St Mark's Cathedral in central Cairo packed for ceremony after Coptic Christian leader's death on Saturday, aged 88
Hamza Hendawi and Maggie Michael in Cairo
Tuesday 20 March 2012
Tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians join a funeral
mass for their pope in Cairo
Tearful and wearing black, 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.
St Mark's Cathedral 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.
Shenouda died on Saturday aged 88 after 40 years at the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world's oldest Christian denominations. Most of Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians are Orthodox Copts.
Many in the congregation broke down in tears, while others frantically waved goodbye as the mass came to a close.
Clerics, deacons and laypeople 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 crosses and portraits of Shenouda. 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, on one of central Cairo's main arteries, with traffic backed up for hours because of the crowds.
"I know he is now in a better place, but it is difficult now he's gone. We miss you," said a grief-stricken Marianne Saad as she stood in the crowd outside the cathedral.
"After God, he was our only protector," lamented another young woman in the crowd. "We will miss him, but he will always be in our hearts," said a young Christian man, Hani Suleiman.
After the mass, Shenouda's body was ferried to a military airport east of Cairo, from where it was to be flown later on Tuesday to the desert St Bishoy monastery north-west of the capital, where he will buried.
The monastery, which dates back to the 4th century, was a favourite of Shenouda's.
Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, declared a nationwide state of mourning on Tuesday.
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 ousting of Hosni Mubarak a year ago has added to their worries.
"Words, my beloved, can never do Pope Shenouda justice. He left us an example of leadership that we should all follow," a senior cleric said in an address to the congregation. "It is because of him that we have national unity with our Muslim brothers."
During his 40 years as patriarch, Shenouda strove to ensure his place among the Muslim powerbrokers, pressing demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check. It was a delicate balancing act.
Shenouda maintained a high media profile, giving interviews, speaking on key domestic and regional developments and never showing anger at times of crisis.
Egyptian authorities deny any discrimination, but Christians say it happens in numerous and subtle ways. Christians, for example, rarely assume leadership jobs on the police force, particularly the security agencies. The Islamist-dominated parliament only has a handful of Christians, and there are never more than one or two Christians among 30-plus cabinet ministers.
As Egypt grew more religiously conservative over the past 40 years, the discrimination became more manifest in everyday life, particularly when Christians came into direct contact with government departments or enrolled their children at state schools, where Islamists often dominate teaching staff.