By Samer al-Atrush / AFP
CAIRO: They came from across Egypt, the poor, old women in black, young tattooed men in their rough work clothes, clamoring to get inside the cathedral grounds for Coptic Pope Shenouda III’s funeral on Tuesday.
Many had camped outside Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral since Monday night, after arriving by train from the country’s impoverished south, or farming villages in the north.
The roads to the cathedral grounds had been cordoned by police and soldiers and the gates bolted shut from the inside, but the mourners pounded and yelled, rushing in all at once when a church volunteer relented and unbolted a door.
Some climbed up the walls and slid down lamp posts into the church grounds. “You can arrest me, but I will go inside,” insisted one as he was surrounded by church security men and hauled into an office.
“We love you, Father!” chanted those on the outside.
The body of the pope, a golden crown on his head, lay in an open casket as incense wafted past the thousands of tearful mourners packed under the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling and as a choir sung dirges in the ancient Coptic language.
Members of the ruling military, politicians including the Islamist speaker of parliament Saad El-Katatny, the billionaire Coptic tycoon Naguib Sawiris and other dignitaries filled the front rows.
Shenouda, the spiritual leader of the largest Middle Eastern Christian minority since 1971, was a “national personage,” as the Islamic Al-Azhar institution described him in a statement.
But he was so much more for the Christians who waited for hours just to enter the cathedral grounds.
“God chose him, and he chose the best,” said John Nashat, a 22-year-old university student, as he watched the funeral service on a large screen placed on the cathedral’s outside wall.
“We all lost our father,” said Raymond, 37, a tuk-tuk driver from Cairo.
Under late Anwar Sadat’s rule, Shenouda had been placed under house arrest in St. Bishoy’s monastery, where his body was buried on Tuesday, because of his denunciation of the then president’s growing closeness to Islamists.
But after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 by an Islamist, Shenouda kept good ties with the new president, Hosni Mubarak, even as the uprising that toppled Mubarak last year gathered momentum.
The church saw Mubarak as a bulwark against assertive Islamists — who went on to sweep parliamentary elections after Mubarak’s fall — at a time when Copts reeled from increasingly bloody sectarian attacks.
Some had their misgivings at Shenouda’s insistence that they turn the other cheek, and ignored calls from the church to end a sit-in last year as they pushed the traditional bounds of Coptic activism.
But the faithful saw him as the exemplar of their Gospel’s values. “He taught us to forgive,” said Raymond. “I hope the country settles, and that we can all love each other.”