The Coptic Church of Egypt may have gained new recognition and freedom by the government, but the church body is experiencing internal turmoil over issues of centralization and the power of the hierarchy over the laity.
The Tablet (Feb. 15), a British Catholic magazine, reports that a split between a segment of the laity and the bishops and the presiding Pope Shenouda is evident in a row over the disciplining of popular monks for teaching theological error. Under Pope Shenouda, the Coptic Church has cultivated cordial relations with the state, which is demonstrated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently declaring Jan. 7, Coptic Christmas, a national holiday.
But critics maintain that in the process of courting the government, Shenouda and his hand-picked bishops have usurped the laity’s role in governance of the church as well as seeking to limit the wide appeal of the monks. Coptic monasteries have stressed theological education of the laity and personal spirituality, hoping to stem the loss of members to evangelical churches.
The split is personified by Shenouda and Father Matta (also under theological investigation for unspecified reasons), a popular monk who has been instrumental in building a Sunday school movement in Egypt. Both leaders are revered among the laity, but there is the fear that Shenouda is abusing his power. Paul Schemm writes that “The number of excommunications of lay people has risen dramatically, as well as the defrocking of priests.”