Tens of thousands of tearful Copts bade farewell to Pope Shenouda III during the patriarch’s funeral Tuesday in Cairo’s main cathedral of St. Mark’s.
Throngs of mourners gathered inside and outside the cathedral as deacons and long-bearded priests dressed in black chanted funeral hymns while the pope’s body lay in an open coffin, draped in a white robe, his head topped with the traditional golden crown he wore when leading services and masses.
“This is a massive loss, not just to Copts, but to the whole country,” Rami Ghobrial, a 21-year-old student. “He worked so hard for all of us and most of all to maintain national unity between Copts and Muslims.”
Christians outside the cathedral carried Shenouda’s posters, chanting “farewell, our pope” and “farewell, you guardian of national unity.” The funeral, attended by a delegation from the ruling military council, a number of presidential hopefuls, Islamic clerics and representatives of the Vatican, was led by Bishop Pachomious, who is temporarily taking over papal duties until a new pope is chosen in two months.
Heavy security prevented thousands of other devout Copts from swelling into the cathedral. Two Christians died and several were injured Sunday when hundreds of mourners pushed and shoved to get a final glimpse at Shenouda’s body, which was kept in repose at St. Mark for two days.
The late pope’s body was then taken from the cathedral to Almaza Airport northeast of Cairo before it was flown to its final destination at the Wadi el Natrun monastery in the remote desert west of the Nile Delta.
Shenouda, who became the leader of the Orthodox Church in 1971, peacefully fought for Copts’ rights in the face of rising political Islam and extreme Wahhabism imported to Egypt from neighboring Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and ’80s.
He was banished to the Wadi el Natrun monastery on more than one occasion, most famously after clashing with former President Anwar Sadat over the Camp David peace accord with Israel in 1979 and sectarian violence incidents in Cairo.
The Mubarak era saw more of a consensus between the then-president and Shenouda. Both feared growing strains of political and militant Islam, and the pope regarded Mubarak’s secular government as a bulwark against extremism. But Muslims, activists and young Copts criticized the pope for a quiet alliance with a corrupt regime known for human rights abuses.
The last decade of Shenouda’s life was marred by recurrent sectarian violence between Copts and Muslims over interfaith marriage and obstacles Christians faced in obtaining licenses to build new churches. Shenouda, nonetheless, kept his moderate stance in calling for national unity while pushing for wider Christian rights.
“Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” the pope often said.
“Not once have we heard him saying anything bad or disrespectful about a Muslim or Islam, and that’s why I am coming here today to show respect for the man,” Muslim mourner Khaled Hassan said.
The pope’s death comes at a time of both political and religious uncertainty in Egypt, as the country’s Coptic minority — about 10% of the population — anxiously awaits the outcome of the presidential election, especially after Islamists won 70% of the seats in parliament in January.