand the book as he wants. This opens the possibility for textual criticism, accepting women and homosexuals as priests, opening the door for all kinds of interpretations.
Lutheran World Federation
The requested in May 2007 for a dialogue. The book does not mention what happened to this request.
The Swedish Lutheran Church
1996 – Meeting about liturgy and baptism. The Holy Synod finds the Swedish church very similar to the Anglican church.
February 1997 - Meeting in Sweden. The Holy Synod refers to several points of disagreement, including homosexuality, women as priests, liturgy, praying for people who committed suicide, etc. The Holy Synod decided to end the dialogue with them.
Nestorian Assyrian Church
June 1996 – The Holy Synod notes that these churches say that St. Cyril (a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church) is sinful. The Holy Synod rejects their membership of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) until they accept the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (475 AD). The Holy Synod rejects their agreement with the Catholics (not specified).
June 1997 – Bishop Bīshūy makes report about the Nestorian Assyrian Church, rejecting their membership of the MECC.
June 1999 – The Holy Synod confirms earlier decisions about the Nestorian Assyrian Church and rejects a Catholic proposal in the MECC to admit the Nestorian Assyrian Church as a member of the MECC.
On the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC)
The MECC is hardly mentioned in this book with decisions of the Holy Synod but the book does mention:
June 2003 – Preparation for a meeting of the MECC in Cyprus, December 2003.
The Coptic Orthodox church will nominate the next secretary-general to succeed MECC secretary general Rev. Riad Jarjour.
22 May 2010 – The Holy Synod supports the decision of Pope Shenouda regarding the membership of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the MECC.
(Nothing more is mentioned but with this the Coptic Orthodox Church ended its membership of the MECC. This was recently resumed again).
Protestant Activities in Egypt
June 1996 – Forbidden for priests and bishops to accept invitations of Protestants they have received a previous approval of the Patriarchate. Orthodox priest are informed to be cautious of house meetings and the spreading of Protestant books and cassettes.
October 1998 – Conference about how to face protestant activities and how to protect the Coptic Orthodox Church from the spread of protestant influences in the church.
October 2002 – Conference to warn Coptic Orthodox faithful from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
June 1998 – The Holy Synod refers to a committee for revising religion books. Pope Shenouda said that more efforts should be made to revise books and periodicals and increasing the availability of revised books in Coptic Orthodox Churches. Pope Shenouda spoke about 16 reasons explaining the spread of Protestant influence in Egypt: songs, Bible studies in regular ways, giving believers the feeling that salvation in their lives has been completed, social activities, foreign funds, pastoral work in some areas, the weakness of the services in some Orthodox churches, social activities and dialogue in which the Orthodox Church is weak, insufficient visits to church members at home, Protestants misusing disagreements between churches, many people teaching at Sunday schools are insufficiently educated. The Holy Synod decided that more care is needed in slums, in particular in areas without churches. The Holy Synod decided that priests working for churches who are not able to maintain a priest should get paid from the bishopric they belong to or from richer churches or from the Cathedral. The Synod also agreed to summer camps that support pastoral care in slums. The Synod stated that the statement that we are all one in Jesus is deceiving. The focus on spiritual teaching is no longer suitable to face Protestants. The Synod also states that clergy should be careful about teachers in church and check whether they are influenced by Protestant thought or not.
May 1999 – The Holy Synod issues a warning against the group of Magdi Tousson. Clergy are warned not to write introductions for non-Orthodox books because Protestants can play with this (in presenting books with a non-Orthodox message to Orthodox believers). The Synod also warns for non-Orthodox retreat houses because of the un-orthodox teaching one finds here.
June 2000 – Warning Orthodox youth not to join activities that are in joint cooperation with Protestants and Catholics. This includes sport activities, conferences, lectures, since these are used for proselytism. The Synod is explicit that “these are very dangerous issues.”
June 2001 – Warning to Orthodox faithful not to participate in non-Orthodox meetings.
Not copying illegal CDs.
June 2003 – The Holy Synod asks for attention to Orthodox dogma, explaining differences with Protestants in seminars, preaching, spiritual days, conferences, etc. Decides to organize a meeting in September to specify differences with Protestants. Bishops should inform priests and priests should inform youth about this. More books are needed about real unity in Christianity and why the Coptic Orthodox Church rejects a unity based on sympathy. “God is not only love but the truth.”
The Holy Synod decides to introduce the mobile altar for use in areas with no churches.
May 2004 – Repeating statements of 2003 and about the new location for Mormons in Maadi. The Holy Synod expresses concern about the Protestant program in 13 cities that mixes sport with Protestant education. But despite these concerns, the Orthodox made contact with Protestants and Catholics to face the Mormons who are described as “the danger for all three church families.”
June 2005 – Facing protestant teaching. No Protestant chorals and no unorthodox prayers are allowed in Orthodox churches
June 2006 – The Holy Synod warns for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Bishop Surial of Melbourne presents video and publications of the SBC in which they wrote that 10 percent of the Egyptian population is Christian (which is a number that is not criticized in book with decisions of the Holy Synod) and a plan of five years to work towards salvation of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Synod rejects Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
June 2009 – No closed meetings in churches and houses are allowed without a previous permission of the bishop. The Holy Synod also forbids production of film portraying Jesus.
