By MAGGIE MICHAEL, Associated Press
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) — At the last Christmas service he presided over, Pope Shenouda III praised the unusual guests seated among the faithful at his Cairo cathedral: Leaders from the conservative Muslim Brotherhood, generals from the ruling military.
"For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt," Shenouda told the gathering. "They all agree ... on the stability of this country and in loving it, and working for it and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt."
The moment typified the conservative approach taken by the leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church in representing the worries of his minority flock in this Muslim majority nation. During 40 years as patriarch, he sought to ensure his place among the country's powerhouses and press demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check.
During the 1981-2011 rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Shenouda strongly supported his government. In return, Mubarak gave the pope and the Church wide powers among the Christian community. "Baba Shenouda," as he was known, came to be viewed by many Copts as their guardian. A charismatic leader known for his sense of humor, his smiling portrait was hung in many Coptic homes and shops. A deeply conservative theologian, he resisted liberals' calls for reform in the Church.
Shenouda's death on Saturday at age 88 comes at a time when Egypt's estimated 10 million Christians are feeling more vulnerable than ever amid the rise of Islamic movements to political power after Mubarak's ouster a year ago. The months since have seen a string of attacks on the community, heightened anti-Christian rhetoric by ultraconservatives known as Salafis and fears that coming governments will try to impose strict versions of Islamic law.
"He left us in a very hard time. Look at the country and what's happening now," said Mahrous Munis, an IT worker in his 30s who was among tens of thousands of Christians who massed at the main cathedral in Cairo, mourning and hoping for a glimpse of the pope's body. "Copts are in a worse situation than before. God be with us."
Munis' friend, Sherif Sabry, interrupted. "He was our rock. God help us find someone who can fill his place."
In the past year, however, young and liberal Christians grew increasingly impatient with Shenouda's conservative approach and his reluctance to publicly confront or criticize those in power. They said his policy of sticking close to power had brought little success in stemming violence or discrimination. Moreover, they argued, the Church's domination over Christians' lives further ghettoized them, making them a sect first, Egyptian citizens second.
"This was the mistake of Baba Shenouda and his predecessor. The state wanted to deal with Christians through one person," said prominent Christian columnist, Karima Kamal.
"We want the state to deal with Christians as citizens and for the Church to step aside," she said. "Christians are increasingly dealt with just as a sect."
Mubarak's fall has brought increasing power to Islamic movements, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafis, who together won more than 70 percent of parliament's seats in elections.
Christian fears have been stoked by a series of recent attacks, starting with the suicide bombing of an Alexandria church during New Year's Mass in 2011 that killed 21 people. The past yearl, several churches have been attacked by mobs, stoked in part by hard-line Islamic clerics warning that Christians were trying to convert Muslim women or trying to take over the country.
Christians accused security forces of doing little to find or punish those behind the attacks. There was a further uproar in the community when troops harshly put down a Christian protest in Cairo in October, killing 27 people.
The Orthodox Christmas services in January were aimed in part at overcoming the ill feelings from the past year since Mubarak's fall. For the first time, several prominent figures from the Muslim Brotherhood and generals from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed forces attended.