Coptic Pope Shenuda III in a picture dated October 20, 2008. Photo: AFP
Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenuda III, spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, died yesterday at the age of 88, state television and cathedral sources said.
The cause of death was not immediately clear, but the Christian leader has suffered health problems for years.
State television reported he was 89, but the pope was born in August 1923, which would make him 88 at the time of death.
The official MENA news agency said Shenuda suffered from several diseases, including liver problems and tumours or swelling in the lungs.
He was forced to cancel a weekly sermon last week over health concerns.
Named Coptic pope of Alexandria in 1971, Shenuda led the Copts, estimated at 10 per cent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, for the best part of a generation that saw Egypt hit by a wave of Islamic militancy from which he sought to protect it.
News of Shenuda’s death was certain to cause dismay among Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic population, many of whom looked up to him as a spiritual guide.
He was placed under house arrest by former president Anwar Sadat for his outspoken criticism of Sadat’s courting of Islamists.
But Shenuda was supportive of Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown by a popular uprising more than a year ago which led to an Islamist-dominated parliament – the first in the country’s history.
Shenuda, immediately recognisable by his long white beard, was believed to have viewed the widely despised Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamists who believe Copts should not be allowed to rule the country.
He was seen as a check on more radical Copts who urged more forceful reactions to sectarian attacks that have plagued their community, especially after Mubarak’s ouster.
Theologically, Shenuda was conservative, slamming a court decision calling on his church to allow divorce.
Shenuda, whose community is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches that recognise the primacy of neither the Catholic papacy nor the Eastern Orthodox patriarchate, maintained a keen interest in promoting church unity.
He served as head of both the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, and founded churches in several African countries.