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.
But in the past six years, Muslim-Christian violence has flared repeatedly. On the eve of New Year's 2000, sectarian battles killed 21 Copts and a Muslim in the southern village of el-Kusheh. The northern city of Alexandria twice saw sectarian bloodshed recently — in 2005 when Muslims rioted over an anti-Islamic play put on in a church, and again in early 2006 when Christians rioted over a series of knife attacks at Coptic Christian churches.
Shenouda largely worked to contain anger among Copts. But in one 2004 incident, he stepped aside to allow Coptic protests in an effort to win concessions from the government.
The protests were sparked when Wafa Constantine, the wife of a Coptic priest, fled her home to convert to Islam. Many Christians accused police of encouraging Christians to convert — or even kidnapping them and forcing them to do so.
While Copts protested, Shenouda isolated himself at the Saint Bishoy monastery north of Cairo until the government intervened to ensure Constantine returned home. She was later quoted as saying she converted to Islam because she wanted a divorce from her husband, which is banned by the Coptic Church.
For other Coptic demands, Shenouda has preferred back-channel efforts with the government — but has met limited success. Copts have pressed for a greater representation in government, but their numbers remain small.
At the same time, Christian emigration has increased tremendously, fueled chiefly by the growing influence of conservative Islam in Egyptian society. Coptic immigrants in the United States, Canada, and Australia number an estimated 1.5 million, and the number of Coptic churches abroad has grown from two to more than 100, according to the pope's official Web site.
At home, Shenouda has been challenged by secular Copts who call for reform in the church and reducing the role of clergymen in Christians' life. Many secularists argue that the clergy's dominance over every single aspect of Christians lives has fed their sense of separation from Egypt's Muslims, just as Islamic clerics have on the other side of the divide.
Shenouda has kept a strict line on church doctrine — including the ban on divorce, except in cases of adultery.
The big remaining question is with the absence of the charismatic pope, who will be able to fill the vacuum.
A church insider said that an internal power struggle have been looming over the church, between of the top archbishops and close Pope assistants: Archbishop Bishoy and Johannes; both of them are rallying supporters to win more votes in the election of the new Pope.
Shenouda was born Nazeer Gayed on Aug. 3, 1923, in the southern city of Assiut. After entering the priesthood, he became an activist in the Sunday School movement, which was launched to revive Christian religious education. At the age of 31, Gayed became a monk, taking the name Antonious El-Syriani and spending six years in the monastery of St. Anthony. After the death of Pope Cyrilos VI, he was elected to the papacy and took the name Shenouda.
He is an author of many books, and over the past three decades he has kept the custom of giving a Wednesday lecture. Throughout, he insisted on the Copts' place in Egypt, where they lived before the advent of Islam.
"Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us," he often said.