By Jailan Zayan
By Jailan Zayan
CAIRO, March 20, 2012 (AFP)
Thousands of mourners thronged St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on Tuesday for the funeral service of Pope Shenuda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who died aged 88 after a long illness.
Shenuda’s body, dressed in robes and a gold crown, lay in an open coffin as Coptic hymns filled the huge cathedral, which was packed with clergy from around the world as well as Egyptian ministers, MPs and public figures, both Christian and Muslim.
Crowds waited, some all night, for a chance to attend the service, which officials had said would be by invitation only. Those who could not get in massed outside to pay their respects.
At one point the gate to the cathedral compound was opened, causing a stampede into the courtyard before church officials scrambled to close the doors again.
Prayers were led by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, who flew in from Addis Ababa for the service.
“Because he is resting, does not mean we have lost him,” Abune Paulos said at the emotional service, aired live on television.
Tuesday was declared a day of national mourning in Egypt to mark the death of the leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
Flags were flown at half mast around the country, and an unprecedented security plan has been put in place in the capital and in the Nile Delta province of Beheira where Shenuda will be buried in the 4th century St Bishoy monastery, according to his wishes.
Shenuda leaves behind an anxious flock, amid rising Islamism and political instability in the country since a popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak last year.
Shenuda’s death on Saturday brought tens of thousands of Copts to the cathedral in central Cairo to bid farewell to their spiritual leader.
Ahead of the funeral, the body of Shenuda, dressed in gold, white and crimson robes, a gilded crown on his head, had been placed seated upright on the ornate papal throne, a carved image of Christ behind him and lions standing guard on either side.
Devastated worshippers thronged to catch a final glimpse of “Baba Shenuda,” using their mobile phones to take pictures of him.
Three mourners were crushed to death in the crowd on Sunday, and 137 people injured, prompting church officials to cut short the viewing and close the cathedral to the public.
Shenuda’s death after a long illness set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch, who will lead the community through a critical phase marked by political instability and sectarian tensions.
The new pope will be chosen by a council made up of senior clergy, current and former Coptic public officials, MPs, local councillors and journalists, in a process that could take months.
News of Shenuda’s death caused dismay among Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic population, many of whom credited him with maintaining a cool head during challenging times and helping to prevent widespread sectarian unrest.
But his critics saw him as being too close to the government, refusing to speak up for the community in the face of sectarian attacks, discrimination and harassment.
Named pope of Alexandria in 1971, Shenuda led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, for the best part of a generation. During that time, Egypt was hit by a wave of Islamist militancy from which he sought to protect his people.
Copts have been particularly concerned since Islamist parties, including ultra-conservative Salafists who believe Christians should not rule the country, won almost three-quarters of the seats in the first parliamentary elections since Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising.