Egypt’s Christians are mourning the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, the leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, who has died at the age of 88.
Within an hour of Saturday’s announcement of his death, traffic was jammed for kilometres leading to St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, where the spiritual leader was based.
Tens of thousands of Christians packed into the cathedral, chanting: “We love you, Father,” in memory of the pontiff who had led their community since 1971.
Shenouda died in his residence at the cathedral, and the state news agency MENA said he had been battling liver and lung problems for several years. Health issues forced him to cancel his weekly sermon on Wednesday.
“He died from complications in health and from old age,” his political adviser Hany Aziz said.
Condolences poured in from Egypt’s Muslim leaders and from politicians.
“Egypt has lost one of its rare men at a sensitive moment when it most needs the wisest of its wise – their expertise and their purity of minds,” said Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayib, grand imam of Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, al-Azhar.
Shenouda’s successor will play a central role in forging the church’s position in the country after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last year. Islamist parties have since emerged as a dominant political force in parliamentary elections.
Shenouda led the Coptic Orthodox Church through 40 years of quiet expansion, including a strong growth in North America.
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.
“These martyrs are our beloved children and their blood does not come cheap. “
– Pope Shenouda
For Egypt’s Christians, Shenouda was a charismatic leader, known for his sense of humour – his smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops. But in recent years, some criticised him for not speaking out on Coptic rights, particularly as sectarian violence seemed to increase.
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.”
Exile and return
Shenouda worked as a journalist before spending years as a monk and being elected pope.
In the 1980s, he 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.
Mubarak cancelled Sadat’s decree in 1985, and Shenouda returned to lead Christmas Mass before a crowd of thousands in St Mark’s Cathedral.