By Reem Abdellatif
CAIRO: Just hours after his announced death on Saturday, thousands of inconsolable Coptic Christians flocked to the Cairo and Alexandria Cathedrals, uniting to mourn the death of a leader and “father” figure, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria.
Shenouda’s body, dressed in a golden crown and formal robes, with a gold knobbed staff cradled on his shoulder, was placed upright on the papal throne in the Cairo Cathedral where it will remain on display until his funeral on Tuesday.
Based on wishes stated in his will, Shenouda will be buried at St. Bishoy monastery of Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent his time in exile after a dispute with late president Anwar Sadat.
In Cairo, thousands of people crushed through the Cathedral doors on Saturday and Sunday, showing their cross-tattooed wrists to pass through, a symbol many Coptic Christians use to distinguish themselves in a predominantly Muslim society.
Many shared words of grief, some consoled each other, while others shared their concerns.
“Be patient,” said one young man as a group of men pushed and yelled at each other to enter the Cathedral in the Abbaseya district of Cairo. “If you aren’t going to put up with each other now, when will you learn?” he asked with lament.
Not only was Shenouda the spiritual leader of the community, but the 88-year-old also served as a representative of the Coptic Christians when it came to political issues.
An adamant supporter of ousted president Hosni Mubarak from 1981-2011, Shenouda believed in “keeping the peace,” known by his followers for his words of wisdom, love and patience.
While critics saw him as limiting the representation of the Christian community to one figure, many Coptic Christians saw Shenouda as the bridge, communicating their worries to the country’s predominant Muslim leaders.
“He taught us to be forgiving even towards our enemies,” Mounir Yehia, a 54-year old cleric at the Cairo Cathedral, told Daily News Egypt.
“This is terrifying. He was not only our leader, but a father to us all,” Yehia said with a devastated, solemn look on his face.
Kamil Seddiq, the secretary of the Melli Council of the Orthodox Church in Alexandria, said the Pope’s death was “a big loss to the Egyptian people, Muslims before Christians. He was known for his patriotism and his concern for the unity of the nation.”
As Church leaders flocked to Cairo for the Tuesday funeral — and Cairo Airport was preparing to receive foreign dignitaries — Seddiq said the Alexandria Cathedral will set a date later to receive condolences. All prayers held in churches across the country now are unofficial and are the result of individual efforts in an ode to the Pope, he said.
According to the Church’s bylaws drafted in 1957, less than 2,000 prominent Church and community leaders including bishops, archbishops and heads of monasteries will be deciding on Shenouda’s successor.
In the meantime, the grief-stricken Coptic community will continue through this “worrying” phase, as Egypt’s political and social arena remain unpredictable.
With Egypt’s first presidential election since the ouster of Mubarak slated for May, and as drafting the new constitution gets underway, Yehia fears that there will be nobody to speak on behalf of the Coptic minority, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85 million.
As Egypt continues to undergo political changes since the January 25 uprising in 2011, last Christmas, for the first time ever, Shenouda sat down inside the Cairo Cathedral with leaders of Muslim Brotherhood, whose political arm dominates the country’s post-revolution parliament.
“There is a radical Islamist front moving in on Egypt and their ideas are worrying, because they are reaching so many people so fast,” said Yehia. “Even some of our Muslim brethren reject these radical ideas, so you can imagine how worrying this is as we begin to draft our first constitution.”
For many Copts, Shenouda was their voice and their savior.
“He used to represent the Copts in front of the regime figures, nobody could do that but him,” said Hanan Fikry, a young founding-member of the One Nation for Development and Freedom, a non-government organization that pushes for participation of Egyptian Christians in the public sphere.
In the eyes of the Coptic community in Egypt and around the world, this was a man who truly loved and cared for the Christian community in Egypt, a people who often feel voiceless and vulnerable, struggling to be heard.
“Even if we didn’t agree with some of his politics, we can’t deny his accomplishments, whether representing us in front of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or the parliament,” said Fikry, who had slammed the SCAF for their responsibility in the killing of 27 protesters during an October crackdown on a mostly Coptic demonstration.
Members of SCAF also attended the Christmas celebrations at the Cathedral in January.
“The country’s leaders need to tread lightly now when dealing with the Coptic community, because they have become orphans,” she added.
But, despite their grief over the loss of Shenouda, who has been Egypt’s Coptic Pope for the past 40 years, Egypt’s Christians are hopeful that the patriarch’s departure will push more members of the community to stand up for their rights.
“Since after the revolution, the Copts have found their way out of the Church and started asking for their rights. The Pope’s death will make Christians even bolder and braver when demanding their rights on their own,” said Fikry.
She was concerned, however, that the SCAF, who respected the Copts out of reverence for Pope Shenouda, might turn their backs on the Coptic community.
But for Fikry, the Coptic community itself is changing.
“We are starting to see ourselves as Egyptians, not just followers of the Pope. We saw the [path] to ask for our rights.”
Similarly, Andrew Isaak, a 25-year-old Christian activist and filmmaker, hopes that the Pope’s departure will encourage Egyptian Christians to revolt within the Church against any leader they find oppressive or unrepresentative of their concerns.
“I hope that whoever replaces him never interferes in politics. What is being said about the Pope now, regarding his involvement and support for the regime should be a warning to the coming Pope of the consequences of getting involved in politics,” said Isaak.
He was referring the criticism directed at the late Pope for his support of the Mubarak regime. Muslim clerics as well as church leaders had advised citizens against participating in the 2011 uprising that eventually toppled Mubarak.
Isaak believes that because Shenouda was a pious leader and a giving man who truly loved the Coptic community, his political “mistakes” which kept the Christian community quiet for decades will not be remembered.
“He will only be remembered for his good deeds, which are plenty. But I want to see the Coptic community go out into the streets and demand their rights,” he added.
“I want to see the Coptic Community revolt and demand their own rights, not to follow the orders of a religious leader who tells them when to protest and when not to speak.” –Additional reporting by Abdel-Rahman Youssef in Alexandria.
Tens of thousands flock to the Cathedral in Cairo on Sunday. (Daily News Egypt Photo/Hassan Ibrahim)