Egypt’s military rulers have declared a national day of mourning for the funeral on Tuesday of Coptic Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian community.
Tens of thousands have flocked to Cairo’s St Mark’s Coptic cathedral since Shenuda died on Saturday at the age of 88, to catch a final glimpse of body, which was dressed in golden robes and crown and had been sat upright on the papal throne.
Flags will be flown at half mast, a security official told AFP, as preparations were underway for the funeral service at the cathedral, followed by Shenuda’s burial at the St Bishoy monastery in the Nile Delta.
Tens of thousands of people queued for hours on Sunday to get close to the throne, many weeping and lamenting their loss as the church scrambled to find a new leader of the anxious Coptic community.
Worshippers in black hoping for a final blessing from their spiritual leader took pictures of Shenuda on their mobile phones, amid tears and wailing.
Three of the mourners were crushed to death in the crowd and 137 injured, according to the health ministry, prompting church officials to cut short the viewing and close the cathedral to the public.
Thousands of grief-stricken people continued to mass outside, an AFP reporter said.
And one woman in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia was in a critical condition after trying to commit suicide, the official MENA news agency reported.
Shenuda had been battling a long illness and his death set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch.
The selection of a new pope of the Coptic Church of Alexandria will take place amid a fragile period of political instability following an uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, and rising Islamism.
Copts make up an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million. They are the target of frequent sectarian attacks and complain of systematic discrimination.
Last month, eight Coptic Christian families were evicted by Muslims from a village in northern Egypt following clashes sparked by rumours of an illicit interfaith affair.
In October, over 20 people were killed, mainly Christians, when Coptic demonstrators, protesting the destruction of a church, clashed with Egyptian security forces.
The community celebrated New Year and Christmas amid tight security, after deadly attacks following services in the previous two years.
Concern has grown since the triumph of Islamists in the first legislative elections since president Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last year by massive street protests.
For a whole generation Shenuda led the community and sought to protect his flock from a wave of Islamist militancy.
As preparations for the burial were underway, church leaders began considering who would succeed the pope, with the press saying on Monday they could choose from among five potential candidates, who must be bishops.
But analysts cautioned that this would be a delicate job.
“The death of Pope Shenuda puts the church in a real dilemma,” Coptic analyst Gamal Assad wrote in the English-language Daily News Egypt.
“The position of the Pope has become a political position, besides its religious nature. That’s why we may witness a huge conflict among the Church’s leadership during the selection process,” he predicted.
Five names top the list, including Bishop Bishoy, the secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, and Shenuda’s personal secretary Bishop Youannis.
The new pope will be chosen based on a set of 1957 church bylaws, in a process that could take months and involve 1,500 people.
The selection council is made up of senior clergy, Coptic public officials, including current and former ministers, MPs and local councillors, as well as Coptic journalists belonging to the journalists union.
“It’s a great loss for Egypt,” Tourism Minister Munir Fakhry Abdelnur, a Copt and a close friend of Shenuda, told AFP.
“He was wise and was widely listened to. He will be missed at a time when we need wisdom and a patriotic spirit.”
Among those who paid their last respects was the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, state media said.
As expressed in his will, Shenuda’s final resting place, at St Bishoy monastery of Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta, is where he spent time in exile after a dispute with the late president Anwar Sadat, state media reported.
Bishop Pachomious of the Nile Delta province of Beheira has assumed papal duties for two months until a new pope is found.
Coptic bishops from around the world have already started to fly in for meetings on the funeral arrangements and succession.