Egypt is in mourning for the patriarch of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda, who died Saturday at the age of 88. The Coptic community is preparing both for his funeral and a future made more uncertain by the political ascendancy of Islamists.
Coptic mourners lined for hours outside Cairo's main cathedral to pay their last respects to the only patriarch most had ever known. Pope Shenouda's 40-year tenure as patriarch of the Coptic Church reinforced for many not only their place in the religious sphere, but also the political landscape of an increasingly Islamist Egypt.
Cairo resident Nashaat Nagy stood with his patient young daughter in the crowds that filled the main streets and alleyways around Abassaya cathedral.
“We come to see our beloved Pope Shenouda for the last time," he said. "We knew him for 40 years. He's the only one we trusted in Egypt.”
Rise of Islamists
Shenouda's death Saturday comes at a crossroads for the country's estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, as some, like mourner Wadie Agaiby, worry about the rise of political Islam after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
“It's a very difficult time for us, this time, because it's a different time, a difficult time," said Agaiby. "We don't know what we are going to do.”
Shenouda, the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, led his church with what many in the crowd said was a kind but strong hand. He was able to navigate the often treacherous religious politics of his era. He was banished by President Anwar Sadat in the early 1980's to a desert monastery, where he will be buried Tuesday, but returned to forge a careful path with President Mubarak. He balanced support for the government with a conservative, some say insular approach, that bound his faithful but avoided most conflict with the nation's majority Muslims.
But conflict came, with attacks on Christians over the years becoming stronger again since the uprising. The violence came both from extremists and the government itself. At least 26 people died in October during a police crackdown on a Coptic protest in Cairo.
Outside the cathedral Sunday, Coptic priest Bemen Shakr spoke of Shenouda's optimism and faith even during the most difficult times.
Shakr said that Shenouda relied on three phrases when facing such problems: “they will be eventually solved, everything heads towards the good, and the Lord is there.”
The priest added the presence of a new pope will be especially important in the coming months, as Egypt drafts a new constitution and elects a new president. The naming of the next patriarch is expected after a 40 day period of mourning.
With the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafis dominating parliament, questions about their intentions mixed with expressions of grief among the Coptic mourners. Will a stricter form of Sharia, or Islamic law, become the basis of post-revolution Egypt? Will the Arab world's largest Christian community see a flight to the West like other Middle Eastern Christians in recent decades?
Ezzat Sobhy, a banker who came out to Abassaya to pay his last respects to Shenouda, said “I will not lie to you. There is fear.”