The head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, died Saturday aged 88 after a long battle with illness.
The Coptic patriarch suffered from back and kidney problems for years and repeatedly travelled to the United States for medical treatment. "Pope Shenouda died from complications in health and from old age," his political adviser, Hany Aziz, said.
Shenouda was born 3 August 1923 in Assiut, Upper Egypt, and has been the Pope of Alexandria since November 1971 when President Anwar El-Sadat was in power.
"We lost today a great icon. His presence was crucial in repelling many threats against the country,” Amin Eskandar, a member in the People’s Assembly (the lower house of parliament), said in a phone call with state television channel Nile News.
"His patriotism and wise approaches to any issue were very helpful. May God compensate us for the loss of that great man.”
Pope Shenouda was widely acclaimed by Christians and Muslims alike in recent years for his regular efforts to contain sectarian tensions following a number of incidents, some involving the burning of churches, but he was also criticised for turning the church into a political entity.
He was also known for his support of Palestinian rights in the decades-long Middle East conflict. Because of these and other stances, he was often described as an Arab nationalist by observers.
In 2001, he famously stated he would never visit Jerusalem unless he entered the country with a Palestinian visa along with Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the late Grand Imam of Egypt’s foremost Muslim religious authority, Al-Azhar.
"I was full of admiration for the great patriotic stances he took throughout his life,” said Mohamed Refaa El-Tahtawy, the former spokesman of Al-Azhar. "I remember his great remarks about the visit to Jerusalem, when he refused to go there under the Israeli occupation,” he added.
Relationship with Sadat, Mubarak
Shenouda had a frosty relationship with late Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat, who placed him under house arrest in 1981, marking the climax of repeated disputes between the two. Sadat was enraged after Shenouda implied that Egyptian Christians were subject to discriminatory treatment by authorities.
His outspokenness saw Shenouda isolated and the administration of the Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church entrusted to a panel of five bishops. The following month, Sadat was assassinated in an Islamist plot. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak released him from house arrest a year later and in 1985 restored his full authority.
Shenouda then enjoyed a warm relationship with Mubarak. But he heaped praise on the revolution that overthrew the president just days after the latter departed on 11 February 2011.
Some, however, were critical of his role in the post-Mubarak Egypt. The pope was criticised by many Christians for failing to scold Egypt’s ruling military council following the infamous Maspero incident in October last year when more than two dozen Copts were killed in street confrontations with the army.
But on Saturday evening, thousands of Copts gathered in the courtyard of Abbasiya Cathedral aiming to pay their last respects to the deceased patriarch. "We are not sure when this will be possible,” said one source. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
Another source indicated that no one would be admitted into the presence of the dead pope until the day of the funeral, “which will be held on Tuesday, three days from now, to make time for followers of the pope to come form across Egypt and from abroad.”
By Saturday evening, most presidential hopefuls, who had by and large made an effort to frequent Coptic mass since the end of the Mubarak regime, were offering their condolences.
"With one or two exceptions we expect all presidential hopefuls to be present in the funeral mass," added the source, indicating that all state bodies, political parties and groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had already contacted the church. "Many have been asking how they might pay their respects and participate in the funeral mass."
Meanwhile, official and church sources said a high level state representation is scheduled for the funeral mass. The head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is expected to be at the cathedral to offer his condolences, while SCAF's second in command, Sami Annan, is expected to be present throughout the mass.
Tantawi decreed three days of official mourning for Copts.
Annan and several SCAF members were invited to attend Christmas Mass on 6 January despite the outrage of the Coptic public at the military’s conspicuous involvement in the tragedy that befell Coptic demonstrators on 9 October while they protested a series of attacks on Coptic churches across Egypt.
Diplomats and some foreign dignitaries are expected at the funeral which will probably take place at the Abbassiya Cathedral before the coffin is taken to the monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun for burial.
“We offer our deep condolences to every one of our Christian brothers for the loss of Pople Shenouda,” Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said in a statement. “May God help all our Christian brothers overcome this ordeal and bring a successor who can keep promoting the sense of unity between all citizens,” he added.
An Egyptian army statement said that the Pope was a "rare statesman who worked with all of his energy to promote the wellbeing of the nation."
Bishop Bakhomious (Pachomious) of Behera will head the Coptic Orthodox church for an interim period of two months. The General Congregation Council, which is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, will nominate three bishops, one of which is to succeed Pope Shenouda III.
The names of the three bishops will be written on three papers, and a child will pick one, unseen, from a box. This method is used in order for the "will of God" to play a role in the process.