The head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, has died on Saturday at the age of 88, after a long battle against 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.
He was born on 3 August 1923 in Asiut, 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 (parliament's lower house), 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 was also criticized 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 many 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 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 both men.
Sadat was enraged after Shenouda implied that Egyptian Christians were being subjected to discriminatory treatment by authorities.
This outspokenness saw Shenuda placed under house arrest during which the administration of the Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Chucrch was entrusted to a panel of five bishops.
The following month, Sadat was assassinated in an Islamist plot. Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak released him a year later and in 1985 restored his full authority.
He then enjoyed a warm relationship with Mubarak, who was overthrown in a popular uprising in January 2011.
Shenouda heaped praise on the revolution just days after Mubarak was ousted on 11 February. The pope, however, was criticized by many Christians for failing to scold Egypt’s ruling military following the infamous Maspero incident in October last year.
On 9 October, a violent army crackdown against pro-Coptic Christian protesters left at least 29 dead in front of Egypt's state TV and radio building (Maspero).
On Saturday evening thousands of Copts who had gathered at the courtyard of the cathedral were unable 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 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 all 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 last 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) Hussein Tantawi is expected to appear at the Cathedral to offer his condolences while the number two man of SCAF, Sami Annan, is expected to be present throughout the mass. Tantawy gave three days of official holiday to 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 carnage that befell Coptic demonstrators on 9 Octobers while they protested a series of attacks on Coptic churches across Egypt.
Diplomats and some foreign dignitaries are also expected at the funeral which will probably take part at the Abbassiya Cathedral before the coffin is taken to a 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 randomly pick one of them. This way is used in order for the "will of God" to play a role in the process.
By Hatem Maher