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The death of Pope Shenouda, who led Egypt’s Coptic Christian Church for 40 years, has increased fears among Copts that they will face persecution and discrimination as Islamic parties become more powerful.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners, many crying, packed the streets around St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo Tuesday as they waited to file past the body of Pope Shenouda dressed in ceremonial robes and sitting in the papal chair. Ashraf, a 26-year-old blacksmith, standing beside the outer wall of the Cathedral, said that “the very existence of Shenouda made us feel protected.”
A tired-looking woman, sitting on the edge of the pavement and holding a child, who would not give her name, said “I wish I could get in to see the body. Of course, I feel worse that our protector has gone. God knows what is going to happen.”
Egypt’s Copts, estimated to number 10-12 million, complain that they are treated as second class citizens and denied top jobs. They had hoped that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last year would reduce discrimination, but they now fear that their condition may worsen as the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafi movement, which together have 70 per cent of the seats in the newly elected parliament, gain greater influence.
Pope Shenouda, who was 88 years old, was famous as a cautious Coptic leader, all powerful within his community, who for four decades had dealt with the Egyptian government. Born in Assiut in upper Egypt, he was generally careful to give support to President Mubarak. He was briefly stripped of his temporal powers by President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
His successor, to be chosen by a synod of bishops, is unlikely to be unable to exercise the same authority in defense of Egypt’s embattled Christian minority. The bishops will choose three candidates whose names are written down on pieces of paper and placed in a bag, but the final choice is made by a blindfold boy who picks one of the names.
There have been a series of violent attacks on Copts and their churches over the last year. In fighting between Copts and Muslims in the central Cairo slum of Imbaba last year, 15 people were killed, 242 injured and the Virgin Church burned out. A demonstration by Copts last October saw 27 people killed, many of them by a security vehicle driven at full tilt into the crowd.
“In the last week alone we have had a school teacher in upper Egypt sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly insulting the Prophet,” says Ihab Aziz, president of the Coptic American Friendship Society who lives in Cairo. “A priest was given six months for violating the building code. Copts are being targeted and defamed without state action.”
Mr Aziz says that the number of Copts in Egypt is 15-16 million out of a total Egyptian population of 85 million, but that the state has pretended the number is smaller and has refused to release official census figures. The opening of new churches without official permission has been a constant source of friction and violence.
The Copts fear the fall of President Mubarak may open the door to the imposition of Sharia law and to sectarian persecution. They fear that Egypt will become more like Saudi Arabia and Sudan and they will share the fate of the Iraqi Christians, many of whom have been forced to flee. Mr Aziz says that Copts are asking “what benefits were there from this revolution?” He adds that some 200,000 Egyptian Christians have sought visas to the US in the last year as a first step to immigration.
Islamic parties have issued condolences over the death of Sheikh Shenoudah, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. But the Copts are suspicious that a new constitution will be more Islamic than before. Mounir Yehia, 54, an agricultural engineer who had been a student of Pope Shenouda at the Coptic Divinity School, said “we have been suffering in this country for the past 1,400 years, and not only last year or the 30 years before that. The death of Pope Shenouda will have a further negative effect on our lives and on Egypt in general.”
Other Egyptians are more optimistic. Marie Daniel, 41, a Coptic activist whose sister Mina was killed in a demonstration last October, says “The Islamists are exposed after coming to parliament and now the Egyptians know the reality. I am not worried because Egyptians would not accept any biased or discriminatory government either in parliament or the presidency.”
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.