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 disturbed by 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. Some wept, including billionaire Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris, an outspoken critic of Islamic radicalism.
“I am so sad of course and many of my Muslim relatives are sad as well,” said Muslim university student Iman, who was dressed in black and wearing a black veil as she stood in a throng of mourners outside the cathedral. “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 was due to be flown to the Wadi el Natrun desert monastery northwest of Cairo, where he spent several years of prayer, contemplation and abstinence and had asked to be buried.
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 popular uprising that overthrew the autocratic leader in February last year. 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 defense in national unity - must endure.
One of Shenouda’s oft-repeated sayings, also cited in newspapers, was: “Egypt is not a nation we live in, rather it is a nation that lives in us.”
“All we can say now is that all senior priests are followers of Pope Shenouda and most of them were led by him to join the church, and when whoever of them takes the position of pope they will follow Shenouda’s path,” said Father Anglos Ishaq, head of the Coptic church on Egypt’s north coast.
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.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians have paid their respects at the cathedral since Shenouda died. For much of the time, his body was placed in a seated position on a ceremonial throne dressed in gold and red embroidered vestments.
On Sunday, the cathedral closed its doors several times in an attempt to contain the crowds. Two mourners were killed by the crowding crush and exhaustion, medical sources said.
Shenouda became the 117th Pope of Alexandria in 1971. The line began with the church’s founding by the apostle Mark in the year 55, according to Coptic belief. He presided over a rapid increase in the number of Coptic churches abroad and signed a declaration of common faith with Catholic Pope Paul VI in 1973.
Shenouda was banished to Wadi el Natrun in 1981 by then-President Anwar Sadat after criticizing the government’s handling of an Islamic insurgency in the 1970s and Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Sadat was assassinated a month later.
Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Mark Heinrich