Egypt’s military rulers have declared a national day of mourning for the funeral on Tuesday of Coptic Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
Tens of thousands have flocked to Cairo’s St Mark’s Coptic cathedral since Shenouda died on Saturday at the age of 88, to catch a final glimpse of body, which was dressed in golden robes and crown and had been sat upright on the papal throne.
Flags will be flown at half mast, a security official told AFP, as preparations were underway for the funeral service at the cathedral, followed by Shenouda’s burial at the St Bishoy monastery in the Nile Delta.
Tens of thousands of people queued for hours on Sunday to get close to the throne, many weeping and lamenting their loss as the church scrambled to find a new leader of the anxious Coptic community.
Worshippers in black hoping for a final blessing from their spiritual leader took pictures of Shenouda on their mobile phones, amid tears and wailing.
Based on wishes stated in his will, Shenouda will be buried at St. Bishoy Monastery of Wadi al-Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent time in exile after a dispute with the late president Anwar al-Sadat, Egypt’s state media reported.
Shenouda was banished to Wadi al-Natrun Monastery in 1981 by Sadat after he criticized the government’s handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
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 successor would be chosen according to procedures laid out in 1957 church bylaws.
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 council’s 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.
Coptic bishops from around the world have already started to fly in for meetings on the funeral arrangements and succession.
Paying final respects
Interim military rulers paid tribute to the church, visiting the grounds of the Orthodox Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. Head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, visited the cathedral to pay his last respects and promised to air lift Shenouda’s body to where he will be buried.
Condolences flooded in from around the world, with U.S. President Barack Obama hailing Shenuda as an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue.
Pope Benedict, leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, offered prayers after being informed of Shenouda’s death.
“I would like to express to the members of the Holy Synod, to the priests and to the faithful of the Patriarchy, my strongest feelings of fraternal compassion,” said Benedict.
“I can say how much the entire Catholic Church shares the suffering of the Orthodox Copts,” Benedict said in a statement released by the Vatican.
Describing Shenouda as a long-time advocate of unity among Christians, he said the Catholic Church “shares the pain afflicting Orthodox Copts.”
“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.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also offered his condolences, adding that Shenuda “had developed a dialogue with other Christian churches and with Islam in a spirit of tolerance, making a profound mark on the history of his country, Egypt,” according to AFP.
Organization of Islamic Cooperation chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu called Shenuda’s death “a great loss not only to the Coptic Christian community, but for the world at large.”
Muslim leaders in Egypt were quick to express their condolences.
Pope Shenouda III spent the last months of his four decades at the head of Egypt’s Orthodox Church trying to soothe sectarian tensions that have escalated since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.
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.
A report published by Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm on Sunday mentioned that Shenouda’s logic stopped resonating with many Copts after January 2010, when six Copts were killed in a drive-by shooting in the Upper Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi. The attack marked a turning point for many Christians, who accused Mubarak’s government of complicity in sectarian attacks. In the meantime, they began hinting criticism of what they perceived as the Pope’s soft statements on the government.
By the end of the year, hundreds of Copts clashed with Central Security Forces who tried to halt the construction of a church in the poor neighborhood of Omraneya. The incident left one Copt dead and set the first precedent of violence between Mubarak’s police and Christians.
Coptic outrage reached its peak less than two months later when a bombing claimed the lives of at least 21 people outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers were coming out of the New Year Eve’s mass. For the first time, Copts took to the streets denouncing Mubarak’s rule, a clear deviation from the Church’s guidelines.
During the January 2011 revolution, many Coptic youths pursued their rebellious approach by violating the Church’s orders not to engage in protests, which was held as an indicator that the ailing Shenouda was losing his political control over the Christian community.
The report published by Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm wondered will the next pope be capable of filling the same role despite the brewing discontent that rocked the Coptic community in Shenouda’s last two years over the Church’s unwillingness to criticize a state that is widely viewed as “discriminatory” against Christians?
(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)