Millions of Egyptians are shedding tears over the demise of Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and Patriarch of Saint Mark Diocese, a man hailed as a great patriot.
The frail pontiff passed away on Saturday at the age of 88 after a years-long battle with multiple illnesses. For years, he shuttled between Egypt and the U.S. to receive medical treatment.
The news, though highly expected in view of his deteriorating health condition, came as a shock nonetheless to a nation struggling to find its way ahead after a landmark peaceful revolution that unseated Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power.
Thousands of Egyptians, including many Muslims, flocked to the Orthodox Cathedral, the country’s main cathedral in Abbassiya district of Cairo, to pay their last tribute to the deceased pontiff.
State and private channels aired live coverage from the cathedral where many broke into tears while others prayed in silence holding pictures of Pope Shenouda.
Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the highest seat of religious learning in the Sunni world, offered his condolences to the Egyptian people for such a great loss.
Egypt Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa also mourned the deceased pontiff as a great Egyptian and patriot.
“His holiness lived and died as a loyal patriot to his country,” Parliament Speaker Saad el-Katatni, an Islamist, told a joint meeting of the two chambers of parliament Saturday.
Pope Shenouda, who served as the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Christian Copts for nearly four decades, rightfully earned the nickname Patriarch of Arabia.
He strongly defended Arab causes, especially the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.
He banned Egyptian Copts, estimated at between 10-15 millions, from visiting Christian holy sites in occupied Palestine until its liberation from Israeli occupation.
“We will not enter Jerusalem again, until we go hand-in-hand with our Muslim and Arab brothers,” he once emphatically declared.
The late pontiff also earned the respect and love of many Egyptians for standing tall against calls by some expatriate Copts for foreign intervention to “protect” the Christian minority in Egypt.
He used to say that Copts were not an oppressed minority in Egypt, but rather a marginalized part of society.
He always insisted that the solution to Copts’ problems came from within the country, not through foreign intervention.
For many, including myself, Pope Shenouda will be best remembered for his unwavering love for his country, which he wisely summed up by saying; “Egypt is a homeland that lives in our heart not simply a land that we live on.”
(Ayman Qenawi is a Cairo-based writer and editor.)