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Pope Shenouda III, leader of Egypt’s Coptic Christians

Associated Press

Pope Shenouda III blessed a child in Cairo in 1995.

CAIRO, Egypt - 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.

His death comes as the country’s estimated 10 million Christians are feeling more vulnerable than ever amid the rise of Islamic movements to political power after the toppling a year ago of President Hosni Mubarak. The months since have seen a string of attacks on the community, heightened anti-Christian rhetoric by ultraconservatives known as Salafis and fears that coming governments will try to impose strict versions of Islamic law.

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Tens of thousands of Christians packed the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo on Saturday evening hoping to see his body. Women in black wept and screamed. Some, unable to get into the overcrowded building, massed outside, raising their hands in prayer.

“He left us in a very hard time. Look at the country and what’s happening now,’’ said Mahrous Munis, a Christian IT worker in his 30s. “Copts are in a worse situation than before. God be with us.’’

Munis’ friend, Sherif Sabry, interrupted. “He was our rock. God help us find someone who can fill his place.’’

An archbishop later announced to the crowd that the funeral would be held in three days, and in the meantime Pope Shenouda’s body would be displayed in the cathedral, sitting in the Mar Morqos - or St. Mark - throne from which the pope in his elaborate regalia traditionally oversaw services.

The pope died in his residence at the cathedral, and the state news agency MENA said he had been battling liver and lung problems for several years. Yasser Ghobrial, a physician who treated Pope Shenouda at a Cairo hospital in 2007, said he suffered from prostate cancer that spread to his colon and lungs.

“Baba Shenouda,’’ as he was known to his followers, headed one of the most ancient churches in the world. The Coptic Church traces its founding to St. Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century.

For Egypt’s Christians, he was a charismatic leader, known for his sense of humor - his smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops - and a deeply conservative religious thinker who resisted calls by liberals for reform.

Above all, many Copts saw him as the guardian of their community living amid a Muslim majority in this country of more than 80 million people. Christians have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens, saying 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, 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.

In the past year, young and liberal Christians grew increasingly overt in their criticism of his approach, saying it brought little success in easing violence or discrimination. Moreover, they argued, the Church’s domination in Christians’ lives further ghettoized them, making them a sect first, Egyptian citizens second.

“This was the mistake of Baba Shenouda and his predecessor. The state wanted to deal with Christians through one person,’’ said prominent Christian columnist, Karima Kamal.

“We want the state to deal with Christians as citizens and for the Church to step aside,’’ she said. “Christians are increasingly dealt with just as a sect.’’

Pope Shenouda had one significant clash with the government, in 1981 when he accused President Anwar Sadat of failing to rein in Islamic militants. Sadat said Pope Shenouda was fomenting sectarianism and sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo. Sadat was assassinated later that year by militants. Mubarak ended Pope Shenouda’s exile in 1985.

The incident illustrated the bind of Egypt’s Christians. When they press too hard for more influence, some Muslims accuse them of causing sectarian splits. Many Copts saw Mubarak as their best protection against Islamic fundamentalists - but at the same time, his government often made concessions to conservative Muslims.

After Mubarak’s fall, ultraconservative Salafis grew more vocal, accusing Christians of seeking to convert Muslim women or even take control of the country. Several churches were attacked by mobs. Christian anger was further stoked when troops harshly put down a Christian protest in Cairo, killing 27 people.

In an unprecedented move aimed at showing unity, leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood along with 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 late last year, the 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 to dominate the political scene. Salafis won another fifth of the seats.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political party offered condolences “to the Egyptian people and its Christian brothers.’’

Parliament speaker Saad el-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 pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a protest of Israel’s hold on the city.

Under church law, the process of choosing the pope’s successor can take up to three months, though an interim leader will be picked within a week. A synod of archbishops, bishops and lay leaders will then form a committee to come up with three candidates. The names are then put in a box and a blindfolded acolyte picks one - a step meant to be guided by the will of God.

Mourners at the cathedral were told that the pope would be buried in the Bishoy Monastery.

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