Pope of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church dies

By Aya Batrawy

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 17 2012 12:21 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Monday, May 20, 2002 file photo, Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, speaks to reporters following the opening session of the 14th General Conference of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's state news agency says Pope Shenouda III, head of Coptic Christian church, has died.

Amr Nabil, Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt — Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church who led Egypt's Christian minority for 40 years during a time of increasing tensions with Muslims, has died. He was 88.

The state news agency MENA said Shenouda died Saturday after battling liver and lung problems from several years. A Coptic Church TV station ran a picture of the pope, with a running feed reading, "The Coptic Church prays to God that he rest in peace between the arms of saints."

The patriarch, known in Arabic as Baba Shenouda, headed one of the most ancient churches in the world, which traced it founding to St. Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st Century during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero.

For Egypt's estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, he was a religious thinker and a charismatic leader, known for his sense of humor — his smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops.

Above all, many Copts saw him as the guardian of their minority living amid a majority Muslim population in this country of more than 80 million people.

Shenouda sought to do so by striking a conservative balance. During the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, he gave strong support to his government, while avoiding pressing Coptic demands too vocally in public to prevent a backlash from Muslim conservatives.

After Mubarak's fall a year ago, Christians grew increasingly worried over the rising power of Muslim conservatives. Islamic hard-liners carried out a string of attacks on churches, and their clerics gave increasingly dire warnings that Christians were hoarding weapons and seeking to take over the country. Christian anger over the violence was further stoked when troops harshly put down a Christian protest in Cairo, killing 27 people.

In an unprecedented move aimed at showing unity, leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood along with top generals from the ruling military joined Shenouda for services for Orthodox Christmas in January at Cairo's main cathedral.

"For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt," Shenouda told the gathering. "They all agree ... on the stability of this country and in loving it, and working for it and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt."

Still, a sector of Christians — particularly among youth who supported the revolution against Mubarak — grew critical of Shenouda, saying his conservative approach was not doing enough to stem what they saw as growing anti-Christian violence and discrimination against their community.

In recent years, the aging patriarch traveled repeatedly to the United States for treatment. Yasser Ghobrial, a physician who worked at a Cairo hospital when the pope was treated there in 2007, said he suffered from prostate cancer that spread to his colon and lungs.

The pope, who rose to his position in 1971, clashed significantly with the government once: In 1981 then-President Anwar Sadat sent him into internal exile in the desert monastery of Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo, after Shenouda accused the government of failing to rein in Muslim extremists. Sadat, who was assassinated later that year by Islamic militants, accused Shenouda of fomenting sectarianism. Mubarak ended Shenouda's exile in 1985, allowing him to return to Cairo.

But the incident illustrated the bind of Egypt's Christians. When they press too hard for more influence, some in the Muslim majority accuse them of causing sectarian splits. Many Copts saw Mubarak as their best protection against Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim Brotherhood — but at the same time, his government often made concessions to conservative Muslims to keep their support.

During the 1990s, Islamic militants launched a campaign of violence, centered in southern Egypt, targeting foreign tourists, police and Christians until they were put down by a heavy crackdown. Pope Shenouda managed to contain the Coptic community's anger over the killings.

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