Coptic Christians mourn pope amid uncertainty

Egyptian Coptic priests gather around the body of Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority, sitting dressed in formal robes on a wooden throne at Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, March 19, 2012.

(AP) CAIRO - Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians lined up outside a cathedral in the Egyptian capital on Sunday to pay their final respects to the spiritual leader of their ancient church, whose body was seated inside on an ornate throne.

The grief of the faithful filing past Pope Shenouda, who died Saturday at 88, may also reflect the uncertainty felt by the country's Christian minority following the recent rise of Islamists to power.

In his death, Egypt's 10 million Christians have lost a seasoned protector at a bad time.

"He has been our protector since the day I was born," said a tearful Antonios Lateef as he waited in line to take one last look at the pope, who spent 40 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The crowds outside the cathedral in central Cairo carried crosses and portraits of Shenouda.

"Ya Allah!" or "Oh God!," they chanted in unison.

Tragedy struck during the sorrowful day. Three mourners suffocated to death in the crowded church, said Church official Anba Younnes.

Soldiers backed by armored personnel carriers deployed outside the cathedral, possibly as a deterrent to possible attacks by militant Muslims targeting the large number of Christians gathered or angry over the traffic disruptions they caused.

Shenouda, seated on the throne of St. Mark, or Mar Morkos, was clad in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services. His head slightly tilting to the right, he held a scepter.

"Please, let me come a little bit closer," one woman pleaded with a tearful voice to guards surrounding the body to keep the mourners away.

"I am so sad. It's a massive shock to all of us," said Eileen Naguib, dressed in mourning black, as she wiped tears from her face outside the cathedral.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads Egypt's ruling military council, visited the church with other generals and consoled Coptic leaders.

Shenouda's death could lead to a long power vacuum.

It could take months before a successor is found, according to Fuad Girgis, a prominent Christian from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and a member of the Church's local layman council, known as el-Maglis el-Melly. "Pope Shenouda assumed the throne of St. Mark eight months after the death of his predecessor," he noted. Shenouda will be buried on Tuesday.

During his 40 years as patriarch, Shenouda strove to ensure his place among the main players in this mainly Muslim nation, pressing demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check.

It was a delicate balancing act undertaken for years by a man who kept a relatively high media profile during most of the past four decades, giving interviews, speaking on key domestic and regional developments and never allowing himself to show anger at times of crisis.

Authorities deny discriminating against them, but the Christians say discrimination is practiced in numerous and subtle ways. Christians, for example, rarely assume leadership jobs on the police force, particularly the security agencies. The Islamist-dominated parliament only has a handful of Christians, and there are never more than one or two Christians among 30-plus Cabinet ministers.