About satellite station Sat-7 in which the Coptic Orthodox Church initially participated:
June 1998 – The Holy Synod decides that Sat 7 satellite station is primarily Protestant, does not have a clear mission and does not give the Coptic Orthodox Church the chance to evaluate their material prior to broadcasting and rejecting to give the Orthodox Church 50% of broadcasting time, rejecting the stories of saints. The Holy Synod decides to withdraw from participation in this channel and removing their office from the bishopric of Shubra al-Kheima.
2001 – Establishment of an Orthodox branch in Sat 7.
2007 – Sat 7 is not allowed to make any recordings in Orthodox churches.
2009 – Forbidding all bishops and priests to participate in a satellite station that is not under the supervision of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
May 2010 – Any satellite channel that wants to be accepted by the church must accept supervision of the church.
May 1999 - Warning for several non-Orthodox publications and books, including Jesuit publications for the study of the Holy Bible.
2005, 2007, 2009, 2010 warning for other books (titles mentioned) – forbidden to distribute certain books in any Coptic Orthodox Church.
June 1992 – Establishment of an institute for mission in Africa, to train people to serve as missionaries in Africa and Europe for mission.
The Holy Synod made, throughout the years, various warnings against Jehovah Witnesses, George Habib Bibawi, Max Michel, Atef Aziz (accused of Satan worshipping), Hany Mina Michael (author) and new age influences.
The decisions of the Holy Synod mention make no reference to Islam or Article 2 of the Constitution, which specifies since the late seventies that the Sharī'ah is the source of legislation in Egypt, which was a change in constitution vehemently opposed by Pope Shenouda in the 1970s. The decisions also do not mention any dialogue with the Azhar or meetings between Pope Shenouda and Muslim leaders.
But in May 2007, the decisions of the Holy Synod refer to a court statement in 2007 that annulled earlier court statements of 2004 and 2005 that refer to Christians who have converted to Islam and decided to return to their faith of birth should be able to regain their Christian ID card. The book refers to a letter of Pope Shenouda to the President of the Republic explaining the position of the Holy Synod about this issue, but details are not given.
June 1993 – The Holy Synod refers to the importance of elections, encouraging Christians to participate in the forthcoming elections.
The Council decisions in the era of H.H. Pope Shenouda, 1971-2011 is a book providing an overview of decisions, but it is obvious from the text that there must be many more documents that are not mentioned in this publication.
From the decisions that are published it is obvious that efforts to dialogue have been made but that maintaining and defending the own Coptic Orthodox faith takes priority over dialogue. The Holy Synod starts referring to the dangers of Protestant proselytism among the Orthodox in 1996. The decisions to stop these activities have resulted in efforts that prevent dialogue between Orthodox and Protestants, giving the impression that in the eyes of the Orthodox these Protestants must have been effective.
The most effective and intense dialogue appears to have been between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Important agreements about Christology have been reached, but still major differences have remained and appear difficult to resolve. The May 1999 warning for Jesuit publications for the study of the Holy Bible do suggest a fear of Catholic influences in the Coptic Orthodox Church without having reached a prior agreement to major issues of faith and dogma.
The dialogue between the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been greatly harmed by political influences that include Ethiopian Marxist efforts in the 1970s to influence the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia which was followed by the Eritreans forming their own church, with support of the Coptic Orthodox Church, independent from the tutelage of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Yet, both churches have made efforts since 2007 to end the differences between the two churches.
The Coptic Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Orthodox Churches have made efforts to greater unity, but in June 2000 the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod decided that mixed marriages between Greek Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox were problematic. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria stated in June 2006 that the Coptic Orthodox Church is adhering to the monophysite heresy, which was vehemently rejected by the Coptic Orthodox.
A formal dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church was initiated in 2001, but broke off in 2007 because of the Episcopal Church’s refusal to reject the decision of the US Episcopal Church to consecrate the openly homosexual Bishop Robinson in 2003. A group of conservative Episcopal churches led by Bishop Mounir Hanna from Egypt decided to break with the American Episcopal Church which made the Holy Synod decide in May 2010 that this opens the possibility to open dialogue with Bishop Mounir Hanna and the churches he represents.
The dialogue between the World Federation of Reformed Churches and Oriental Orthodox Churches was initiated in 1994, but ended in 1997 following major differences in the understanding of the Bible as the word of God. Efforts to engage in dialogue with Lutherans have not been fruitful.
The Coptic Orthodox Church is very explicit in its rejection of the teachings of the Nestorian Assyrian Church and consequently has continuously rejected this church’s membership in the Middle East Council of Churches.
The Coptic Orthodox Church accepts no theological dialogue with Islam and no reference is made in the decisions of the Holy Synod to other, non-theological forms of dialogue. The decisions of the Holy Synod mention make no reference to Islam or Article 2 of the Constitution, which specifies since the late seventies that the Sharī'ah is the source of legislation in Egypt which was a change in constitution vehemently opposed by Pope Shenouda in the 1970s. The decisions also do not mention any dialogue with the Azhar or meetings between Pope Shenouda and Muslim leaders.
In May 2007, however, the decisions of the Holy Synod refer to a court statement in 2007 that annulled earlier court statements of 2004 and 2005 that refer to Christians who have converted to Islam and decided to return to their faith of birth should be able to regain their Christian ID card. The book refers to a letter of Pope Shenouda to the president of the Republic explaining the position of the Holy Synod about this issue, but details are not given.