Funeral Held For Pope Of Egypt's Coptic Church

The funeral of Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church took place on Tuesday and tens of thousands of mourners turned out to honor him. Coptic Christian have fears about their vulnerability without the pope, who maintained good relations with the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Egypt, today, Coptic Christian mourners thronged around Cairo's main cathedral. They gathered to say a final farewell to their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III. He was affectionately called Baba, or father, by his followers. Pope Shenouda died Saturday at the age of 88. He spent his final years trying to ease tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was at the large cathedral compound for the emotional funeral.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Soulful chants by the priests of this Orthodox rite blared from speakers outside St. Mark's Cathedral. Black-clad mourners who managed to push their way into the cathedral compound jostled for space in front of large screens broadcasting the funeral.

Only senior clerics and dignitaries were allowed inside the cathedral. One was Pope Paulus. He is Shenouda's counterpart in Ethiopia and led a prayer broadcast on state TV.

POPE PAULUS: He has taught us love, friendship, kindness, goodness, cooperation and purity and sanctity.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

NELSON: Outside the cathedral, that message appeared lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

NELSON: Frustrated mourners who arrived shortly before the funeral banged on the main cathedral gate and yelled to be let inside for one final glimpse of their beloved patriarch but the security guards refused them entry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING)

NELSON: Others, like this woman, who did make it inside but tried to leave, screamed at the guards to let them out. Outside, scores of policemen scuffled with the grieving and frustrated crowd.

Shenouda was a charismatic leader adored by most of Egypt's roughly 10 million Christians. But he kept a strict line on church doctrine, including the ban on divorce. During the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the patriarch gave strong support to the government. That's been harder for Coptic Christians to do since the revolution, given the growing political clout of Islamist hardliners and interreligious violence.

KHALED FAHMY: I think the Coptic community is very anxious.

NELSON: Khaled Fahmy chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo.

FAHMY: Shenouda was their figurehead, was their symbol, and he used to negotiate on their behalf with the authorities and strike deals with the Mubarak regime. And now that he's gone, everything is up in the air.

NELSON: Fahmy predicts with Shenouda gone, Christians in Egypt may not want their future pope to play such a strong political role.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

NELSON: But some Coptic mourners appear to yearn for continuity.

MARINA EZZAT: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: One is 19-year-old Marina Ezzat. The college student says she hopes Shenouda's secretary - a bishop who had been with him for 21 years – would succeed him.

But who the new pope will be is not yet decided. According to Egyptian news reports, church officials will narrow the field down to three candidates. A young child will then be selected to pick one of those three names out of a hat.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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