Pope of Egypt's Coptic Christian church dead
Pope Shenouda III, the charismatic patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt for 4 decades who expanded its presence worldover and worked to keep peace between the Christians and Muslims at home, has died at the age of 88 after battling liver and lung problems for years.
The Pope died yesterday, amid rising fears for Egypt's 10 million Coptic Christians, who feel increasingly vulnerable in the wake of attacks on churches by hard-line Islamists after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
The health of the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority deteriorated yesterday after he suffered "a severe heart attack", the official MENA news agency reported quoting church sources.
"The last days were the hardest in the Pope's life, as he was unable to walk," it said, citing a church statement.
Tens of thousands of Christians gathered at the main Coptic cathedral here last evening hoping to see his body.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has announced a state of mourning, adding that it will start the burial sermons after the arrival of all the bishops of the Coptic Church from all over Egypt and abroad.
For Copts, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Pope was a religious thinker and a charismatic leader. He was seen as the guardian of community amid tension with the majority Muslim population.
According to the Coptic Church's regulations on choosing a new pope, nearly 2,000 Coptic clergymen and public figures will convene within a week to start the elections process.
Egypt's ruling military council and the grand Mufti of Al-Azhar condoled the demise of the Coptic Pope.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), in a message on its Facebook page, said it hopes that the Pope's wishes of "preserving the unity of Egypt and the unity of its social fabric" will be achieved."I give my sincere condolences to the Coptic brothers at home and abroad," Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said in a statement.
He said Pope Shenouda was a "national character and a symbol for patriotism and he gained wide respect and appreciation from the Egyptian people."
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb expressed his sympathy with the Christian community, saying the Pope was a respected national figure.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said the Pope's life was "a long journey of big contribution in various fields domestically and abroad."
In Washington, US President Barack Obama said the Coptic Pope will be remembered as "a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation."
The Pope was a beloved leader of Egypt's Coptic Christians and an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue, he said. "We stand alongside Coptic Christians and Egyptians as they honour his contributions in support of peace and cooperation."
"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," he said in a statement.
Last January, the Pope underwent his final medical treatment for kidney disease and diabetes in the US. Besides, according to MENA, he was battling liver and lung problems for several years.
The death of the Pope, who this year celebrated the 40th anniversary of his ordination as the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, marked the end of an era in which he played a pivotal role in the unprecedented expansion of the church abroad.
He also oversaw a transformation of the church from a strictly religious institution to a social and political umbrella that endeavored to represent the Copts.