CAIRO – Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians turned out across Egypt on Sunday to mourn Pope Shenouda III and reflect on the sharpening tensions Christians here face, as Islamists have risen in power since last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Shenouda, who died Saturday at 88, led the Coptic Orthodox Church for more than 40 years. He was looked upon as a spiritual, social and sometimes political leader who guarded the rights of Egypt’s minority Christian population in a region prone to religious discord.
“He is leaving us in a very difficult time for Copts and the whole country in general. Even some Muslims are afraid of the political future, let alone us Copts in case we are ruled by Islamists,” said Boutros Gad Allah, a Coptic jeweler. “His presence in critical situations for Copts was always crucial, but we know that God will leave us in someone else’s safe hands.”
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of around 82 million, have long complained of discrimination and oppression in a country where Sunni Muslims make up the absolute majority. Since his first day as pope in 1971, Shenouda had no fear of publicly pressuring politicians for Copts’ rights. In 1981, he blamed then-President Anwar Sadat for not protecting Christians from violence carried out by radical Islamists.
More recently, he attempted to calm religious tensions after Mubarak’s downfall, which sparked a surge of persecution against Christians.
With Islamists making up the majority in parliament and three Islamists among potential candidates for Egypt’s first presidential election in decades, the future of Copts’ rights in Egypt seems tenuous, despite Islamist candidates’ assurances that imposing Shariah, or Islamic law, will provide equality for Christians and other minorities.
Church officials announced Sunday that Bishop Pachomious would take over the papal duties until a new pope is chosen in two months.
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