Egyptian Coptic Christians touch an image of the late Pope Shenouda III… (Nasser Nasser, Associated…)
Reporting from Cairo — Millions of Coptic Christians turned out across Egypt on Sunday to mourn Pope Shenouda III and reflect on the sharpening tensions Christians here face as Islamists have risen in power since last year's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Shenouda, who died Saturday at age 88, led the Coptic Orthodox Church for more than 40 years. He was looked upon as a spiritual, social and sometimes political leader who guarded the rights of Egypt's minority Christian population in a region prone to religious animosities.
"He is leaving us in a very difficult time for Copts and the whole country in general. Even some Muslims are afraid of the political future, let alone us Copts in case we are ruled by Islamists," said Boutros Gad Allah, a Coptic jeweler. "His presence in critical situations for Copts was always crucial, but we know that God will leave us in someone else's safe hands."
Copts, who make up about 10% of Egypt's population of around 82 million, have long complained of discrimination and oppression in a country where Sunni Muslims make up the absolute majority. Since his first day as pope in 1971, Shenouda had no fear of publicly pressuring politicians for Copts' rights. In 1981, he blamed then-President Anwar Sadat for not protecting Christians from violence carried out by radical Islamists.
More recently, the late pope attempted to calm religious tensions after Mubarak's downfall, which sparked a surge of persecution against Christians, including an attack by soldiers and thugs that left at least 27 people dead at a Coptic protest in October. Many worry whether his successor will have the moral authority and political instincts to lead the church in increasingly difficult times.
"I've always looked up to Pope Shenouda like my godfather. I could disagree with my biological father but not with the late pope," said Nabil Kamal, a 46-year-old engineer from Cairo. "His opinions about religion and various aspects of life were like sacred orders to me and many Copts. It was not just because he was our pope, but rather because he made sense and was convincing in pretty much everything he said or did."
With Islamists making up the majority in parliament and three Islamists among potential candidates for Egypt's first presidential election in years, the future of Copts' rights in Egypt seems tenuous, despite Islamist candidates' assurances that imposing sharia, or Islamic law, will provide equality for Christians and other minorities.
Tens of thousands of Copts flocked toward St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, where Shenouda's body, which was placed upright in a throne, will be kept until its burial Tuesday.
Egyptian authorities announced a period of public mourning and were keen to show that the nation's military and Muslim leaders were in solidarity with Christians. The grief expressed in state-run and private media appeared to surpass the coverage given when Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand sheik of the Islamic world's top Sunni Muslim institution, Al Azhar, passed away in 2010.
Church officials announced Sunday that Bishop Pachomious would take over the papal duties until a new pope is chosen in two months.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.