|Shenouda endured more than three years of exile in the 1980s but later rarely fought with Mubarak’s regime [EPA]|
Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenouda III, the leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, has died at 88, state television and church sources said.
The cause of death was not immediately clear, but for years Shenouda had suffered from back and liver problems, and health issues forced him to cancel his weekly sermon on Wednesday.
Named pope in 1971, Shenouda led the Coptic Orthodox Church through 40 years of quiet expansion, including a strong growth in North America, but came under criticism in his native Egypt during the later years of his papacy.
Most of the church’s more than 10 million members are in Egypt, where Copts are believed to make up around 10 per cent of the population.
For most Egyptian Copts, Shenouda was the only spiritual leader they have ever known, a beloved figure who nonetheless became controversial for rarely opposing a government that was often accused of promoting Muslims’ rights over those of Copts.
Naguib Sawiris, a liberal Coptic Christian political leader and billionaire telecommunications tycoon, wrote on Twitter that Shenouda had been “an icon of wisdom, intellect and knowledge, a man of courage and honour”.
Exile and return
Shenouda, who worked as a journalist before spending years as a monk and being elected pope, entered his tenure with a political agenda, set on reforming the church from within, Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros reported from Cairo.
In the 1980s, Shenouda spent more than three years in exile in a desert monastery after former president Anwar Sadat stripped him of his powers by decree.
At the time, Shenouda had been pressing for more rights for the Coptic community and trying to preserve his congregation from escalating attacks by Muslim extremists.
Former president Hosni Mubarak canceled Sadat’s decree in 1985, and Shenouda returned to lead Christmas Mass before a crowd of thousands in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral.
After returning, Shenouda oversaw the growth of the church in the United States and South America. He emphasised Christian unity and dialogue between churches throughout the world.
In recent years, some Egyptian Copts had begun to express criticism of Shenouda for not speaking out on Coptic rights, particularly as sectarian violence seemed to increase.
“It was really after the former president Hosni Mubarak then took power that you saw a more cordial relationship … and at that point people began to criticize the pope,” Tadros said.
Although Shenouda gave limited praise to Egypt’s revolution, he often encouraged protesters to go home, both before and after Mubarak’s fall, and he pleaded for stability.
The later part of his papacy was marked by co-operation with Mubarak and, after the revolt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. When sectarian clashes began to erupt after Mubarak’s removal, including church burnings throughout the country, Shenouda praised the military leadership for helping to rebuild.
But in October, when soldiers brutally dispersed a Coptic protest outside state media headquarters, leaving at least 26 people dead, Shenouda declared that those killed were martyrs and blamed the military for the violence.
“These martyrs are our beloved children and their blood does not come cheap,” he said.
“I, along with all the bishops, priests and monks, will pray for them. And we know that God will forgive their sins.”