(Photo: Reuters/Ismail Zetouny)
The Coptic Orthodox church of Egypt prepared for the funeral of Pope Shenouda III on Sunday, a day after the leader of the Christian minority for four decades died of longtime illnesses. President Barack Obama remembered him as an advocate for tolerance and harmony.
Shenouda wanted to be buried at the St. Bishoy monastery in Wadi Natrun, Nile Delta, and his church, which has about 10 million members in Egypt, will fulfill his wishes, local media reported.
The body of the 88-year-old patriarch, dressed in formal robes, will be laid in an open coffin in Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral until Tuesday, the government-run Al-Akhbar newspaper announced. Shenouda, who had suffered from cancer and kidney problems for years, regularly flew to America for medical treatment in recent years.
"Michelle and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III, a beloved leader of Egypt's Coptic Christians and an advocate for tolerance and religious dialogue," President Obama said in a statement Saturday. "We stand alongside Coptic Christians and Egyptians as they honor his contributions in support of peace and cooperation."
The president said Pope Shenouda would be remembered "as a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation." His commitment to Egypt's national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together, Obama added.
Shenouda's death comes at a time when the people of his community have been facing growing attacks by Islamist extremists since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak last year.
Shenouda oversaw a global expansion of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. When he was elected as the 117th pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Sea of St. Mark in 1971, there were only four Coptic Orthodox churches in all of the United States. During his leadership, more than 200 churches were built in North America alone. He also opened churches in Europe, South America, Asia and Africa.
Shenouda met the Pope of Rome in 1973 and the two leaders signed a common declaration on Christology and agreed to have more discussions on Christian unity. Shenouda also oversaw dialogues with Protestant churches worldwide. "The whole Christian world is anxious to see the church unite. Christian people, being fed up with divisions, are pushing their church leaders to do something about church unity and I am sure that the Holy Spirit is inspiring us," Shenouda said at the International Week of Prayer in 1974.
Shenouda's church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, a distinct church body since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 due to its differing position over Christological theology from that of the Orthodox Church.
The Coptic pope gave the church a social and political vision. Soon after his ordination, Shenouda opposed then President Anwar Sadat's pro-Islamist policies. He spoke against what he called discrimination against Copts by the state.
Shenouda was put under house arrest at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, where he will be buried, for four years in the early 1980s. While some accused the Coptic pope of being acquiescent to Mubarak's regime, others believe he found his erstwhile aggressive approach counterproductive.
After the 2010 parliamentary election, Shenouda was believed to have gone closer to the liberal opposition Wafd party as opposed to the Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which reportedly failed to save Copts from sectarian attacks. However, in the wake of the Jan. 25 revolution, Shenouda again supported Mubarak and drew criticism from sections of his church.
Born Nazeer Gayed Roufail, the Coptic leader assumed the name Shenouda, which was the name of a Coptic saint and two previous popes. The church will now elect a new leader.
The Coptic church's 1957 bylaws say the pope is elected by bishops, former and current Coptic cabinet members and lawmakers, Coptic notables, and Coptic newspaper owners and editors. After the vote, a blindfolded child chooses the pope from the three candidates with the highest number of votes. A candidate must be at least 40 years old and have spent at least 15 years in monastic life.