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3 suffocate in crowd as mourners pay last respects to Egypt’s Coptic pope

Ismail Zetouny/Reuters

Christians gathered in Cairo’s Abbasiya Cathedral Sunday to pay final respects to Pope Shenouda III, head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, where his body was displayed for public viewing. He led the church for 40 years.

CAIRO - Three mourners died of suffocation Sunday while paying their final respects to Egypt’s Coptic Christian spiritual leader, a church official said.

Anba Younnes said the three died inside Cairo’s main Abbasiya cathedral. Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians lined up outside the cathedral Sunday to pay their final respects to the spiritual leader of their ancient church, whose embalmed body was seated inside on an ornate throne.

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The grief of the faithful filing past Pope Shenouda, who died Saturday at 88, may also reflect the uncertainty felt by the country’s Christian minority after the recent rise of Islamists to power.

In his death, Egypt’s 10 million Christians have lost a seasoned protector at a bad time.

“He has been our protector since the day I was born,’’ said a tearful Antonios Lateef as he waited in line to take one last look at the pope, who spent 40 years at the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The crowds outside the cathedral in central Cairo carried crosses and portraits of Shenouda. “Ya Allah!’’ or “Oh God!,’’ they chanted in unison.

Soldiers backed by armored personnel carriers deployed outside the cathedral, possibly as a deterrent to possible attacks by militant Muslims targeting the large number of Christians gathered or angry over the traffic disruptions they caused.

Shenouda, seated on the throne of St. Mark, or Mar Morkos, was clad in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services, and he held a scepter. He will be buried Tuesday.

During his 40 years as patriarch, Shenouda strove to ensure his place among the main players in this mainly Muslim nation, pressing demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians’ anger over violence and discrimination in check.

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