CAIRO -The Associated Press
Egyptian Coptic clerics touch the casket containing the body of Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority. AFP photo
Tearful and wearing mourning black, tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians joined yesterday 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 full with local clerics, visiting clergymen and dignitaries as deacons chanted somber 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.
Many in the congregation broke down in tears, while others frantically waved goodbye as the mass came to a close. Tens of thousands more who could not get in followed the mass outside the cathedral, carrying portraits of Shenouda and crosses. 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.
Shenouda died on March 17 at age 88 after spending 40 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox
Church, one of the world’s most ancient Christian denominations. Most of Egypt’s estimated 10 million Christians are Orthodox
Copts. After the mass, Shenouda’s body was ferried to a military airport east of Cairo, from which it was to be flown later yesterday to the desert St. Bishoy monastery northwest of the capital where he will buried.
Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, declared a nationwide state of mourning yesterday. 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 ouster of Mubarak a year ago has added to their worries.