CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians turned out across Egypt on Sunday to mourn Pope Shenouda III and reflect on the sharpening tensions Christians here face, as Islamists have risen in power since last year's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
Church officials said that three mourners died Sunday of suffocation inside Cairo's main Abbasiya cathedral as thousands tried to catch a glimpse of Shenouda's embalmed corpse.
Shenouda, who died Saturday at age 88, led the Coptic Orthodox Church for more than 40 years. He was looked upon as a spiritual, social and sometimes political leader who guarded the rights of Egypt's minority Christian population in a region prone to religious animosities.
"He is leaving us in a very difficult time for Copts and the whole country in general. Even some Muslims are afraid of the political future, let alone us Copts in case we are ruled by Islamists," said Boutros Gad Allah, a Coptic jeweler. "His presence in critical situations for Copts was always crucial, but we know that God will leave us in someone else's safe hands."
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of around 82 million, have long complained of discrimination and oppression in a country where Sunni Muslims make up the absolute majority. Since his first day as pope in 1971, Shenouda had no fear of publicly pressuring politicians for Copts' rights. In 1981, he blamed then-President Anwar Sadat for not protecting Christians from violence carried out by radical Islamists.
More recently, the late pope attempted to calm religious tensions after Mubarak's downfall, which sparked a surge of persecution against Christians, including an attack by soldiers and thugs that left at least 27 people dead at a Coptic protest in October. Many worry whether his successor will have the moral authority and political instincts to lead the church in increasingly difficult times.