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Egypt's Coptic Christians mourn pope, mull more activist future

Pope Shenouda III, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, died Saturday. His successor will help shape the role Christians will play in the new Egypt.

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Mourners gather outside the Coptic cathedral in Cairo after the death of Pope Shenouda III.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

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The leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church died Saturday, leaving the largest Christian congregation in Egypt and the Middle East leaderless at a time of rising concern over attacks against Christians and the domination of post-revolution politics by Islamist parties.

The death of Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades, threw the Coptic community into a state of mourning. Though his role in politics was controversial to some, he was beloved by Copts, many of whom saw the pope as the defender of their community while verbal and physical attacks by radical Islamists grew.

His successor will take leadership at a pivotal time for the church, as it weighs the role of the church in Egyptian politics and the growing withdrawal from public life of many Christians.

“I’m very sad because Pope Shenouda taught us a lot of things, especially how to love your enemy,” says Anton Wadea, a young Copt who plans to pay his respects to the leader at the main cathedral in Cairo today. “It's a difficult time for Christians in Egypt because the situation is very bad right now … we don't know where Egypt will go, and where the church will go after Pope Shenouda. We have difficult days, without a president in Egypt, and at the same time a church without Pope Shenouda.”

Large throngs of mourners gathered at the cathedral today to mourn the pope, whose body will lie in the cathedral until his funeral on Tuesday. The Coptic Orthodox Church was established in the first century, when St. Mark is said to have brought Christianity to Egypt. The Coptic church is an independent body, separate from the Eastern Orthodox or the Roman Catholic churches. It belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches. Church leadership will elect three candidates to succeed Shenouda, and, according to church tradition, a blindfolded child will choose one of the names.

Karima Kamal, a prominent Coptic columnist and author, says the pope will be remembered as charismatic, an intellectual with a good sense of humor. He was born as Nazeer Gayed in southern Egypt, and took the name Shenouda when he became a bishop and head of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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