Tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians joined a funeral mass for their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, led by senior clerics at the main cathedral in Cairo today.
St. Mark’s was packed with local clerics, visiting clergymen and dignitaries as deacons chanted sombre hymns and bearded, black-clad priests and monks recited prayers and dispensed incense smoke from censers. Shenouda’s body lay in a white casket in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services, complete with an ornate golden crown.
Many in the congregation broke down in tears, while others frantically waved goodbye as the mass came to a close.
Clerics, deacons and lay people gathered around the casket, kissing it, standing in silence or bowing in respect.
Tens of thousands more who could not get in followed the mass outside the cathedral, carrying portraits of Shenouda and crosses. Many wept, wiping tears off their faces as the melancholic tunes of the hymns reached them through loudspeakers.
Scores of military police were deployed to maintain security outside the cathedral, with the normally congested traffic of central Cairo backed up for hours because of the crowds. The cathedral is located on a main downtown artery.
Shenouda died on Saturday aged 88 after spending 40 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. Most of Egypt’s estimated 10 million Christians are Orthodox Copts.
After the mass, Shenouda’s body was ferried to a military airport east of Cairo, from which it was to be flown to the desert St. Bishoy monastery north-west of the capital where he will buried.
The monastery, which dates back to the 4th century, has been a favourite of Shenouda’s. He spent more than three years of exile there after he was banished in 1981 by late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who claimed the patriarch was fomenting sectarian strife. Sadat’s successor, long-time authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, released the Pope in 1985.
Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, declared a nationwide state of mourning.
A successor to Pope Shenouda has yet to be found and it could take months before the complex process is completed.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the nation’s Muslim majority.
The political ascent of Islamists since the ouster of Mubarak a year ago has added to their worries.