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July 09, 2009

updates and the benefits of working for a religious community

Since I last posted, I've certainly had a busy work life. But now that July has come, I can officially announce that I have read through all 3,000 or so articles that in any way mention Pope Shenouda III within in the Arab West Report database. While a monumental milestone, I realized the day I finished how much more I still had to do. True, I had collected, compiled, and categorized all of these articles in what might be the most horrifying Microsoft Excel document to behold imaginable, but honestly, that was the easy part. What my past week has become then is trying to discover out of all of this information what topic I want to pursue (made slightly more difficult as my boss is currently out of the country). However, I finally did settle on a topic for investigation while in Egypt (as well as a related thesis topic for when I get back stateside): Pope Shenouda III's ban on Coptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For those of you who don't know (which I would presume to be most reading this blog), Pope Shenouda III placed a ban on all Coptic tourism to Israel (including the very widely-practiced pilgrimage to Jerusalem) in 1979 following the "normalization" of relations between Egypt and Israel under President Sadat. This ban was certainly surprising to the then President (who, it should be mentioned, did not have the best relationship with Pope Shenouda to say the least), as well as many Copts who considered it part of their religious obligation to go to Jerusalem during their lifetime (indeed, traditionally, Copts even received a special tattoo within Jerusalem to "prove" that they went). However, the move won Pope Shenouda accolades from across the Arab world, and is often cited as a demonstration of his (and by proxy the Copts') patriotism. However, the exact reason and authority behind the ban are somewhat opaque. The punishment for violation of the ban has been strengthened over the years, and is now denial of communion, excommunication, or essentially the confirmation of one's denied entry to heaven (though I have been unable to find a documented case of this punishment being implemented). Despite these obviously religious consequences, the ban itself is of an unclear motivation. Is it a political gesture? National/patriotic? Religious? Even more complicated, what about the Copts who willfully decide to flaunt the pope's command and travel to Jerusalem? What about Copts who do not live in Egypt, or Copts that might not agree with the perceived political stance of this policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? While I have yet to have concrete answers to these questions, I have begun to find my own thoughts on them, as well as a deeper and deeper intertwining of these themes and issues to broader challenges facing the Coptic Church. As such, I feel it will be a fascinating topic upon which to do a final report for the Arab West Report, as well as a potential chapter in my thesis (which, for those curious by the above teaser, seems to be moving toward the globalization of the Coptic Orthodox Church and its effects upon the perceived authority, responsibilities, and roles of the Patriarch. Isn't that a mouthful?).

In other news, I get to have a new volunteer start next week, who will initially be working with me on my Pope Shenouda III project, conducting interviews with local Copts as well as (ideally) interviews with several more prominent members of the community as a means to practice her Arabic as well as provide me with more ethnographic material. Starting on Tuesday, I get to have a much needed helper on this project, which is incredibly welcome, and I am glad to have her.

Finally, in completely unrelated news, I have an unexpected perk of working for the Arab West Foundation. While in Cairo, I wanted to find a Coptic icon to bring home as part of my family's own connection to Orthodox Christianity through the Ukraine. As regional experts on Coptic Orthodoxy, I thought I would ask my boss about his recommendations of where to get such an icon, and was referred to his wife. She happens to know the nuns of the Convent of Saint Demiana and the Forty Virgins (an early Christian martyr and popular Coptic saint) in the Nile Delta, who currently finance their convent by being the sole producers of the beautiful icons that grace Coptic churches across Egypt. While the nuns normally only take commissions from churches and monasteries, due to her connection with the nuns (the nuns calls her "Tasoni," or "Sister," in Coptic), they agreed to make an icon for me. Flash forward to yesterday when it arrived in Cairo, and now there is an icon of Saint Antony (the original desert father) that was personally handmade for my family from the nuns of Saint Demiana and the Forty Virgins in my apartment. I'd call that a good job perk. For those curious, it looks something like this:

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at July 9, 2009 06:56 PM


Wow!! The icon is beautiful. How cool that you had that kind of connection. I'm enjoying following your Egyptian adventures! :)

Posted by: Sarah at July 9, 2009 10:45 PM

Dear Mr. Wamboldt,
Do the nuns of Saint Demiana have a web-site, e-mail address or phone number in order to contact them. I would appreciate very much if you could help me. Thank you.

All the best!

Rita Annarummo

Posted by: RITA ANNARUMMO at July 21, 2009 07:08 PM

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