Coptic TV serial tests boundaries of religious tolerance in Egypt

Egyptian actor Maged al-Kedwany, who has many of the facial characteristics of the late pope, will play Shenouda in the final stages of his life.
Sunday 03/11/2019
Controversial reign. A 2011 file picture shows Egypt’s late Coptic Pope Shenouda III attending an Easter service in the main cathedral in Cairo.(Reuters)
Controversial reign. A 2011 file picture shows Egypt’s late Coptic Pope Shenouda III attending an Easter service in the main cathedral in Cairo.(Reuters)

CAIRO - The Coptic Orthodox Church plans to produce “Pope of the Arabs,” a 34-part television serial about the late Pope Shenouda III, Egypt’s most popular Christian leader.

There are fears, however, that the programme will anger Egypt’s Islamists, especially with the church hoping to broadcast the serial on state television.

The serial would be the first about Shenouda, who died in 2012 — a tumultuous year for Egypt, the Coptic minority and the Arab region. It will also mark the entry of the Coptic church into the TV production field, a major feat for it in a country where the religion has been at the centre of discrimination by Islamist radicals.

The drama will tell Shenouda’s story from his birth in 1923 until his death through 34 episodes, the serial’s makers said.

“We will produce this work at the request of most of the members of the Christian community,” said Bemwa el-Anba Bishoy, one of the bishops of the Monastery of Saint Pishoy in the Western Desert who oversee production of the serial. “The new work will document every detail in the life of the pope.”

Egyptian actor Maged al-Kedwany, who has many of the facial characteristics of the late pope, will play Shenouda in the final stages of his life.

The serial has an initial budget of $5 million, a huge amount by Egyptian drama standards. The church opened two bank accounts for donations to help pay for the serial’s production and donors are queuing up, including private TV channels that want to broadcast the programme.

Shenouda became the Coptic Orthodox pope in 1971, when Egypt had sustained a humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel, which occupied Sinai. It was rebuilding its military to liberate Sinai from Israeli occupation.

That was also a time of a major rise by the nation’s Islamists, including Jamaa Islamiya, which, ten years later, was behind the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and was actively attacking the Christian minority.

Shenouda had a tense relationship with Sadat but was admired by almost all Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians.

When Shenouda died in March 2012, tens of thousands of Christians queued outside the eastern Cairo church where his body was placed in state to pay respects to their beloved pope.

“Pope Shenouda was more than just a Christian pope,” said Nashaat Zaqlama, a church historian and a close associate of the pope who supervised the writing of the serial’s script. “He was a national figure of great historical importance.”

Millions of Egyptians remember Shenouda’s uniting effect, especially at times of tension between Muslims and Christians.

Zaqlama and other programme makers started working on the script in 2016, completing it in 2018.

There are hopes among the Christian community that “Pope of the Arabs” will be broadcast on state television, given Shenouda’s popularity. This will be a test of the tolerance of the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, observers said.

Sisi was the first Egyptian president to attend Christian celebrations. He has stood up for the Christian community on numerous occasions, including during attacks by a branch of the Islamic State and Muslim Brotherhood militias on churches.

Sisi ordered engineers planning Egypt’s new urban communities to construct a church in each of them. In January, he opened the Middle East’s largest church in a new administrative capital being built on the outskirts of Cairo.

This is why Egypt’s Islamists accuse Sisi of being an ally of Egypt’s Christians. Airing “Pope of the Arabs” on state television may increase attacks against the Egyptian leader, observers said.

Some attacks may come from Egypt’s ultraorthodox Salafists, who are intolerant towards Christians. The Salafists ask their followers not to congratulate Christians on their religious occasions and say Christians are not fit for top government positions.

“The Islamists will inevitably be angered by the new serial,” said Nabil Naeem, a jihadist leader turned expert on religious extremism. “Sisi should not care about these radicals who do nothing but tarnish the image of Islam.”

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