Egyptian Coptic mourner holds Pope Shenouda's poster Saturday night at Saint Mark's Cathedral (Photo: Mostafa Ali)
"Our fate is in the hands of God. We are praying for things to go in the right direction. Of course with Pope Shenouda we were safe, because he always protected our rights and spoke for our problems. Now we don’t know what the future will bring," said Abnoub, a 28-year-old Coptic Christian.
Speaking from the courtyard of the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya as he joined thousands of Copts who arrived there to pay their last respects to the deceased patriarch of the Coptic Church, Abnoub recalled challenging days for the Copts in Egypt during the past year.
He referred to attacks on churches and Copts that were so vile they shocked the entire society. He spoke anti-Coptic incitement that appeared to gain hold. "And in the face of all of this (Pope Shenouda) knew how to act and how to convey Coptic anger without getting us into complicated confrontations."
Abnoub, like other Coptic mourners whose hearts were broken with the sad news announced Saturday, 17 March, that Shenouda had died, felt compelled to be present to pay his respects at the funeral mass. He is planning to take part in the burial ceremony at Wadi Al-Natroun Monastery.
Abnoub, like many other Copts, especially those of the younger generation who have known no other patriarch for their church than Shenouda, eyes the future with some trepidation.
"We need someone as strong as Pope Shenouda and as wise as Pope Shenouda to defend our rights as a minority in this country," said Irine, a Coptic women, 20 years old. "If the next pope is not strong then nobody would pay attention to our rights — our rights to have our churches and to have jobs like all other citizens without discrimination."
Irine and Abnoub have faith, saying the choice of Shenouda's successor is in the hands of God. But both say they hope that Bishoi — the effective right arm of Pope Shenouda and a man known for his stern positions — will become the next patriarch.
"It is a very delicate moment for us now, I mean with all this rise of political Islamist trends. Some are moderate but some are certainly not," said Dalia, a Coptic woman in her late 40s.
Dalia was not planning to join the thousands who have been rushing to Abassiya to pay tribute to their beloved pope. She preferred to say a prayer from her home. But like many of those present in Abassiya, Dalia is worried for the future.
Dalia hopes that Moussa — another close confidante of the deceased patriarch — takes to the pope's chair. Unlike Bishoi, Moussa is known for his more lenient approach.
"Polarisation is harmful at this moment and we need to have faith, and not to show strength," she said.
Dalia is not sure that she wants another Pope Shenouda, although she insists that he proved to be a firm leader in times of distress. She favours a future leadership that is closer in style to Pope Kyrolos, Shenouda's predecessor, who was known more for his spirituality than his wit and taste for politics.
"I was never comfortable with the idea of getting the church too involved in political issues. I think this turned against the Copts somehow because ultimately many Copts felt that they were more Copts than Egyptians. This was very unfortunate," said Dalia.
Acknowledging the challenges faced by Copts in Egypt throughout the years of Pope Shenouda, and admitting that society grew more sectarian in nature during the past few decades, Dalia is still convinced that projecting Copts as Copts rather than Egyptians was a mistake that should be rectified.
"Today, after the revolution, there is hope to rectify this situation … despite the rise of political Islamist trends, because as you can see not all Muslims are supporting these trends," said Dalia. "If you want to be a true Christian you cannot fight hatred with hatred. You have to give love, even in the face of hatred. And to be quite honest, hatred is not really all around us," she added.