VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI offered prayers Saturday for Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenouda III who died on Saturday at the age of 88, a Vatican spokesman said.
The Catholic pope expressed the desire that “the Lord welcomes this great pastor,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said in a statement.
“We will never forget the meeting between Pope Shenouda III and Pope John Paul II in Cairo on the occasion of his pilgrimage to Mount Sinai…,” in 2000 he added.
While Benedict never met Shenouda, the spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, he often spoke of the closeness he felt with the Coptic Church.
Benedict’s expressions of solidarity with the Coptic community after a 2011 New Year’s Day church bombing that killed over 20 people as worshippers emerged from midnight mass strained relations with the Egyptian government.
Shenouda did however meet Benedict’s predecessor, the charismatic John Paul II and maintained strong links with the Catholic Church.
Shenouda had suffered health problems for years and recently stopped receiving treatment for liver failure and tumors or swelling in his lungs because he was too feeble, the Coptic Church said.
A “saddened” President Barack Obama hailed Shenuda as an “advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue”.
Obama said in a statement that he and his wife Michelle “are saddened to learn of the passing of Coptic Christian Pope Shenuda III, a beloved leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians and an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.”
“We stand alongside Coptic Christians and Egyptians as they honor his contributions in support of peace and cooperation,” the US president said.
Obama said he remembered Shenouda “as a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation.”
“His commitment to Egypt’s national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together,” Obama added.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered the nation’s “deepest condolences.”
“As we reflect on his life and legacy, we reaffirm our support to the future peace and prosperity of Egypt,” she said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Egyptian people and all those who mourn Pope Shenouda III.”
Shenouda leaves behind a nervous community, a target of frequent sectarian attacks in recent years who complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalization.
Egypt has also seen increased tensions between Muslims and Christians over the past few months, sparked by neighborhood quarrels and disputes over church building and rumors of forced conversions.
Copts have been particularly concerned since Islamist parties, including ultra-conservative Salafi groups, won nearly three-quarters of the seats in the first parliamentary elections since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year.