Egyptian Christians mourn Orthodox pope Shenouda III

Thousands queued at cathedral where Shenouda’s body is on display before funeral of 117th pope of Alexandria

Egyptian Christians have gathered to pay their final respects to Pope Shenouda III, who sought to soothe sectarian tension in his four decades leading the country’s Orthodox church but saw escalating clashes in the last months of his life.

Shenouda served as the 117th pope of Alexandria from November 1971, leading the Orthodox community who make up most of Egypt’s Christians. He died on Saturday aged 88 and his funeral will be held on Tuesday, Egyptian state media reported.

Barack Obama offered his condolences and Pope Benedict, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, offered prayers.

After Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president last year, Shenouda regularly called for harmony and met Muslim and other leaders. Christians comprise about a tenth of Egypt’s population and have long complained of discrimination, stepping up their protests in the past year including calling for new rules that would make it as easy to build a church as a mosque.

Thousands queued in Cairo’s Abbasiya district overnight and on Sunday morning at the cathedral where Shenouda’s body was initially laid in a coffin and later seated on a ceremonial throne wearing gold and red embroidered religious vestments, a golden mitre on his head and holding a gold-topped staff.

He was popular among many of Egypt’s Christians even outside the Orthodox church, as well as among many Muslims. However, some Christian activists said Shenouda should have pushed the state harder to secure more rights for Christians.

The burial is expected to take place at the Wadi el Natrun monastery in the desert north-west of Cairo, where the late pope had requested he be buried.

In 1981 Shenouda was banished to the monastery by the then president, Anwar Sadat, after he criticised the government’s handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

Under Mubarak’s rule, relations between the government and the Coptic church were generally smooth, with the pope portrayed in state media as a symbol of religious harmony, despite occasional outbreaks of sectarian violence.

Obama said: “We will remember Pope Shenouda III as a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation. He said Shenouda had been committed to national unity and was “a beloved leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians and an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.”

Shenouda publicly supported Mubarak in the last days before the president was removed by a popular uprising in February 2011, a stance that drew criticism from some members of the church who joined the anti-government protests. Some Muslim leaders also backed Mubarak in his last days.

Christians have long complained about rules that put more restrictions on building a church than a mosque and also say they have been discriminated against in the workplace. Christians have accused hardline Islamists of attacking churches and say officials have failed to step in to protect them, although experts say some recent incidents have been fuelled by local grudges as well as sectarian tensions.

The head of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, granted Christians working in state institutions three days mourning, state media reported.

Bishop Bakhomious, head of the church of Bahaira, a district in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, will temporally hold the post of pope for two months until a new leader is elected.

Egyptian media described the procedure for choosing a new pope as one based on a system of voting by board members of the church’s city councils. The councils vote on three preferred candidates, and the final choice is made when a name is picked out of a box by a young child, the media said. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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