Egypt Copts say farewell to pope
CAIRO (AFP) - The body of Coptic Pope Shenuda III was on Tuesday due to arrive at its final resting place in a 4th century monastery in the Egyptian desert, after a funeral service in Cairo attended by thousands.
Worshippers lined the entrance to the St Bishoy monastery in Wadi Natrun, some climbing on walls to catch a glimpse of the coffin which was flown from Cairo on a military aircraft.
A funeral service for Shenuda had been held at St Mark's cathedral in central Cairo earlier.
The patriarch died on Saturday aged 88 after a long battle with illness, leaving behind a community increasingly anxious about the rise of Islamism and political uncertainty.
During the funeral service, Shenuda's body, dressed in robes and a gold crown, lay in an open coffin as patriarchs of Orthodox churches said prayers.
Pallbearers struggled to get the white coffin out of the vast cathedral.
They had to push through a sea of mourners who threw rose petals and waved white lilies, amid near hysterical scenes as others pressed forward to try to touch the coffin, causing it to tilt several times.
Coptic hymns and incense filled the church as clergy, officials and choirboys wept and waved goodbye to their spiritual leader, the head of the Middle East's largest Christian community.
Members of Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces attended the service as well as the speaker of parliament, Saad al-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and several Egyptian ministers, MPs and public figures, both Christian and Muslim.
Crowds waited, some all night, for a chance to attend the service, which officials had said would be by invitation only. Those who could not get in massed outside to pay their respects.
At one point, the gate to the cathedral compound was opened, causing a stampede into the courtyard before church officials scrambled to close the doors again.
Prayers were led by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, who flew in from Addis Ababa for the service.
"Because he is resting does not mean we have lost him," Abune Paulos said at the emotional service, aired live on television.
Tuesday was declared a day of national mourning.
Flags were flown at half mast around the country, and an unprecedented security plan was put in place in the capital and in the Nile Delta province of Beheira, where St Bishoy monastery is located.
Shenuda's death brought tens of thousands of Copts to the cathedral to bid a final farewell.
Ahead of the funeral, the body of Shenuda, dressed in gold, white and crimson robes, a gilded crown on his head, was placed seated on the ornate papal throne, a carved image of Christ behind him and lions standing guard on either side.
Devastated worshippers thronged to catch a final glimpse of "Baba Shenuda," using mobile phones to take pictures of him.
Three mourners were crushed to death in the crowd on Sunday, and 137 people were injured, prompting church officials to cut short the viewing and close the cathedral to the public.
Shenuda's death set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch, who will lead the community through a critical phase marked by political instability and sectarian tensions.
The new pope will be chosen by a council made up of senior clergy, current and former Coptic public officials, MPs, local councillors and journalists, in a process that could take months.
News of Shenuda's death caused dismay among Egypt's beleaguered Coptic population, many of whom credited him with maintaining a cool head during challenging times and helping to prevent widespread sectarian unrest.
But his critics saw him as being too close to the government, refusing to speak up for the community in the face of sectarian attacks, discrimination and harassment.
Named pope of Alexandria in 1971, Shenuda led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, for a generation. During that time, Egypt was hit by a wave of Islamist militancy from which he sought to protect his people.
Copts have been particularly concerned about the political fallout from the Arab spring uprising that ousted veteran president Hosni Mubarak in February last year.
Islamist parties, including ultra-conservative Salafists who believe Christians should not rule the country, won almost three-quarters of the seats in the first parliamentary elections since the revolt.