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Egypt's Coptic pope: How he negotiated waves of sectarianism

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Like many, Seif is not convinced that the next pope will be able to fill Shenouda's shoes. In a measure of the devotion many Copts felt for Shenouda, tens of thousands of people came to the cathedral Sunday and Monday to catch a last glimpse of his body. They waited for hours, braving deadly stampedes. Three people died and more than 50 were wounded in the crush of the crowd. Today, some of those who could not get inside the cathedral waited outside, following the service via handheld radios pressed to their ears.

Banished by Sadat

When Shenouda became leader of the church in 1971, then-President Anwar Sadat was using Islamic rhetoric and encouraging Islamist groups in an attempt to boost his support. It was a stark change from the secularism of his predecessor, former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Christians began to feel targeted.
When Shenouda challenged Sadat over this, Sadat banished the pope to a monastery – the same one where the pope will be buried today. Shenouda spent three years there. When he emerged at the invitation of the next president, Hosni Mubarak, he seemed to have found a new way of protecting his flock.

Instead of challenging Mr. Mubarak, he supported him. This gave the pope a position from which to negotiate with government officials on behalf of the church. And he was good at this, says Samia Sidhom, managing editor of the Coptic newspaper Al Watani. He also cultivated good relations with the top Muslim clerics in Egypt.  

Rise of sectarianism

Yet toward the end of Mubarak's rule, sectarianism was once again on the rise. As attacks on Christians increased, the pope was placed in a difficult position: He depended on his closeness to Mubarak’s regime to win concessions on behalf of Christians, yet the regime was allowing and even perpetrating sectarianism and discrimination, angering Christians.

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