Shenouda III (1923–)

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Shenouda III

Shenouda III is the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt


Few Coptic patriarchs have had as much experience in both secular and ecclesiastical affairs prior to their election as Shenouda III. Born Nazir Jayyid (in Egyptian Arabic dialect, Gayyid) near Asyut, Egypt, on 3 August 1923, he graduated from Cairo University with a BA in history in 1947 and fought with the Egyptian army in the 1948 War. He earned a bachelor of divinity degree in 1950 from the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, and became a leader in the lay-dominated Sunday School movement, editing its monthly magazine. He took holy orders and became a monk in 1954 at the Syrian Monastery in Wadi Latrun, Egypt. Taking the name Father Antonios the Syrian, from 1956 to 1962 he lived an ascetic life in seclusion in a cave several miles from the monastery.

Within the church, he was a secretary to Cyril VI, and a bishop. Jayyid also was a professor of Old Testament studies at the Coptic Seminary, the editor of its journal, and dean beginning in 1962, whereupon he took the name Shenouda. Elected patriarch in 1971 as Shenouda III, he is the highest-ranking cleric of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Middle East's largest Christian denomination. His formal title is Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark the Evangelist. He has traveled frequently to North America, Europe, and Australia in order to maintain contact with expatriate Copts worldwide.


Shenouda was among the more than 1,500 Egyptians who were accused by President Anwar al Sadat in September 1981 of extremist religious activity. Exiled and replaced by a council of five bishops, Shenouda fled to the desert monastery of Anba Bishoi in Wadi Natrun, northwest of Cairo. The reasons for his arrest and exile were unclear. Although religious turmoil had increased in the late 1970s and early 1980s (mainly instigated by Muslims opposed to Sadat's peace treaty with Israel), the president's charges, including those against Shenouda, could not be proven. Some Copts and Muslims punished by Sadat were active in religious professions and thus superficially gave credence to his allegations, but others had secular occupations—lawyers, writers, journalists, broadcasters, politicians—and appear to have been guilty only of disagreeing with the president.


Name: Shenouda III (born Nazir Jayyid)

Birth: 3 August 1923, near Asyut, Egypt

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: Cairo University, 1947, BA in history, the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1950, bachelor of divinity


  • 1954: Becomes a monk at the Syrian Monastery in Wadi Latrun, Egypt; changes name to Father Antonios the Syrian
  • 1956: Begins six years of living in isolation in a cave several miles from the monastery
  • 1962: Begins teaching at the Coptic Seminary; becomes known as Shenouda
  • 1967: Writes al-Khalas fi'l-Mafhum al-Urthuduksi (Salvation in Orthodox Understanding)
  • 1971: Becomes Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III
  • 1973: Meets Roman Catholic pope Paul VI, the first time a Coptic pope met with a Roman Catholic pope in 1,500 years
  • 1981: Arrested, exiled by Egyptian government
  • 1985: Allowed to return from exile
  • 2000: Receives UNESCO's Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Nonviolence

Sadat's actions may have been a delayed response to Shenouda's September 1977 protest against the proposed imposition of Islamic law (shari'a) in Egypt. The proposal would have made apostasy—in this case, conversion from Islam—a capital offense. Shenouda had feared that the law would discriminate against Egyptian Christians and other non-Muslims. He succeeded temporarily, for Sadat's recommendation was withdrawn, only to be reintroduced in 1980. Because armed Muslim militants then unleashed a murderous round of terror against the Copts, Shenouda ordered a series of demonstrations that enraged many Muslims and caused them to accuse the patriarch of engaging in politics. Sadat turned down Shenouda's repeated requests for a meeting, and so in 1981 the patriarch refused to accept the government's Easter greeting, humiliating Sadat, who may have taken revenge by the September arrest. Some Copts believed that Shenouda's dismissal was a political move to balance Sadat's incarceration of many Muslims. Another possible explanation is that, during a 1980 meeting between Sadat and U.S. president Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C., a group of Coptic expatriates staged a protest, which Sadat wrongly blamed on Shenouda.


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The censure of Shenouda for sectarian sedition was both ironic and unfortunate. Although he had vigorously defended the Coptic Church and struck back against Muslim fundamentalists, he has never been antagonistic toward Islam per se. Throughout his career, Shenouda has been sympathetic to Muslim causes and to Egyptian national interests. Some of his theological writings, particularly his major 1967 work al-Khalas fi'l-Mafhum al-Urthuduksi (Salvation in Orthodox Understanding), are as critical of aspects of Protestantism as of Islamic fundamentalism. Shenouda has specifically denounced the intrusion of religion as a divisive force in political affairs. One result of his historic meeting with the Roman Catholic pope Paul VI in May 1973 (the first visit by an Egyptian pope to his Roman counterpart since 325 C.E.) was a joint statement of concern about the Palestinian problem. In May 1986 Shenouda sent a representative to the funeral of a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After Sadat's assassination in October 1981, Shenouda's plight improved slowly. However, in 1983 an administrative court upheld Sadat's actions against Shenouda and ordered the Coptic Orthodox Church to hold a new papal election; only in January 1985 did a decree from President husni mubarak allow Shenouda to regain his office.

Shenouda reaffirmed his policy against politicizing religion by opposing an initiative by the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo to host a conference in 1994 on minorities in the Arab world and efforts by the U.S. Congress in 1997 to pass legislation that would have barred aid to Egypt as long as it allowed discrimination against Copts. He attacked Israel's administration of Christian holy places and vowed not to visit Jerusalem until it was freed from Jewish control. He also condemned U.S. policy toward Iraq. Generally, his strategy has been to align Egypt's Copts closely with their Muslim counterparts in the interest of preserving national unity.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded Shenouda III its Madanjeet Singh Prize for the Promotion of Tolerance and Nonviolence in 2000. Shenouda is a past president of the World Council of Churches and headed for many years the Middle Eastern Council of Churches.


Shenouda will be remembered as an active Coptic pope, who served Egypt's Copts during a difficult period in the last decades of the twentieth century. He also oversaw a tremendous expansion of the Coptic church in North and South America. Shenouda also will be remembered for his commitment to Christian unity, as demonstrated by his meeting Roman Catholic pope Paul VI in 1973. In May 2000, he established the Office for Ecumenical Affairs in the Coptic Archdiocese of North America.


Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt, Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

Coptic Encyclopedia. New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Fernandez, Alberto M. "The Coptic Orthodox Salvation Theology of Anba Shenouda III." MA thesis, University of Arizona, 1983.

Hirst, David, and Irene Beeson. Sadat. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.

Pennington, J. D. "The Copts in Modern Egypt." Middle Eastern Studies 18 (1982): 158-179.

Saif, Leila abu-. Middle East Journal: A Woman's Journey into the Heart of the Arab World. New York: Scribner, 1990.

"The Official Site of H. H. Pope Shenouda III." 18 June 2007.

Tincq, Henri. "Siege Mentality Grips the Copts of Egypt." Guardian. 21 February 1988.

                                             Donald Spanel

                           updated by Arthur Goldschmidt
                           updated by Michael R. Fischbach

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Shenouda III (1923–)

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