|By Kate DurhamPope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of Alexandria and the Archbishop and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, passed away on March 17 at the age of 88. The pope had headed the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and abroad for 40 years.
Copts marked three days of mourning, with thousands making the pilgrimage from all over Egypt to the Cathedral in Abbasiya, where Pope Shenouda’s body lay in state upon the papal throne. Health ministry officials reported that three people suffocated and more than 130 were injured due to the intense crowds.
The funeral service was held on March 20, attended by political and religious dignitaries from Egypt and around the world. Afterwards, his body was laid to rest at the Monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi Natroun, as per his wishes.
The Pope was born Nazeer Gaye d on August 3, 1923, in Assiut, the youngest of eight children. He studied history at Cairo University, but after graduating he joined the Coptic Orthodox Seminary, where he studied and eventually served on the faculty.
In 1954, Gayed embraced the monastic life, taking the name Antonious El-Syriani (Anthony the Syrian) and spending six years as a hermit in a hand-carved cave in the desert. His papal predecessor Pope Cyril VI elevated him from monk-priest to bishop in 1962. Now known as Bishop Shenouda, he was appointed president of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary. On November 14, 1971, he became the 117th Pope of Alexandria.
A prolific author, Pope Shenouda penned 101 books, many of which were translated into multiple languages. He is credited with expanding the church internationally, with new churches built across Africa and North and South America.
The pope was an outspoken defender of Palestinians and called upon Copts to not visit Jerusalem until the Israel-Palestine issue was resolved. Against normalization with Israel, he was an staunch critic of President Anwar Sadat, who in 1981 banished Pope Shenouda to Wadi Natroun. President Mubarak lifted the pope’s exile in 1984.
In his later years, the pope suffered chronic health issues and made repeated trips abroad for medical treatment, most recently in January of this year.
Pope Shenouda was viewed by some as being overly conciliatory with the government, and in recent years he chastised Coptic activist groups abroad for trying to bring international pressure on the Mubarak regime over religious discrimination. He also told Copts not to participate in the January 25 protests, drawing the anger of many activists.
Wary of dividing the country along religious lines, the pope spoke out against forming Christian-only political groups and campaigning on religious platforms.
Above all, Pope Shenouda was remembered for his efforts to ease sectarian tensions, and he worked closely with Al-Azhar to improve relations between all citizens. Some criticized him, however, for not doing enough in the wake of multiple church attacks, especially after Coptic protesters were killed in October clashes in Maspero. Nevertheless, he continued to preach tolerance and forbearance, stressing that Christians and Muslims were all Egyptians. And upon his death, Christians and Muslims alike mourned his passing.