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 Saturday. He was 88.
The state news agency MENA said Shenouda died Saturday after battling liver and lung problems for several years, and a doctor who treated him several years ago said he suffered from prostate cancer that had spread to his lungs. He died at his residence in the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, several figures close to the pope said.
Tens of thousands of Christians packed into cathedral to mourn Saturday evening. Women in black wept and screamed. Some, unable to get into the overcrowded building, massed outside, raising their hands in prayer. “The Coptic Church prays to God that he rest in peace between the arms of saints,” a scroll read on a Coptic TV station, CTV, under a picture of the patriarch.
“Baba Shenouda,” as he was known to his followers, headed one of the most ancient churches in the world, tracing its founding to St. Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st Century.
For Egypt’s estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, he was a charismatic leader, known for his sense of humour — his smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops — and a deeply conservative religious thinker who resisted calls by liberals for reform.
Many Copts saw him as the guardian of their community living amid a Muslim majority in this country of more than 80 million people.
Shenouda sought to do so by striking a conservative balance. During the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, he gave strong support to his government, while avoiding pressing Coptic demands too vocally in public to prevent a backlash from Muslim conservatives. In return, Mubarak’s regime allowed the Church wide powers among the Christian community.