AP — 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.
As Egypt grew more religiously conservative over the past 40 years, the discrimination became more manifest in everyday life, particularly when Christians are in direct contact with government departments or for their children at state schools, where Islamists often dominate teaching staff.
The pope, accustomed to the monastic traditions of Egypt's unforgiving desert, had on occasion protested what he perceived to be gross injustices to his flock by living in seclusion for days or even weeks in remote monasteries. Although he had publicly acknowledged that Christians were discriminated against, he never accepted that they be referred to as a minority, insisting that Copts were an integral part of the nation's fabric.
Shenouda supported President Hosni Mubarak during the 29 years ruled, until his ouster 13 months ago in a popular uprising. In return, Mubarak gave him and his church wide powers in the Christian community.
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Egyptians help a fainted woman as tens of thousands Christian Copts flock to the Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's al-Abbassiya district on March 18, 2012 to bid farewell to Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority. Pope Shenuda died at the age of 88, after a long battle with illness and based on his wishes he will be buried on March 20, at St. Bishoy monastery in Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta where he spent his time in exile after a dispute with late president Anwar Sadat. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A black fabric decorates the entrance of Saint Barbara church to mark the death of Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority, in the Coptic neighbourhood of Cairo on March 18, 2012. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Egyptian woman walks past a portrait of the late Pope Shenuda III as she leaves Saint Mary church in the Coptic neighbourhood of Cairo on March 18, 2012. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Tens of thousands Egyptian Christian Copts flock to the Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's al-Abbassiya district on March 18, 2012 to bid farewell to Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Egyptian Christian Copts pay their last respects as they view the body of Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority, sitting and dressed in formal robes at the Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's al-Abbassiya district, on March 18, 2012. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
(KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
An Egyptian Christian Copt mourns the death of Pope Shenuda III, spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian minority, in Saint Mark Cathedral in Cairo's al-Abbassiya district on March 18, 2012, a day after he died at the age of 88 years following a long illness. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Women queue, part of the tens of thousands of the Egyptian Christian Copts waiting outside St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, on March 18, 2012, to bid farewell to Pope Shenuda III (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)
"Baba Shenouda," or Father Shenouda, as he was known, came to be viewed by many Copts as their guardian. A charismatic leader, his sense of humor belied a deeply conservative doctrine that angered liberals within the church as well as young secular-minded Copts seeking a more assertive role and inclusive identity in society.
More recently, Christians' worries have deepened with the rise of Islamic movements to political power in parliamentary elections, a string of deadly attacks on their community and places of worship and heightened anti-Christian rhetoric by ultraconservative Muslims, or Salafis.
"The nation that does not protect its own sons strangles them," Girgis Atef, a 26-year-old Christian activist, said of the perceived failure by authorities to protect Christians. Atef, an insurance executive, participated in last year's uprising and then witnessed the death in October of at least 27 people, mostly Christians, when soldiers crushed a Christian protest.
"I rose up a year ago to restore the rights of the nation, and I am still not given my rights," he complained.
The Islamists who now dominate parliament's two chambers routinely pay lip service to the rights of Christians and their equality with Muslims, but there is no doubt in the mind of most Christians that a more Islamic Egypt would inevitably deal a setback to their slow and tortuous drive to win their rights.
In a move harshly criticized by liberal politicians, the two chambers adopted a motion on Saturday that would allow lawmakers to make up half of a 100-member panel that will write a new constitution. The move will give Islamists a big say in the process, meaning that the next constitution will have an Islamist slant, piling up on the worries of Christians.
Sameh Fawzi, a Christian political analyst who closely monitors the church, said even so, there is potential for an accommodation between the church and the Islamists.
"The Islamists will be looking for a counterpart among Christians, and that is the church," he said. "The church will continue to be a key part of the political formula."