3 crushed to death ahead of Shenuda burial
Cairo - Thousands of grieving mourners massed on Monday at St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo to pay their last respects to Coptic Pope Shenuda III on the eve of his burial, correspondents said.
Undeterred by the deaths on Sunday of three people crushed by a sea of mourners, thousands people flooded the grounds of the Cairo cathedral awaiting their turn to go inside.
Shenuda died on Saturday aged 88 after a long illness, setting in motion the process to elect a new patriarch for the Middle East's largest Christian community which has often complained of sectarian attacks.
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.
The body of Shenuda, dressed in ceremonial robes with a golden crown on his head, has been placed upright on the papal throne inside St Mark's Cathedral for mourners to pay their last respects.
Tens of thousands of people queued for hours on Sunday to get close to the sculpted throne, many weeping and lamenting their loss as the church scrambled to find a new leader to the anxious Coptic community.
Copts, who make up an estimated 10% of Egypt's population of 82 million, complain of systematic discrimination.
Concern has grown over the triumph of Islamists in the first polls since 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.
Church sources reported that three people were crushed to death on Sunday as crowds pressed to see the body of the late religious leader.
State television urged mourners to avoid crowding, saying they had until Tuesday, when Shenuda is due to be buried, to pay their respects.
Copts nationwide mourned Shenuda, and one distraught woman in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia was in a critical condition after trying to commit suicide, the official MENA news agency reported.
As preparations for the burial of Shenuda were taking place, church leaders considered his successor, with Egyptian newspapers on Monday saying they could choose from among five potential candidates.
But analysts cautioned of a delicate mission.
"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.
Candidates must be selected from among bishops.
Five names top the list, including Monsignor Bishoy, the secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, and Shenuda's personal secretary Monsignor 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 council involved in the selection process 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.
On Sunday worshippers in black hoping for a final blessing from their spiritual leader took pictures of Shenuda on their phones, amid tears and wailing.
"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.
Based on wishes stated in his will, Shenuda will be buried at St Bishoy monastery of Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta, 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.