Coptic Pope laid to rest in desert monastery

Pope Shenouda’s body interred after tens of thousands turn out for funeral ceremonies in Cairo and Beheira.

Coptic Pope Shenouda III laid to rest in Wadi al-Natroun

The body of Pope Shenouda III has been buried at a desert monastery following a day of funeral ceremonies for the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Church, who died on Saturday at the age of 88.

Thousands of Coptic Christians earlier on Tuesday paid their final respects to the pope at a funeral service at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo.

Shenouda was then flown by military plane for interment  at Wadi al-Natroun, a fourth-century monastery located in Beheira province in the northwest Nile Delta.

Chaotic scenes preceded the burial as thousands of people swarmed around the convoy carrying Shenouda’s body, forcing the vehicle to a halt and overwhelming lines of police who tried in vain to push the crowds back.  

In Cairo, clerics, dignitaries and religious leaders looked on as black-clad priests and monks recited prayers and dispensed incense smoke. Shenouda’s body lay in a white casket in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services, complete with an ornate golden crown.

Tens of thousands more who could not get in followed the mass outside the cathedral, carrying portraits of Shenouda and crosses. Many wept, wiping tears off their faces as the melancholic tunes of the hymns reached them through loudspeakers.

Flags were flown at half mast and an “unprecedented” security plan was put in place as crowds mourned the man who had led the Coptic church for four decades.

Charismatic leader

Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from outside St Mark’s Cathedral, said replacing the pope would be a difficult task.

“He was a charismatic leader who appealed religiously and politically for 40 years. His will be very difficult shoes to fill,” she said.

His successor will have to deal with the church’s relationship to with an Egyptian state, and a larger region, that is experiencing rapid change.

“The pope was a strong nationalist and had a particularly strong stance on the Palestinian cause. In fact, he banned Christians from pilgrimage to Jerusalem until it was liberated,” our correspondent said.

 Thousands flocked to Cairo to pay their final respects to the longtime head of the Coptic Church on Sunday [EPA]

Bishop Pachomious of the Nile Delta province of Beheira has taken over papal duties for two months until a council of senior clergy meet to choose a new pope, state television said.

The spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority had suffered health problems for years, travelling to the United States frequently for treatment.

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.

Lengthy queues looped through the streets of Cairo’s Abbasiya district from Saturday night into Sunday afternoon, eventually becoming so thick that three people died from suffocation, the country’s health ministry said.

At least 30 more were reportedly injured, prompting the country’s military rulers to call a halt to the ceremony. 

Shenouda’s body, which was initially laid in a coffin, was later seated on a ceremonial throne dressed in gold and red embroidered religious vestments, with a golden mitre on Shenouda’s head and a gold-topped staff leaning on his arm.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies