Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent
MEMBERS of the ruling military council and cabinet ministers from Egypt, as well as Christian and Muslim representatives from around the world, attended the funeral on Tuesday of Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who died last Saturday, aged 88.
The Cathedral of St Mark in Cairo was packed to overflowing, while tens of thousands thronged around the outside of the building. Many wept as they followed the service on a giant television screen. Pope Shenouda’s body was then flown in a military aircraft to St Bishoy Monastery in northern Egypt for burial.
A day of national mourning had been declared in honour of the man who had been the spiritual head of the Coptic community in Egypt and around the world since 1969. Pope Shenouda was respected for his dedication to the idea of reconciliation with Muslims, and for standing up for the rights of the Christian minority in Egypt. During the presidency of Anwar Sadat, the Pope was forced to spend four years in internal exile, after criticising the authorities for their failure to protect Christians against Islamic extremist attacks.
Secular and religious leaders around the world paid tribute to Pope Shenouda. President Obama said that he would remember the Coptic Pope as “a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation. His commitment to Egypt’s national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury said that his death was a source of “great sorrow to the Christian communities not only of Egypt, but of many nations. His Holiness has been an exemplary and outstanding Christian leader both within Egypt and far beyond its boundaries.”
Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the Roman Catholic Church’s sharing the pain felt by Copts at the death of their spiritual leader.
The General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Bishop Angaelos, said that Pope Shenouda would be “remembered by his Church as a dedicated servant of God and of the people, a man who faithfully endured through conflict, opposition, and persecution”. The Coptic Orthodox Church Centre in Stevenage is holding a memorial service at 3 p.m. tomorrow.
The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Geoffrey Rowell, who is the co-chairman of the Anglican-Oriental Orthodox Joint Doctrinal Commission, remembered Pope Shenouda as “always warmly welcoming and generous, and yet clearly concerned to speak and defend Christian truth, from a life rooted in his own monastic commitment of prayer. Even in the frailty of his later years, he was a remarkable Christian leader of outstanding gifts, for whom we give God thanks and praise.”
The President-Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Mouneer Anis, paid tribute to Pope Shenouda’s friendship with the Anglican community: “He mentioned to me how much he appreciated the fact that he started his career as a teacher of English in our Anglican School in Cairo. He was a continuous encouragement to me personally and to our Church.”
The secretary general of the Anglican Communion Office, Canon Kenneth Kearon, recalled how the late Pope was “deeply committed to ecumenical movement, and worked for the reconciliation of long-standing theological divisions”. The General Secretary of World Council of Churches, Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, said that Pope Shenouda would be remembered as “a strong believer in Christian-Muslim conviviality and co-operation”.
A statement from the RC Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales spoke of Pope Shenouda’s international influence. It said that the Coptic Orthodox Church had seen “a remarkable revival and growth both in Egypt and throughout many countries in the world, including England and Wales. He courageously defended the rights of Coptic Christians and worked tirelessly for peace and justice. In this, his loss will be felt not only by his own Church but by Christians internationally.”
The chief executive of Christian Solidarity, Mervyn Thomas, said his prayer was “that over the coming days the Coptic Orthodox Church will be led by the Holy Spirit as they seek to appoint a successor to this very wise and godly man”.