ST BISHOY MONASTERY: Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenuda was laid to rest on Tuesday in a monastery in the Egyptian desert, amid hysterical scenes as thousands of mourners mobbed to get close to his coffin.
Following a funeral service at Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral, Shenouda’s body was flown some 100 kilometers (60 miles) by military aircraft to Beheira province in the northwest, where the motorcade took it to St. Bishoy monastery in Wadi Natroun.
There, lines of military police at the entrance to the monastery crumbled under the force of screaming worshippers who rushed the convoy.
One woman hung precariously from the ambulance carrying the patriarch’s body, as panicked officers shouted and tried to push back the heaving crowds.
His body was finally taken into the 4th century monastery where he had asked to be buried, a large cross of flowers placed over his marble resting place. Mourners clambered over each other to snatch flowers and kiss the tomb.
Shenouda died on Saturday aged 88 after a long illness, leaving behind a community increasingly anxious about the rise of Islamism and political uncertainty.
During the funeral service, Sheonuda’s body, dressed in robes and a gold crown, lay in an open coffin as patriarchs of Orthodox churches said prayers.
Pallbearers struggled to get the white coffin out of the vast cathedral in the capital.
They had to push through a sea of mourners who threw rose petals and waved white lilies amid near hysterical scenes as people pressed forward to try to touch the coffin, causing it to tilt several times.
Coptic hymns and incense filled the church as clergy, officials and choirboys wept and waved goodbye to their spiritual leader, the head of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
Members of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces attended the service, as did parliament speaker Saad Al-Katatny, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and several Egyptian ministers, MPs and other public figures, both Christian and Muslim.
Crowds waited, some all night, for a chance to attend the service, which officials had said would be by invitation only. Those who could not get in massed outside to pay their respects.
At one point, the gate to the cathedral compound was opened, causing a stampede into the courtyard before church officials scrambled to close it again.
Prayers were led by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abona Paulos.
“Because he is resting does not mean we have lost him,” Abona Paulos said at the emotional service, aired live on television.
Tuesday had been declared a day of national mourning.
Flags nationwide were flown at half mast, and an unprecedented security plan was put in place in Cairo and in the Nile Delta province of Beheira.
Shenouda’s death brought tens of thousands of Copts to the cathedral to bid a final farewell.
“I know he is now in a better place, but it is difficult now he’s gone. We miss you,” said a grief-stricken Marianne Saad as she stood in the crowd outside the cathedral.
“After God, he was our only protector,” lamented another young woman in the crowd. “We will miss him, but he will always be in our hearts,” said a young Christian man, Hani Suleiman.
Ahead of the funeral, the pope’s body, dressed in gold, white and crimson robes, a gilded crown on his head, was placed seated on the ornate papal throne, a carved image of Christ behind him and lions standing guard on either side.
Devastated worshippers thronged to catch a final glimpse of “Baba Shenouda,” using mobile phones to take pictures of him.
Three mourners were crushed to death in the crowd on Sunday, and 137 people were injured, prompting church officials to cut short the viewing and close the cathedral to the public.
Shenouda’s death set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch, who will lead the community through a critical phase marked by political instability and sectarian tensions.
The new pope will be chosen by a council made up of senior clergy, current and former Coptic public officials, MPs, local councilors and journalists, in a process that could take months.
News of Shenuda’s death caused dismay among Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic population, many of whom credited him with maintaining a cool head during challenging times and helping to prevent widespread sectarian unrest.
But his critics saw him as being too close to the government, refusing to speak up for the community in the face of sectarian attacks, discrimination and harassment.
Named pope of Alexandria in 1971, Shenouda led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, for a generation. During that time, Egypt was hit by a wave of Islamist militancy from which he sought to protect his people.
Copts have been particularly concerned about the political fallout from the Arab spring uprising that ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
Islamist parties, including ultra-conservative Salafis who believe Christians should not have a say in ruling the country, won almost three-quarters of the seats in the first parliamentary elections since the revolt.
The pope, accustomed to the monastic traditions of Egypt’s unforgiving desert, had on occasion protested what he perceived to be gross injustices to his flock by living in seclusion for days or even weeks in remote monasteries. Although he publicly acknowledged that Christians were discriminated against, he never accepted that they be referred to as a minority, insisting that Copts were an integral part of the nation’s fabric.
“When he got upset and angry, he left the world behind and returned to his cave, where he spoke to no one for days except his secretaries,” said Father Wissa, one of the estimated 170 monks in St. Bishoy monastery, a cluster of mudbrick structures.
“No one can replace him. God brought us this person at a time we were in need for someone like him. Now at these difficult times, we need his wisdom the most.”
The ceiling of Shenouda’s burial chamber is covered with murals of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints. The chamber has a large dome surrounded by smaller ones, symbolizing open skies. The room has several small windows, just big enough to let in a faint light.
The chamber was originally a small museum housing a collection of antiquities belonging to the monastery, such as clay pots, the garments of the monastery’s early fathers and musical instruments. The collection was moved after Shenouda expressed two months ago a desire to be buried in the monastery, Father Wissa said.
“If you wanted to know Jesus, Pope Shenouda was Jesus on earth. If you wanted to have a father, he was the most loving of fathers,” said a nun who traveled to St. Bishoy monastery from her nearby convent and refused to give her name. “It is because of him that I wanted to be a nun.”
Pallbearers carry the coffin of Coptic Pope Shenouda III out of Saint Mark’s cathedral during his funeral service in Cairo’s Abbaseya district on March 20. AFP Photo/Gianluigi Guercia
Coptic clerics touch the casket containing the body of Pope Shenouda III. AFP PHOTO/STR
Thousands waited outside the Cathedral in Cairo watching the funeral on a screen outside. (Daily News Egypt Photo/Hassan Ibrahim)