Hundreds of clergy and officials packed St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on Tuesday for the funeral service of Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who died aged 88 after a long battle with illness.
Shenouda’s body, dressed in robes and a gold crown, lay in an open coffin as Coptic hymns filled the huge cathedral in central Cairo, where thousands massed outside to pay their respects.
The funeral prayers were led by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Paulos, who flew in from Addis Ababa for the service.
“Because he is resting, does not mean we have lost him,” Abuna Paulos said.
Religious figures from several countries including a Catholic delegation from the Vatican and foreign ambassadors massed in the Orthodox Cathedral as long-bearded Coptic priests wearing bulbous black mitres prayed over Shenouda’s body lying in an open coffin, a golden mitre upon his head and a gold-tipped staff in his hand.
A delegation from the ruling military council and several candidates for Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections attended the funeral. Security was tight, with dozens of police and army trucks scattered around the cathedral and plainclothes police posted on bridges and in streets nearby.
Crowds waited outside, some all night, for a chance to attend the service, which officials had said would be by invitation only.
At one point, the gate to the cathedral compound was opened, causing a stampede into the courtyard, as church officials scrambled to closed the doors again.
A day of national mourning was declared on Tuesday to mark the death of the leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
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 interred.
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.
Coptic Christians, who comprise about a tenth of Egypt’s 80 million people, have long complained of discrimination and in the past year stepped up protests, which included calls for new rules that would make it as easy to build a church as a mosque.
Shenouda strongly opposed Islamic militancy but strove to quell growing anger among Copts at Islamic extremism, attacks on churches and sectarian clashes often sparked by inter-faith romances and church building permits.
The more consensual approach he took in later years has left some Egyptians wondering whether his successor will build on that legacy or seek to counter the new political dominance of Islamists long suppressed by Mubarak, or seek more confrontation in his defense of Copts.
“We need someone who would defend the rights of Christians but through calm diplomatic means that would not create grudges with Muslims or the state,” said Mustapha al-Sayyid, a politics professor at Cairo University.
One of Shenouda’s oft-repeated sayings, also cited in newspapers, was: “Egypt is not a nation we live in, rather it is a nation that lives in us.”