Coptic Pope Laid to Rest as Transition Looms
March 20, 2012
Elizabeth Arrott | Cairo
Religious, political and military leaders gathered to pay tribute Tuesday to the late Coptic patriarch Shenouda III, whose death Saturday plunged Egypt's minority Coptic community into grief at a critical time for Egypt's faithful.
Weeping openly, priests chanted and recited prayers at Pope Shenouda's funeral at Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral. The gathering's diverse composition - from generals, sheikhs and billionaires to artists, activists and presidential hopefuls - was a testament to the late patriarch's wide influence and appeal.
Security was heavy, with dignitaries arriving at the invitation-only event by navigating crowds of thousands gathered outside.
For the many Copts on hand, losing their long-time leader just as Egypt enters a fractious political transition dominated by Islamists, an anonymous woman's voice picked up by church microphones evoked a broader concern.
"I'll not tell you I'm not scared,” the unidentified voice said, "but he will be there to pray for us."
With clouds of incense wafting through the cathedral, Shenouda was praised as a man who led the Church for four decades, reaching out across religious lines.
Yosry el-Ezbawy, a scholar of Coptic issues at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Shenouda's successor will have a hard time replicating the delicate balancing act the late pope maintained.
"This will be the main issue facing the next patriarch," Ezbawy argued, "especially as the Islamist parties in power work to shape the new constitution in their favor."
In one of many signs of respect for Shenouda, Islamist lawmakers chastised a handful of members who refused to honor the pope during a session of parliament Monday.
Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, long complained of discrimination under the last government. But inequality can be found in the current legal framework, where even gestures of homage can show insensitivity: When state television announced official mourning for Shenouda, it played verses from the Quran.
El-Ezbawy said Shenouda tried to overcome Copts' marginal status in part by stressing the commonality of his countrymen.
"One of the pope's favorite sayings," El-Ezbawy recalled, "was 'Egypt is not a homeland where we reside, but a homeland that resides in us.'"
He also noted the pope's emphasis on Arab solidarity, pointing to the pope's ties to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and his directive to Copts not to visit Jerusalem because of Israeli annexation.
After the funeral, Shenouda's body was taken to St. Bishoy's for burial, the desert monastery where then-President Anwar Sadat banished him in the early 1980s, in part because of his stand on Israel.
The monastery is expected to be open in coming days to mourners paying last respects, as Egypt's Coptic Christians wonder whether their next leader will be able to navigate the country's turbulent political and religious waters the way Shenouda did.
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