(Washington Post / AP) Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church who led Egypt’s Christian minority for 40 years during a time of increasing tensions with Muslims, died March 17 at his residence in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. He was 88.
The state news agency MENA reported his death. He had suffered from cancer and liver and lung problems for several years.
Pope Shenouda’s death comes amid a deepening sense of vulnerability among Egypt’s estimated 10 million Christians. Islamic movements have grown increasingly powerful since Hosni Mubarak’s toppling as president last year.
Recent months have seen a string of attacks on the community, heightened anti-Christian rhetoric by ultraconservatives known as Salafists and fears that future governments will try to impose strict versions of Islamic law.
Tens of thousands of Christians packed into the cathedral Saturday evening in hopes of seeing the pope’s body. Women in black wept and screamed. Other mourners, unable to enter the overcrowded building, gathered outside.
President Obama called Pope Shenouda “a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation.”
“His commitment to Egypt’s national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together,” Obama said in a statement.
“Baba Shenouda,” as the pope was known to his followers, headed one of the most ancient Christian churches in the world. The Coptic Church traces its founding to Saint Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st century.
For Egypt’s Christians, Pope Shenouda was a charismatic leader — his smiling portrait was displayed in many Coptic homes and shops — and a conservative religious thinker who resisted calls by liberals for reform.
Above all, many Copts saw him as the guardian of their community amid the Muslim majority in Egypt, a country of more than 80 million people. Christians there have long said that they face discrimination and that police generally fail to prosecute those behind anti-Christian attacks.
Pope Shenouda’s method was to work behind the scenes. He sought to contain Christians’ anger and gave strong support to Mubarak’s government. He avoided pressing Coptic demands too vocally in public to prevent a backlash from Muslim conservatives. In return, Mubarak’s regime allowed the church wide powers within the Christian community.
In the past year, young and liberal Christians have grown increasingly outspoken in their criticism of Pope Shenouda’s approach, saying it brought little success in stemming violence or discrimination. Moreover, they argued, the church’s domination over Christians’ lives further ghettoized them, making them a sect first, Egyptian citizens second.
Pope Shenouda clashed with the government in 1981, when he accused then-President Anwar Sadat of failing to rein in Islamic militants. Sadat said the pope was fomenting sectarianism and sent him into internal exile. Sadat was assassinated later that year by militants, and Mubarak ended Pope Shenouda’s exile in 1985.
After Mubarak’s fall, Salafists grew more vocal, accusing Christians of seeking to convert Muslim women or even take over the country. Several churches were attacked by mobs. Christian anger was further stoked when troops harshly put down a Christian protest in Cairo in October, killing about two dozen people.
In an unprecedented move aimed at showing unity, leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood and top generals from the ruling military joined Pope Shenouda for services for Orthodox Christmas in January at the Cairo cathedral.
“For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt,” Pope Shenouda told the gathering. “They all agree . . . on the stability of this country and on loving it, working for it and working with the Copts as one hand for Egypt’s sake.”
During the first post-Mubarak parliament elections, the Coptic Church discreetly urged followers to back a liberal, secular-minded political bloc, an unusual political intervention aimed at balancing religious parties. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly half the seats in parliament and now dominates the political scene. Salafists won about another fifth of the seats.
In a session of Egypt’s parliament following Pope Shenouda’s death, Speaker Mohamed Saad Katatny, a Brotherhood member, praised the pope, calling him a “man respected among Coptic Christians and Muslims” for his love of Egypt and his opposition to Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem. Under a long-standing order, Pope Shenouda barred his followers from pilgrimages to Jerusalem as a protest of Israel’s hold on the city.
Pope Shenouda was born Nazeer Gayed on Aug. 3, 1923, in the city of Assiut. After entering the priesthood, he became an activist in the Sunday School movement, which was launched to revive Christian religious education.
He became a monk at age 31 and spent six years in a monastery. After the death of Pope Kyrillos VI, he was elected to the papacy in 1971 and took the name Shenouda.
The naming of Pope Shenouda’s successor could take up to three months. A synod of archbishops, bishops and lay leaders will form a committee to select three candidates. The names will be put in a box and a blindfolded acolyte will pick one — a step meant to be guided by the will of God.