Thousands of grieving Coptic Christians packed St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday to pay final respects to Pope Shenouda III, his body on a wooden throne who sought to soothe sectarian tension in his four decades atop Egypt’s Orthodox Church but saw increasing flareups in the majority Muslim nation in the last months of his life.
Shenouda 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 people.
Tens of thousands of mourners converged on the cathedral, forming a queue that stretched for more than a kilometer (nearly a mile), as military police jeeps and armored personnel carriers lined the road outside.
Shenouda’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 Shenouda on their mobile phones, amid tears and wails of grief.
State television aired appeals to the mourners to avoid crowding, reminding them that they could pay their respects until Tuesday.
“It’s a great loss for Egypt,” said Tourism Minister Munir Fakhry Abdelnur, a Copt and a close friend of Shenouda.
“He was wise and was widely listened to. He will be missed at a time when we need wisdom and a patriotic spirit,” he told AFP.
The burial is expected to take place at the Wadi el Natrun monastery in the desert northwest of Cairo, where the late pope had requested he be buried.
Shenouda was banished to Wadi el-Natrun monastery in 1981 by then-President Anwar Sadat after he criticized 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.
“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 U.S. president said in a statement issued by the White House.
Obama 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 during his last days and before Mubarak’s ouster by a popular uprising on Feb. 2011, a move that drew some criticism from some members of his church who joined the protests that ousted the president.
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 said the authorities 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.
Such violence has for years been sparked by disputes ranging from rows over church building to inter-faith romances.
The head of Egypt’s ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, granted Christians working in state institutions three days of 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.