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Mourning Pope Shenouda III, Egypt's Coptic Christians fear for their future

CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptian Christians converged on a landmark cathedral here Sunday to bid farewell to Coptic Pope Shenouda III, a protector and father figure to an ancient minority that's now struggling for a place in the new, Islamist-dominated Egypt.

Whether tearful or defiant, Copts said they worried that the loss of 88-year-old Shenouda, who died Saturday after a long illness, leaves space for extremists to widen a devastating sectarian campaign that's persisted for years but worsened since the revolt that unseated President Hosni Mubarak a year ago.

The pope's death comes at an extremely sensitive time, as the ruling Mubarak-era generals and Islamist-led Parliament chart Egypt's future through a new constitution, revised legislation and presidential elections.

Without Shenouda's influential voice, many Copts fear that they'll lose a platform for their longstanding grievances, including bureaucratic obstacles to church-building, violent anti-Christian attacks and the exclusion of Copts from senior political or security posts. And with presidential elections looming in May, Coptic leaders have yet to identify a candidate who's willing to champion their rights before a conservative Muslim electorate.

"Every Copt is asking the other, 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to survive? Are they going to cleanse us from this country because this wise man is no longer here?'" said Ihab Aziz, president of the Coptic American Friendship Association, who left his home in Washington and returned to Egypt a year ago to fight for the inclusion of Coptic rights in the revolutionary agenda.

Dressed in black and carrying portraits of the late patriarch, thousands of mourners filled several city blocks around St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. Riot police formed human cordons to control the masses standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the entrance of the church. Lamentations of "Oh, father! Oh, father!" rose from the crowd.

Late Sunday, the Egyptian health ministry announced the deaths of three people who'd suffocated in the thick crowds at the cathedral.

Coptic boy scouts struggled to maintain order as the mourners crammed through a narrow entrance in hopes of a glimpse of Shenouda, whose body was displayed first in a coffin and later propped on an ornate ceremonial throne. He was dressed in his formal papal robes, with a gold mitre on his head and a staff in hand.

Shenouda's official funeral is Tuesday, according to state media, and he'd requested burial at the same monastery to which he'd been banished in 1981 after criticizing the policies of then-President Anwar Sadat. It could be two months or more before Shenouda's successor is named, through a ritual in which a blindfolded boy selected at random draws a paper from a sealed box containing the names of three finalists approved by church officials.

Copts had traveled from all over Cairo as well as their far-flung enclaves in the Egyptian countryside to pay respects to a man most described as a "protector." There were tears and worries, but also hints of optimism or even defiance rooted in the faith that's sustained them for centuries in often-hostile lands.

"We're not afraid of the constitution, the president or the Islamists," said Ashraf Hanna, 26, a blacksmith. "Our Lord Jesus said we were created as sheep among wolves, and he'll protect us."

Egypt's ruling military council gave Copts three days off from state jobs to mourn their leader — an overture that some critics said should have extended to all Egyptians in recognition of the pope's national stature. Indeed, several Muslims were among the mourners, including two somber-faced coworkers who said they'd come out of respect for a man who tried his best to keep a lid on Egypt's long-simmering sectarian tensions.

"He did not take sides of Copt against Muslim, or vice versa. I loved him," said Mona Mohamed, 56, a secretary whose cheeks were streaked with tears.

"In the recent incidents of sectarian violence, Pope Shenouda stood up and contained the problem," added Maha Mustafa, 37, a nurse who wears the traditional Muslim headscarf.

"He was imposing national unity, and we lost him as much as the Christians did."

For four decades, the pope had worked — with mixed success — to smooth sectarian tensions in Egypt, where even an accurate census of Christians is a fraught ordeal. While most estimates put the Coptic community at about 10 percent of the population of 80 million, Christian activists insist that the real count is nearly double that figure and that Mubarak's regime deliberately withheld tallies to play down the size of their constituency.

Now, some Christian activists say, Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political force in the country, want to keep them as second-class citizens for religious reasons.

"We are concerned about the Islamists' takeover of the Parliament. We're worried about the current political atmosphere," Mounir Yehia, 54, who was a student of the pope's at the Coptic Divinity School. He said that the Islamists "feared him and respected him because of his power and wisdom. He had policies that protected us and made us feel safe, and now I'm afraid those policies will not be as effective."

The Brotherhood and other Islamist factions have vowed to uphold the rights of Copts, and delegations of Islamist leaders visited the ailing Shenouda before his death. The Brotherhood's official website had official statements of condolences describing the late pope as "a symbol of conservative wisdom who dedicated his life to the service of the homeland."

Shenouda, however, wasn't without his critics. Copts at times accused him of being too reticent to fight harder for their demands, and he upset revolutionaries last year by voicing support for Mubarak in his final days.

He later praised the revolutionaries and has since worked with transitional authorities to stop the spasms of sectarian violence that have escalated in the security vacuum left by the regime's collapse.

However, the community's deadliest incident since the uprising came from the authorities themselves. In October, security forces attacked a group of unarmed Coptic demonstrators who tried to stage a sit-in in front of the state television building to protest the demolition of a church. Twenty-seven people died and more than 200 were injured; cameras captured scenes of armored personnel carriers mowing down the protesters.

That incident — and what Copts describe as only a half-hearted investigation into the excessive force — cost the transitional government credibility among Copts.

"Some Copts are worried about their future and are thinking of the conspiracies and plots against them — some of them have every right to be worried — but they should understand that this is a conspiracy against the revolution...not only the Copts," said Marie Daniel, 41, a Coptic activist whose brother Mina was killed in the incident.

Other Copts aren't so sure they'll gain by continuing to support the revolutionaries because they're worried their specific complaints will be sidelined.

Aziz, of the Coptic American Friendship Association, rattled off the gloomy facts his group has compiled: None of the 27 major universities across Egypt has a Coptic president. Only five Copts were elected to Parliament; another five were appointed by the military. Copts have been hauled into court repeatedly on charges of defaming Islam, while anti-Christian slurs such as "infidel" can be heard on TV programs.

Since the uprising, Aziz said, some 200,000 Copts have tried to flee Egypt "on any kind of visa." He prefers they stay and fight for their rights.

"If we end up leaving, this is like religious or ethnic cleansing and we'll lose our country," Aziz said. "We had the Egyptian identity before anybody else."

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed.)


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For more coverage visit McClatchy's Middle East page.

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