CAIRO — 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, died Saturday (March 17, 2012). He was 88.
The state news agency Mena said the pope battled liver and lung problems for several years. Yasser Ghobrial, a physician who treated Pope Shenouda at a Cairo hospital in 2007, said he suffered from prostate cancer that spread to his colon and lungs. He died at his residence in the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, several figures close to the pope said.
"The Coptic Church prays to God that he rest in peace between the arms of saints," a scroll read on a Coptic TV station, CTV, under a picture of the patriarch.
Born Nazeer Gayed on Aug. 3, 1923, in the southern city of Assiut, "Baba Shenouda," as he was known to his followers, rose to the position of pope in 1971. His church, one of the most ancient in the world, traces its founding to St. Mark, who is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero.
Many of Egypt's estimated 10 million Coptic Christians saw him as their guardian amid a majority Muslim population in a country of more than 80 million people.
During the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Pope Shenouda gave strong support to his government. In return, Mubarak's regime allowed the church wide powers among the Christian community.
After Mubarak's fall a year ago, Christians grew increasingly worried over the rising power of Muslim conservatives, and several churches were attacked by mobs.
On Saturday, the Muslim Brotherhood's political party in a statement offered its condolences "to the Egyptian people and its Christian brothers."
Under church law, the process of choosing Pope Shenouda's successor can take up to three months, though an interim leader will be picked within a week.