CAIRO — Tearful and wearing mourning black, tens of thousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians joined Tuesday a funeral mass for their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, led by senior clerics at the main cathedral in Cairo.
St. Mark's Cathedral was packed full with clerics, visiting clergymen and dignitaries as deacons chanted somber hymns and bearded, black-clad priests and monks recited prayers and dispensed incense smoke from censers. Shenouda's body lay in a white casket in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services, complete with an ornate golden crown.
Many in the congregation broke down in tears, while others frantically waved goodbye as the mass came to a close.
Clerics, deacons and laypeople gathered around the casket, kissing it, standing in silence or bowing in respect.
Tens of thousands more who could not get in followed the mass outside the cathedral.
"After God, he was our only protector," lamented a young woman in the crowd.
Shenouda died on Saturday at age 88 after spending 40 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world's most ancient Christian denominations. Most of Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians are Orthodox Copts.
Shenouda's body will be flown later on Tuesday by helicopter for burial in the desert St. Bishoy monastery northwest of Cairo. The monastery, which dates back to the 4th century, has been a favorite of Shenouda's.
Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, declared a nationwide state of mourning on Tuesday.
A successor to Pope Shenouda has yet to be found and it could take months before the complex process is completed.
Egypt's Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the nation's Muslim majority. The political ascent of Islamists since the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a year ago has added to their worries.
"Words, my beloved, can never do Pope Shenouda justice. He left us an example of leadership that we should all follow," a senior cleric said in an address to the congregation. "It is because of him that we have national unity with our Muslim brothers."
During his 40 years as patriarch, Shenouda strove to ensure his place among the main players in this mainly Muslim nation, pressing demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check. It was a delicate balancing act.
Shenouda maintained a high media profile, giving interviews, speaking on key domestic and regional developments and never allowing himself to show anger at times of crisis.
Egyptian authorities deny any discrimination, but Christians say it happens in numerous and subtle ways. Christians, for example, rarely assume leadership jobs on the police force, particularly the security agencies. The Islamist-dominated parliament only has a handful of Christians, and there are never more than one or two Christians among 30-plus Cabinet ministers.
As Egypt grew more religiously conservative over the past 40 years, the discrimination became more manifest in everyday life, particularly when Christians came into direct contact with government departments or enrolled their children at state schools, where Islamists often dominate teaching staff.
The pope, accustomed to the monastic traditions of Egypt's unforgiving desert, had on occasion protested what he perceived to be gross injustices to his flock by living in seclusion for days or even weeks in remote monasteries. Although he had publicly acknowledged that Christians were discriminated against, he never accepted that they be referred to as a minority, insisting that Copts were an integral part of the nation's fabric.
"When he got upset and angry, he left the world behind and returned to his cave where he spoke to no one for days except his secretaries," said Father Wissa, a monk at St. Bishoy monastery. "No one can replace him. God brought us this person at a time we were in need for someone like him. Now at these difficult times, we need his wisdom the most."
The ceiling of the burial chamber where Shenouda will be laid to rest is covered with a mosaic depicting Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and saints. The chamber has a large dome surrounded by smaller ones symbolizing open skies. The chamber has several small windows, big enough to let in a faint light.
The chamber was originally a small museum housing a collection of antiquities belonging to the monastery such as clay pots, the garments of the monastery's early fathers as well as musical instruments. The collection was moved elsewhere after Shenouda expressed two months ago a desire to be buried in the monastery, Father Wissa said.
Michael reported from St. Bishoy monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt.