CAIRO (Reuters) - Thousands of mourners packed Cairo’s main cathedral on Tuesday for the funeral of Pope Shenouda, who spent his final years trying to comfort a Coptic Orthodox community worried about the rise of political Islam in Egypt.
Shenouda, who died on Saturday aged 88, promoted religious harmony, winning respect among the Muslim majority, but his last years witnessed a growth in sectarian tension that worsened with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last year.
“I can’t tell you how much sorrow I have inside me. This was a great, great man and it will be hard to find anyone like him again,” said Ivon Mosaed, a 52-year-old Christian Copt who heads an educational institute offering foreign languages courses.
Religious leaders from across the world, including a delegation of senior Catholics from the Vatican, joined thousands of Copts in the Orthodox Cathedral.
Long-bearded priests wearing bulbous black mitres prayed over Shenouda’s body that lay in an open coffin, a golden mitre on his head and a gold-tipped staff in his hand.
A uniformed delegation from Egypt’s ruling military council and several candidates for the upcoming presidential elections attended the funeral. Security was tight, with dozens of police and army trucks positioned outside and plainclothes police posted on bridges and in streets nearby.
Prayers, conducted in Egypt’s ancient liturgical Coptic language that predates the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, were led by Bishop Bakhomious, head of a church district in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, who will hold the post of pope for two months until a new leader is elected.
Mourners’ repeated prayers echoed around the cathedral’s tall, white nave adorned with gleaming gold icons.
“I am so sad of course and many of my Muslim relatives are sad as well,” said university student Iman. “He was a decent Egyptian man who was also known for being very wise.”
Shenouda’s body was driven away to a military air base and then flown to the Wadi el Natrun desert monastery northwest of Cairo, where he had spent several years of prayer, contemplation and abstinence and had asked to be buried.
Police struggled to keep away crowds wanting to touch Shenouda’s coffin as it was carried by tens of weeping priests and mourners to a small chamber in one of the monastery’s halls where the coffin was rested and covered with roses.
Egypt has seen less of the religious violence that prompted members of ancient Christian communities to migrate from Iraq and other Arab countries.
But Coptic Christians, who comprise about a tenth of Egypt’s 80 million people, have long complained of discrimination.
Shenouda strongly opposed Islamic militancy yet also strove to quell growing anger among Copts over attacks on churches, sectarian clashes sparked by inter-faith romances, family feuds and disputes over church building permits.
His task grew harder on New Year’s Day last year when 23 people were killed in a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria that the authorities blamed on Islamic militants based in Gaza.
Many Copts accused the government of failing to protect them from a clearly growing menace, a stance that sat uneasily with Shenouda’s support for Mubarak.
The sense that Shenouda had been overtaken by events grew with the uprising that overthrew Mubarak. Some Muslim leaders also offered Mubarak their public support during his last days in office.
Occasional sectarian clashes have erupted since the uprising and at least 25 people died in October when Christians fought military police in central Cairo.
Shenouda’s successor will need to deal with a new political establishment dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement long banned under Mubarak. The Brotherhood’s political party swept recent parliamentary elections on the promise of a more Islamic society.
Some Muslims reacted angrily in 2010 to comments from one Coptic bishop that appeared to call into question the authenticity of some Koranic verses. Shenouda issued a formal apology for the comments, calling them “inappropriate”.
Bishop Bishoy, who heads the church in the Nile Delta towns of Damietta and Kafr El-Sheikh, has been named by some Coptic media as one of three potential candidates for pope.
“I am so worried about who will come after Shenouda as Shenouda was curbing Christians but now they could feel more free to make more demands and cause us problems,” said Maha, a veiled 21-year-old Muslim medical student.
It remains unclear whether the Coptic church will lean towards a more assertive stance. Its message for now is that Shenouda’s legacy - a church leadership that sees its best defence in national unity - must endure.
Egyptian media said board members of the Church’s city councils would vote to choose three candidates to replace Shenouda. A young child would make the final choice by picking one of those three names out of a hat, the media said.
Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Mark Heinrich