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Egyptian Christians are mourning the passing of 88-year-old Coptic Orthodox Pope and Patriarch Shenouda III (August 3, 1923—March 17, 2012). He died in Cairo today after a lengthy illness. He had both back and kidney problems, according to local news reports.

Pope Shenouda was extremely popular among millions of everyday Christians. A charismatic reformer and an advocate of Christian rights and interests in a predominantly Muslim country, many considered him to be just like a father.

Egyptian Muslims liked him for his critical stance towards Israel, but both Christian and Muslim intellectuals were critical of his mixing politics with religion. No doubt he was the most influential Christian leader in twentieth-century Egypt. He was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Sunday School Magazine in 1947, was consecrated as monk in 1954, became Bishop of Education in 1962, and Pope in 1971.

"We lost today a great icon. His presence was crucial in repelling many threats against the country," Amin Eskandar, a member in the People's Assembly (parliament's lower house), told state television channel Nile News (as quoted by the Egyptian newspaper Ahram). "His patriotism and wise approaches to any issue were very helpful. May God compensate us for the loss of that great man."

In 2002, Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan Bishoi, secretary of the Synod since 1985, described the dramatic changes during Pope Shenouda's reign. He said the number of monks, priests, bishops, church servants, and churches dramatically increased. Monasteries expanded as never before since the arrival of Islam in Egypt.

During Pope Shenouda's term, the migration of Copts increased tremendously as a consequence of better economic perspectives and a search for greater freedoms outside Egypt. Pope Shenouda responded to this trend by building hundreds of churches outside Egypt. Many (if not all) were personally consecrated by him.

Early years

Pope Shenouda's church career started in the Coptic Orthodox Sunday School movement in the 1940s when a group of laymen sought to reform the church that had become a bastion of traditionalism.

The leaders of the Sunday School movement have described its role as liberating the church from all powers, clergy, and laymen whose interests lay only in money, power, and influence. The practices of simony were publicly rejected and the servants called for the right of lay people to choose their pastors.

Many youth in the Sunday School movement of those years were closely linked to the Umma al-Qibtiya, a group of political activists that opposed the then widespread corruption in the Coptic Orthodox Church under the leadership of Pope Yousab II.

Members of the Umma al-Qibtiya kidnapped their own pope in 1954 and forced him to sign his abdication. Nazir Gayed (who later became Pope Shenouda), then editor-in-chief of Sunday School Magazine, did not criticize the kidnapping, but devoted the magazine to arguments that his successor should not come from the circle of bishops, but from among the monks. The German scholar, Wolfram Reiss, an expert on the church in Egypt, sees this as an indirect support for this kidnapping.

Immediately after, Nazir Gayed became monk with the name of Father Antonios (only monks can be elected to the papacy). Egyptian police freed Pope Yousab, but his image was severely damaged. Three bishops ruled the church until the pope passed away in 1956.

Father Antonios became one of the candidates to succeed Pope Yousab as head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The bishops of those days did not want to see a Sunday School activist on the papal throne and a struggle for succession followed, leaving the papal chair empty for three years. The struggle yielded new conditions for the eligibility to be elected as pope: a monk would need to have a monastic life of at least 15 years and to be at least 40 years old. This effectively closed the road for the three Sunday School monks up for election.

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Egypt's Pope Shenouda III Dead at 88