Tens of thousands of Coptic Orthodox Christians descend on Egypt's main cathedral in Cairo to begin a three-day mourning period for Pope Shenouda III.

The spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority died on Saturday at the age of 88 after battling a long illness.

"He had his opinions, he expressed. Don't forget that those are the same opinions that held the Arab nations very high in place, the Palestinian issue, the Ramadan iftar banquets and was also attacked for it at times for trying to be too moderate."

- Bishop Angaelos, the bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria

Pope Shenouda was the patriarch of most of Egypt's estimated 12 million Christians.

His body is displayed for public viewing inside the Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo.

On Tuesday a funeral will be held for Shenouda, who became pope in 1971, at the papal headquarters.

There was no official word on when clergy and others would convene to begin the process of choosing a successor, but a new pope should be chosen in a matter of two or three months.

His successor will play an important role in forging the church's position after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, last year.

  • Pope Shenouda led the Coptic church for more than 40 years
  • He campaigned for the rights of Egypt's Christian minority
  • Coptic Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million population

Copts now face serious challenges; their dream of political inclusion has been made difficult by a string of church burnings and sectarian violence in recent years.

"The young Copts today do not want to be tied or to have their demands within the precincts of the church... There is a new move among the youngsters who want to be emancipated from the church although being very loyal but they do not want to take any instructions anymore."

- Mona Makram-Ebeid, a political science professor, the American University in Cairo

Pope Shenouda's death comes at a time of rising unease for Coptic Christians, who have felt increasingly vulnerable since the fall of Mubarak.

The heightened visibility of Islamists has increased their feeling of marginalisation. The Freedom and Justice party, part of the Muslim brotherhood, will be the biggest party in Egypt's new parliament. The Salafist al-Nur party will have the second largest number of seats.

While Egypt awaits a new constitution to be drafted, Coptic Christians fear equal rights will not be granted. The country's ruling supreme council of the armed forces has pledged to hand over power to an elected civilian government in June.

So, what does the pope's passing mean for Egypt's Coptic Christians? And what are the challenges facing the Christian minority in a post-revolution Egypt?

Joining Inside Story to discuss these issues with presenter Adrian Finighan are guests: Mona Makram-Ebeid, the international secretary for the Social Democratic Party and a political science professor at the American University in Cairo; Bishop Angaelos, the bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria who was consecrated by Pope Shenouda III; and Omar Ashour, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center and the director of Middle East Studies at Exeter University.

"Because of the sensitivity of the period [in Egypt] and because of his absence, there will be major rifts and changes within the community and within the Coptic church as we will see in the coming few months."

Omar Ashour, the director of Middle East Studies at Exeter University

Source: Al Jazeera