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Each time Pope Shenouda, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, enters a church sanctuary, bishops and priests shield him from the throng reaching out to touch him for a blessing. The high-pitched sound of ululating women fills the air, a moving testament to his high office.

Pope Shenouda remains vigorous at 83. He is a gifted preacher, and his weekly Bible lesson draws thousands of people to the stately Orthodox cathedral in central Cairo. Pope Shenouda is the first Coptic Orthodox leader to allow everyday believers to ask him questions. At the Bible lessons, people scribble questions on little pieces of paper and pass them forward to the pope. He answers them one by one, often with a touch of humor. People listen attentively, aware that their pope takes their problems seriously.

Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Arabic-speaking world; estimates range from 3.4 to 13.5 million. Most of Egypt's Christian leaders believe that Christians represent 10 to 12 percent of the population. But French scholar Philippe Farges estimates, based on his field research, that Christians make up about 5 percent (3.5 million). Other reliable research, based on interviews of Christians among army conscripts in the last 15 years, supports his findings.

At least 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, a member of the family of non-Chalcedonian (Oriental) Orthodox churches. Coptic church tradition identifies its founder as St. Mark, considered the first Coptic patriarch.

The remaining 10 percent of Christians in Egypt are affiliated with Roman Catholic, evangelical, and smaller Protestant churches. According to Operation World, the non-Orthodox Christian population is over 500,000. The Catholic and Protestant ...

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December 3, 2001

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