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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 25th, 2008 - 00:28:21

Don't insult our pope, say Egyptians
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 25, 2008, 00:13

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At a time when the head of the Catholic Church Pope Benedict XV1 was being warmly welcomed in the US and treated with reverence by Americans of all faiths it's worth highlighting the shabby treatment meted out to the leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III, at the end of his recent visit to Britain.

After a successful trip to the UK, where he had inaugurated a cathedral, the 84-year-old pontiff who holds a diplomatic passport was surprised when security officials at London's Heathrow Airport snubbed diplomatic protocol by asking him to submit to a body search.

Considering the request an affront to his dignity and a breach of accepted protocol, Pope Shenouda, who was accompanied by the Egyptian ambassador, refused to comply. A row broke out, resulting in the officious officials dropping the body search requirement but still insisting on making the pope walk through a metal detector.

The Egyptian government is seething at the disrespect shown to the Coptic leader, known to be a wise and gentle soul who loves Arabic poetry. Shura Council Speaker Safwat Al Sharif has demanded an apology from Britain, while the Foreign Ministry has warned British dignitaries entering Egypt to expect tit-for-tat treatment.

"We will apply the principle of reciprocity and treat British representatives the same way," said the country's deputy foreign minister, Wafaa Bassim.

Her boss, Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Ghait, deliberately avoided Heathrow en route to Washington to protest the incident, while other Egyptian officials have been instructed to follow suit and transit though Paris instead.

One of the pope's aides described the indignity as a flagrant affront to the pope's position as leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church worldwide and issued a statement implying Pope Benedict XVI or head of the Church of England, the archbishop of Canterbury, would not have been treated similarly.

Britain's ambassador to Egypt apologised to the pontiff in person and put out a statement that read, "We have the highest respect, esteem and affection for Pope Shenouda".

But when Egypt's ambassador to London demanded an explanation from British officials he was informed that new security measures designed to thwart terrorists apply to everyone who is not a current head of state, including men of the cloth.

I think this is baloney. To prove it, I would ask my colleagues in the UK press to monitor the accuracy of this the next time Pope Benedict, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or Prince Charles pass through Heathrow, which is fast securing a reputation as being the airport from hell. I find it hard to grapple with the image of the Catholic pope being frisked as a potential evildoer and whoever tried to lay hands on the Iron Lady would surely be met with a glacial stare.

Sinister spin

Here in Egypt some people are putting a more sinister spin on the incident, citing the Coptic pope's anti-Iraq war and pro-Palestinian stances. Indeed, he has repeatedly forbidden his flock from making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem while it remains occupied by Israel.

However, I think that interpretation falls in the realm of fantasy. It's doubtful those jumped-up petty officials had ever even heard of the Coptic Church, let alone the political affiliations of its leader. I would suspect they took one look at an Egyptian wearing robes and sporting a beard before going into their automatic racial profiling mode. To them he was just another religious Arab and thus a potential extremist.

Rather than invest in a new �4.3 billion terminal that has turned out to be an icon of incompetence, the British Airports Authority would do better to employ high calibre staff able to use their initiative when a situation warrants understanding and sensitivity.

In this case, though, even a moron should have known his limits when faced with a pope carrying a diplomatic passport in the company of an ambassador.

The other day I met a Welsh schoolmistress who invited me to join her children in a game of rounders, which she described as being quintessentially British due to its queues and its rules. Anyone who has had the misfortune to transit through Heathrow recently is surely sick to death of both.

Since his return home, Pope Shenouda has maintained a dignified silence, probably because he doesn't want to fuel the diplomatic furor, but he is quoted as saying earlier, "They searched me but did not search for their sins".

Someone should tell the powers that be in Britain that there are exceptions to every rule, and the beloved spiritual leader of the world's estimated 18 million Coptic Christians should merit being one of them. Perhaps the Egyptians need to follow though on their threat of putting British VIPs under scrutiny at Egyptian airports to ensure the UK gets the point before the pope heads there again.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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