Coptic Christians left feeling vulnerable by loss of their leader of 40 years as Muslim parties gain power after Mubarak’s fall
Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has died aged 88 after 40 years spent leading Egypt’s Christian minority during a time of increasing tensions with Muslims.
Tens of thousands of Christians packed into the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo on Saturday evening hoping to see his body. Women in black wept and screamed. Some, unable to get into the overcrowded building, massed outside, raising their hands in prayer.
His death comes as the country’s estimated 10 million Christians are feeling more vulnerable than ever amid the rise of Islamic movements to political power after the toppling a year ago of President Hosni Mubarak. The months since have seen a string of attacks on the community, heightened anti-Christian rhetoric by ultra-conservatives known as Salafis and fears that coming goverments will try to impose strict versions of Islamic law.
“He left us in a very hard time. Look at the country and what’s happening now,” said Mahrous Munis, a Christian IT worker in his 30s who was among the crowds. “Copts are in a worse situation than before. God be with us.”
An archbishop announced to the crowd that the funeral would be held in three days’ and in the meantime Shenouda’s body would be put on display in the cathedral, sitting in the Mar Morqos or St Mark throne from which the pope in his elaborate regalia traditionally oversaw services.
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. Yasser Ghobrial, a physician who treated Shenouda at a Cairo hospital in 2007, said he had prostate cancer that spread to his colon and lungs.
Barack Obama paid tribute to Shenouda as “an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue”.
“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,” the American president said in a statement. “His commitment to Egypt’s national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together.”
“Baba Shenouda” as he was known to his followers, headed one of the most ancient churches in the world. The Copts traces their faith’s origins to St Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st century.
For Egypt’s Christians he was a charismatic leader, known for his sense of humour. His smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops. He was also a deeply conservative religious thinker who resisted calls by liberals for reform.
Above all, many Copts saw him as the guardian of their community. Christians have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens, saying they face discrimination and that police generally fail to prosecute those behind anti-Christian attacks.
Shenouda sought to contain Christians’ anger and gave strong support to Mubarak’s government, while avoiding pressing Coptic demands too vocally in public to prevent a backlash from Muslim conservatives. In return Mubarak’s regime allowed the church wide powers among the Christian community.
In the past year young and liberal Christians grew increasingly overt in their criticism of his approach, saying it brought little success in stemming violence or discrimination. Instead the church’s domination over Christians’ lives further ghettoized them, making them a sect first, Egyptian citizens second.
“This was the mistake of Baba Shenouda and his predecessor. The state wanted to deal with Christians through one person,” said prominent Christian columnist Karima Kamal.
“We want the state to deal with Christians as citizens and for the church to step aside,” she said. “Christians are increasingly dealt with just as a sect.”
After Mubarak’s fall, ultraconservative Salafis grew older and more vocal, accusing Christians of seeking to convert Muslim women or even take over the country. Several churches were attacked by mobs. Christian anger was further stoked when troops harshly put down a Christian protest in Cairo, killing 27 people.
In an unprecedented move aimed at showing unity, leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood along with top generals from the ruling military joined Shenouda for services for Orthodox Christmas in January at the Cairo cathedral.
“For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt,” Shenouda told the gathering. “They all agree … on the stability of this country and on loving it, working for it and working with the Copts as one hand for Egypt’s sake.”
The Brotherhood’s political party has offered its condolences “to the Egyptian people and its Christian brothers”.
Parliament speaker Saad el-Katatny, a Brotherhood member, praised the pope in an evening session, calling him a “man respected among Coptic Christians and Muslims” for his love of Egypt and his opposition to Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. Under a longstanding order Shenouda barred his followers from pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a protest against Israel’s hold on the city.
Under church law the process of choosing Shenouda’s successor can take up to three months, though an interim leader will be picked within a week. A synod of archbishops, bishops and lay leaders will then form a committee to come up with three candidates. The names are then put in a box and a blindfolded acolyte picks one a step meant to be guided by the will of God.
Two leading contenders are close associates of Shenouda. Archbishop Bishoy, head of the Holy Congregation, the main clerical leadership body, is seen as the more conservative figure; Archbishop Johannes, the pope’s secretary, is younger in his 50s and seen as having a wider appeal among youth.
Shenouda was born Nazeer Gayed on 3 August 1923 in the southern city of Assiut. After entering the priesthood he became an activist in the Sunday School movement, which was launched to revive Christian religious education.
At the age of 31, Gayed became a monk, taking the name Antonious El-Syriani and spending six years in the monastery of St Anthony. After the death of Pope Cyrilos VI he was elected to the papacy in 1971 and took the name Shenouda.
He kept a strict line on church doctrine including the ban on divorce, except in cases of adultery in the face of calls by secular and liberal Copts for reform, including reducing the role of clergymen in Christians’ life.
Archbishop Moussa told mourners at the cathedral that Shenouda would be buried at the Bishoy Monastery.
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