CAIRO: Thousands of grieving Coptic Christians packed St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday to bid farewell to Pope Shenuda III, his body on a wooden throne, as the church considered a new head of the anxious community.
Shenuda died on Saturday aged 88 after a long illness, setting in motion the process to elect a new patriarch for the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
He led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt’s population of more than 80 million, for a whole generation, during which the country was hit by a wave of Islamist militancy from which he sought to protect his flock.
Tens of thousands of mourners converged on the cathedral in a queue that stretched for more than a kilometre (nearly a mile), as military vehicles lined the road outside.
Shenuda’s body, dressed in formal robes with a golden crown on his head and a gold-knobbed staff cradled on his shoulder, was placed upright on the tall ornate papal throne where it will remain sitting in state until the funeral on Tuesday.
A bishop knelt to one side pressing his head to the throne, as thousands of worshippers in black hoping for a final blessing from their spiritual leader took pictures of Shenuda on their mobile phones, amid tears and wails of grief.
State television urged mourners to avoid crowding, saying that they could pay their respects until Tuesday.
“It’s a great loss for Egypt,” Tourism Minister Munir Fakhry Abdelnur, a Copt and a close friend of Shenuda, told AFP.
“He was wise and was widely listened to. He will be missed at a time when we need wisdom and a patriotic spirit.”
Copts nationwide mourned Shenuda, and one woman in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, distraught by his passing, was hospitalised after trying to commit suicide, the official MENA news agency reported. She was in critical condition, it said.
Based on wishes stated in his will, Shenuda will be buried at St Bishoy monastery of Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent time in exile after a dispute with the late president Anwar Sadat, state media reported.
Shenuda’s death comes amid “deep political and societal changes in Egypt,” said Coptic cinema director Daoud Abdel Sayed.
The institution needs a “shake-up, like all Egyptian institutions and that will be possible if the new pope is someone who is able to bring about reforms in the church,” he told AFP.
Bishop Pachomious of the Nile Delta province of Beheira has assumed papal duties for two months until a council of senior clergy meets to choose a new pope, state television said.
The pope would be chosen according to procedures laid out in 1957 church bylaws.
“Egypt Weeps,” read the headline of the state-owned daily Al-Akhbar as others bid “Farewell, Pope Shenuda.”
“Egypt has lost one of its greatest men,” said the Al-Azhar institution in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most prestigious, in a statement. “He is a great loss, a dear friend.”
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi described Shenuda in a statement as “an Egyptian and national personage who took upon himself responsibilities for Egyptians and all Arabs.”
Coptic bishops from around the world have already started to fly in for meetings on the funeral arrangements and succession.
Shenuda had suffered health problems for years, frequently travelling to the United States for medical care.
Recently he stopped receiving treatment for liver failure and tumours or swelling in his lungs because he was too weak, the Coptic Church said.
Condolences flooded in from around the world, with US President Barack Obama hailing Shenuda as an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.
Pope Benedict XVI had offered prayers for Shenuda, the Vatican said.
Muslim leaders in Egypt were also quick to express their condolences.
Shenuda’s death is “a grave calamity that has afflicted all Egypt and its noble people, Muslims and Christians,” the country’s mufti, Ali Gomaa, said in a statement.
Shenuda leaves behind a nervous community, a target of frequent sectarian attacks in recent years, with complaints of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalisation.
Egypt’s Christians are particularly concerned over the rise and increased assertiveness of Islamists, following the uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
Shenuda was placed under house arrest by the assassinated Sadat for his outspoken criticism of the late leader’s courting of Islamists.
But he supported Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, who was overthrown by a popular revolt more than a year ago which led to an Islamist-dominated parliament — the first in Egypt’s history.
Shenuda, instantly recognisable by his long white beard, was believed to have viewed the widely despised Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamists, who believe non-Muslims should not be allowed to rule the country.
He was seen as a check on more radical Copts who urged more forceful reactions to sectarian attacks against their community, especially after Mubarak’s ouster.
SOURCE – AFP