Reflections on Pope John Paul II and the Arabic concept of satr

Sent On: 
Wed, 2022-12-21
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From left to right: Al Azhar scholars, Grand Imām of Al Azhar, Shaykh Muḥammad Sayyid Ṭanṭāwī, Pope John Paul II, and Dr. ʿAlī al-Sammān, vice-president of Permanent Committee for Interfaith Dialogue at Al Azhar and president of the International Union for Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue and Peace Education (ADIC). The late Dr. ʿAlī al-Sammān, who passed in 2020, was a friend of Dialogue Across Borders.


Coptic Orthodox Christians know the concept of satr from their hourly prayer of thanksgiving in the Agpeya (i.e. the Coptic prayer book): لأنه سترنا  (For He [God] has covered us). St. Takla Church in Alexandria provides on its website an explanation by Pope Shenouda [Shinūda] III (1923-2012). Arguably, however, this is more of an Egyptian cultural concept rather than a Christian one. Egyptian Muslims often seem to apply the same cultural norms. The basic idea is that all human beings have their weaknesses, for example, inappropriate thoughts or actions in specific situations. Everything is known to God but not everything needs to be known to other human beings. This includes priests, bishops and even the Pope, since we are all imperfect before the eyes of God, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans 3:10-12: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” The Apostle Paul refers here to the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 59, which describes life in a world that does not have true justice. According to Paul, this did not apply only to the leaders in the days of Isaiah but to all people and thus all people are in need of God’s redemption.


But when should one respect the concept of satr and when is going public the right response? The answer in the Egyptian cultural context (whether for Muslims or Christians) is that applying satr should not be harmful to others.


Recently news broke about Eugeniusz Surgent (1931-2008), a popular Catholic priest who was from the diocese of Krakow, Poland, who was revealed to have sexually abused young boys from the 1960s to 1980s. Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, was Archbishop of Krakow at that time and appears to have known about the behavior of this priest who had made repeated promises that he would change his life. Bishop Wojtyla tried to address the problems with Fr. Surgent by sending him from parish to parish, but the priest continued his behavior despite his empty promises. In 1982, Fr. Surgent traveled with other priests from the same year in his seminary to Rome for the canonization of Polish friar Maximilian Kolbe (d.1941). The group met with Pope John Paul II. On December 3, 2022, Ekke Overbeek wrote in the Dutch daily Trouw Hoe kon een Poolse priester jarenlang jongens misbruiken terwijl Paus Johannes Paulus II het wist?’ (How could a Polish priest abuse boys for many years while Pope John Paul II knew about this?). The pope knew about the priest’s behavior, but his actions seemed intended to avoid scandal in the church. It appears that, at the time, protection of the institution was more important than the protection of young boys.


The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt has defrocked priests when they have clearly violated the teachings and ethics of the church. Would Pope John Paul II’s effort to reduce damage fall in Egypt under the concept of satr?  The answer is ‘no’ since this would harm the victims of the priest’s abuse.

The news about Pope John Paul II is unsettling. It is not difficult to find things that are unpleasant and blameworthy in the behavior of each human being when we truly wish to dig into someone’s past. That is why news always needs to be placed in the wider context. In the case of Pope John Paul II this should include his important contributions to dialogue and mutual understanding between Muslims and Christians which has been so important for reducing interreligious tensions. I had the honor to attend his visits to Lebanon in 1997 and to Egypt in 2000. I stood close to him on his visit to the Monastery of St. Catherine’s. Despite this age, he provided a powerful and inspiring message. Decision making in any leading position may be extremely hard since it may happen that regardless of what decision is taken, it will cause harm. In other words, the weakness or harm in one domain should not always obscure the good done in another domain.


One should not ignore human weaknesses in reporting, but it is important not to put our entire spotlight on these weaknesses.


The Egyptian concept of satr is interesting and has value but it should never be used as an argument to hide human weaknesses if revealing those are needed for the wider society.



Cornelis Hulsman

Senior Advisor

Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation (CIDT)


December 21, 2022