“Why did you forsake me” has been echoing since yesterday evening across the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya, where hundreds flocked to pay their last respects to the Coptic patriarch, who headed the church of around 10 million Copts for over four decades.
“I have no one left now that you left me; why did you leave me, father?” wailed Bahiga, an elderly lady of Upper Egyptian origin who rushed to the cathedral from the poor neighbourhood of Ezbatennakhl on the outskirts of east Cairo. In black from head to toe, the tearful elderly lady said that during the hardest times of her life, when she lost her family and an only child, it was only a meeting with Pope Shenouda, some 20 years ago, that kept her going by reviving her faith and determination.
At the Coptic Cathedral on Saturday 17 March, Bahiga was not only there to pay her last respects but also to accept the condolences of the hundreds and hundreds of Copts who gathered in the courtyard of the Cathedral. Shaking hands with men and women as they arrived in the church, Bahiga was still praying for the soul of the patriarch who had joined the kingdom of the Lord days before Coptic Easter – the day on which Jesus was resurrected.
"Oh father why have you left us; why father – why," cried Samah, 21, who rushed to church from his class at Cairo University after receiving an SMS with the news from a friend. Though he is making ends meet on a very limited budget, Samah could not wait to board the underground but took a taxi that gobbled up his entire weekly transport budget because he thought there was a chance he might be allowed to see the pope, who for him was not just a patriarch but "a family, a source of inspiration and a refuge in times of crisis." When Samah lost one of his best friends in the carnage against Coptic demonstrators, protesting attacks on churches on 9 October, it was the words of Pope Shenouda that gave him solace and faith that Coptic Christians in Egypt would not be forsaken. "Those were very hard times and he was angry and he was in pain but he gave us all faith and strength," said Samah.
Faith and strength in hardest times were exactly that sentiments that Samir, 75, and his wife Haniyah, 70, had always found in the presence of Pope Shenouda, whether when he received them privately to console them for their inability to have children or when they attended his sermons, which they did on a very regular basis. Like many Coptic Christians present at the cathedral, Samir and Haniyah were not very concerned about who would be named patriarch because, as they both said, iIt will be the will of God". As Haniyah put it, "We just want to say goodbye to him, and we want to pray for him as he had always prayed for us."
Having been at the cathedral for four hours, Samir and Haniyah were too tired to sustain a long evening of mourning. They decided to go home, pray for the night, and join other mourners Sunday morning for the beginning of a long process preceding the funeral planned for Tuesday.