Biographies His Holiness Pope Shenouda III

Image: Pope Shenouda III
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III. Photograph courtesy of Laurence Moftah.

One of the most important advocates of Moftah's project, and the person instrumental in the publication of The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription (The American University in Cairo Press, 1998) was the Coptic Patriarch himself, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III.

Born as Nazir Gayed on August 3, 1923, he was among the powerful laity who emerged from the Sunday School movement that invigorated the Coptic Church beginning in the early twentieth century. In an effort to counteract Protestant missionary activity in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox community began their own Sunday school classes, youth meetings, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. As a graduate of the American school of Banha and the Secondary Iman Coptic School of Shubra, Gayed taught at the Sunday Schools of St. Anthony's church of Shubra, then later at St. Mary's Church of Mahmasha. In 1947, he graduated from the University of Cairo with a Bachelor of Arts in History. While teaching high school history and English, he completed his Bachelor of Theology from the Coptic Theological Seminary, and was appointed as a part-time lecturer of the Old and New Testament in 1949. By 1953, he accepted a full-time position as a lecturer at the Monastic College of Helwan. A prolific writer, he was known for his poetry, and his brief stint in journalism.

On July 18, 1954, Nazir Gayed entered the Monastery of the Syrians, otherwise known in Arabic as Deir Al-Surian, in the Wadi al-Natrun valley region of Egypt. According to Coptic tradition, he was renamed Abouna Antonious El-Sourani, or Father Anthony the Syrian,[1] and he spent six years as a hermit monk in a cave in the Egyptian desert, which he carved out himself between 1956 and 1962. In his final year of solitude, he was summoned by His Holiness Pope Cyril VI and, on September 30, 1962, he was consecrated as His Grace Bishop Shenouda, the Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. As Bishop, he was responsible for the Christian education of both laity and the Coptic clergy. Under his leadership of the Coptic Theological Seminary, student enrollment more than tripled, while women were admitted for the first time, first as students, and later as lecturers. In 1969, he was elected as the President of the Association of Middle East Theological Colleges.

Upon the death of His Holiness Pope Cyril VI on March 9, 1971, Bishop Shenouda was elected and consecrated as the 117th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria on November 14, 1971. During his patriarchy, he continued the Coptic intellectual, educational, and spiritual renaissance that had been initiated earlier that century and extended his efforts to the growing diaspora outside of Egypt. At the beginning of his term, there were only four Coptic Churches in North America. Today, there are over two hundred burgeoning churches, a handful of monasteries, and two theological colleges. This does not include the churches that are now flourishing in Australia and New Zealand and the number of communities growing all over Europe. It is interesting to note that the field of Coptic studies, both in and outside Egypt, flourished during his reign, mirroring his continued interested in education. It was in this context that Ragheb Moftah undertook and published his studies on Coptic hymnology.

During the rising sectarian tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims, His Holiness, the Pope, treads a very fine line as both a religious and political figure in Egypt. Balancing staunch patriotism with a need to speak out against the discrimination that Christians are presently experiencing in Egypt, he has always been an activist for Coptic civil rights while promoting Christian-Muslim unity. Yet, he has not been without challenges in this arena. During the presidency of Anwar Sadat (1970-1981), these tensions came to a head with the growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups in student universities. Pope Shenouda decried the repeated attacks against Christian homes, churches, and businesses by refusing to celebrate the Easter liturgy publicly and to welcome government delegates to the service as is customary every year. Accused of aggravating sectarian dissent, he was placed under house arrest in Anba Bishoy, or Saint Bishoy Monastery, in the western desert of Egypt, beginning September 5, 1981. After Muslim extremists assassinated President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981, the next reigning president, Hosni Mubarak, finally released Pope Shenouda from his exile on January 6, 1985. This period was a time of spiritual retreat for the Pope and he managed to publish 16 books during these 4 years.

On the ecumenical front, Pope Shenouda III is renowned for his efforts toward Christian unity. He was the first Coptic Patriarch in over 1500 years to meet with the Roman Patriarch, Pope Paul VI, in 1973. During this significant meeting, they signed a decree working toward the reconciliation of both their churches, especially with regard to their dogmatic and historical differences. Since then, he has met frequently with representatives from other denominations, promoting intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. Also, he has ensured that the Coptic Church becomes a member of the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches, the All-African Council of Churches, the National Council of the Churches in Christ in the U.S.A., the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Australian Council of Churches, as well as founding the North American Office for Ecumenical Affairs. In 2000, His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III, was honored with the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize, a prestigious award given only every two years which recognizes the efforts of those who promote tolerance and non-violence.


  1. To represent their true death to the world and their transformed identity in Christ, monks take on new names on the day of their ordination. This is true for laity who become clergymen, women who become nuns, and monks who are elected as bishops. [back to biography]


Hasan, S.S. Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Mikhail, Mikhail E. "His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III: Biography." Coptic Orthodox Church Network Web site. Jersey City:, 2005. External Link: ttp:// (accessed 11 August 2008).

The Official Site of His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III. Cairo: Techno Mina Communications, 1998. External Link: (accessed 11 August 2008).

Ramzy, Carolyn. "Taratīl: Songs of Praise and the Musical Discourse of Nostalgia among Coptic Immigrants in Toronto, Canada." Master's thesis, Florida State University, 2007.

Watson, John. Among the Copts. Sussex, U.K: Sussex Academic Press, 2000.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress