By Christophe de Roquefeuil / AFP
CAIRO: Thousands of grieving Egyptian Copts streamed into St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday to catch a last glimpse of their spiritual leader Pope Shenouda III, taking pictures on their mobile phones and weeping.
Shenouda died on Saturday aged 88, following a long illness, setting in motion the process to elect a new patriarch for the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
He led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt’s population of more than 80 million, for the best part of a generation, during which the country was hit by a wave of Islamic militancy from which he sought to protect his people.
Shenuda’s body, dressed in a golden crown and formal robes, with a gold knobbed staff cradled on his shoulder, was placed upright on the papal throne in the cathedral where it will remain on display until his funeral on Tuesday.
A bishop knelt to the side pressing his head to the throne, as thousands of tearful worshippers in black packed the church, hoping to get a final blessing.
Based on wishes stated in his will, Shenouda will be buried at St. Bishoy monastery of Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent his time in exile after a dispute with late president Anwar Sadat, state media reported.
Bishop Pachomious of the Nile Delta province of Beheira has taken over papal duties for two months until a council of senior clergy meets to choose a new pope, state television said.
The pope would be chosen according to procedures laid out in 1957 church bylaws.
“Egypt Weeps,” read the headline of the state-owned daily Al-Akhbar as others bid “Farewell, Pope Shenouda”.
“Egypt has lost one of its greatest men,” said Cairo’s Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious institution, in a statement. “He is a great loss, a dear friend.”
Coptic bishops from around the world have already started to fly in to attend meetings over funeral arrangements and plan for their leader’s succession.
Shenouda had suffered health problems for years, travelling to the United States frequently for treatment.
Recently he stopped receiving treatment for liver failure and tumors or swelling in his lungs because he was too feeble, the Coptic Church said.
Condolences came in from around the world, with US President Barack Obama hailing Shenuda as an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.
Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, had offered prayers for Shenouda, the Vatican said.
Muslim leaders in the country were quick to send their condolences soon after news of his death broke.
Shenouda’s death is “a grave calamity that has afflicted all Egypt and its noble people, Muslims and Christians,” the country’s mufti, Ali Gomaa, said in a statement.
Shenouda leaves behind a nervous community, a target of frequent sectarian attacks in recent years, whose members complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalization.
Egypt’s Christians are particularly concerned over the rise and increased assertiveness of Islamists, following an uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
Shenouda was placed under house arrest by former president Anwar Sadat for his outspoken criticism of Sadat’s courting of Islamists.
But he was supportive of Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, who was overthrown by a popular uprising more than a year ago which led to an Islamist-dominated parliament —the first in the country’s history.
Shenouda, immediately recognizable by his long white beard, was believed to have viewed the widely despised Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamists, who believe non-Muslims should not be allowed to rule the country.
He was seen as a check on more radical Copts who urged more forceful reactions to sectarian attacks that have plagued their community, especially after Mubarak’s ouster.
Egyptian Christian Copts mourn the death of Pope Shen0uda at the Saint Mark Coptic cathedral in Cairo’s al-Abbassiya district on March 17. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Khaled)