Although there has never been any doubt about the affection of the Copts for Pope Shenouda, the extraordinary manifestation of grief seems to have caught many by surprise. Tens of thousands of Copts have flooded to the Papal compound at Amba Rueiss in Abbeseya and are queuing for hours to catch a last glimpse of their “Baba” seated on his throne. The genuine grief, however, is widespread and not just restricted to Copts. As I was leaving the plane on Sunday morning, a Muslim stewardess beckoned me forward to meet the captain so they could both express to me their condolences. The same happened at Passport Control where the officer, although not a Christian, expressed his sorrow at the loss of “our Pope”. Yesterday at the Patriarchate, when I entered the grand salon so often used for receptions and banquets, I noticed my brother bishops sitting quietly waiting for our scheduled Synod meeting. The atmosphere was subdued and calm and there was a profound sense of bereavement. I was always struck by how the Patriarchate, which was always a bustling, expectant place when His Holiness was in residence, fell strangely silent the moment he left the building. Now it was busy, but it seemed empty, although reminders of its late occupant were everywhere to be seen. Chatting to individual bishops provided many insightful personal reflections of the Pope and caught the generally reflective mood of the gathering. Among these were the ordinary staff of the Patriarchate, many of whom had served the Pope for years. His personal servant, Wadee (who had served his predecessor, Pope Kyrillos VI), although frail and still using a crutch whilst recovering from surgery for a hip replacement, was still weaving among the bishops offering tea on a silver tray.
We entered the Cathedral to pay our respects to His Holiness. Temporary barriers were erected to conduct the crowd round the Cathedral in an orderly way, but it was such a heaving mass that it was proving difficult to control. The boy scouts were acting as stewards, but they were clearly overwhelmed. As always there was a huge amount of respect at the sight of the clergy but the boisterous show of affection was sometimes at risk of knocking clergy over as worshippers tugged to kiss a hand or touch a cross. The sight of His Holiness seated on the Throne of Saint Mark, vested in his pontifical vestments, was a familiar one, and in the sleep of death he looked calm and peaceful, but it stirred deep emotions in all who approached. Standing quietly besides the throne, deep in thought, his face strained with grief, was the Pope’s faithful driver, Yehya, watching over his master wth the same care and concern he has shown for many years. Bishops and priests, dressed simply in their white tonias, took turns to stand guard beside the throne, while the sea of people, in great waves of emotion, swept up to the brass railings at the entrance to the khorus, or deacons’ choir area.
On leaving the Synod yesterday it took us over an hour to get back to where we had parked our car. The crowd was vast and filled every inch of the street, but good natured. As we struggled forward, Coptic youth encircled us in a protective ring with linked hands, the leading one pushing his way forward, though facing backwards, and in this strange manner we made our journey home. We later heard reports that three people had died in the crowd, but the cause was attributed to heat stroke rather than violence. Once returned to our car, we crawled at a snail’s pace to get away from the crowded streets. At one point we passed closely a group of nuns from St. George’s Convent and were able to greet Mother Koria on her way to the Cathedral. This morning I spoke on the phone with the Anglican Bishop Mounir, who anxious to pay his respects to Pope Shenouda, admitted that although he had set out for the Cathedral yesterday he had been obliged to turn back by the huge throng blocking his way. The bishop’s taxi driver tearfully spoke of his love for the Pope.
That same evening we went to visit Miss Effa, a frail ninety-three year old, who was one of the first deaconesses ordained by Pope Shenouda when he restored that ancient ministry. She had known him as a Sunday school teacher, before entering the monastery, and they remained firm friends all his life. She still cherishes letters he wrote her from the monastery. When she was quite ill a few years back the Pope had personally visited her at home to check on her well-being. Now cared for by deaconesses in her own ground floor apartment, with ther rest of her house given over to accommodate Coptic girls studying in Cairo, she had taken the news of the Pope’s death badly, but we were able to comfort her.
The visit yesterday to the Patriarchate of Field-Marshall Tantawi. the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the effective Head of State, was an historic moment in church-state relations. Received by Metropolitan Bakhomious and other senior bishops, he had come to offer condolences after having already spoken about Pope Shenouda with deep respect and granted a three day holiday to Christians for them to mourn him. The Field-Marshall now offered to provide a military plane to transport His Holiness’ coffin to St. Bishoy’s monastery after the funeral ceremony in Cairo. Also hugely significant was the request by the church for government support in regulating the crowds and the entry into the Papal compound of soldiers is previously unknown. The presence of young soldiers in their red berets, lining the entry to the khorus, brought much needed calm and order to the Cathedral and possibly represents a gesture intended to redress the appalling tragedy of Maspero.
Being with Copts with Coptic TV channels broadcasting news and archives about His Holiness non-stop, it might appear that one has a very Coptocentric view. However, even the non-Coptic Egyptian Television has announced for the next three days it has replaced light entertainment with more appropriate programmes. The truth, however, is that the Pope’s passing has genuinely touched the hearts of many Egyptians, whatever their religion. He is viewed as a great Egyptian, deeply patriotic (having served himself in the military) and with a profound sense of justice and truth. His personal integrity, great charm and incorrigible sense of humour (often mischievously directed at Upper Egyptians, of whom he was one) made him a deeply attractive personality; whilst his approachability and direct contact with people through his weekly public addresses brought him into direct contact with Egypt’s teeming millions.
Cairo is entering its third day since the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III on Saturday. Thousands of people flocked to Cairo to pay homage to their departed Father.
It is reported that three people in the crowds of thousands died yesterday, due to heat exhaustion. Abba Seraphim witnessed the crowds on attempting to visit His Holiness, realising the long wait ahead instead attended the meeting of the Holy Synod. Bishop Angealos of the Coptic Church in Stevenage reports on the crowds via Twitter saying:
“A sea of people around St Mark
#Coptic Cathedral in Cairo going to farewell their father #PopeShenouda, on the patriarchal throne in state.”
At the joint meeting of the Holy Synod held on the 19th of March, it was announced that Metropolitan Mikhael had asked to be excused from presiding because of his advanced age and had proposed that Metropolitan Bakhomious should preside instead. Also attending were members of the Maglis Milli, the Coptic community council.
Reports from Cairo this morning say that two months ago, His Holiness sensing the nearness of this departure, ordered Metropolitan Bakhomious to start construction of his tomb at St. Bishoy’s monastery. This was completed three days ago. Video of the tomb can be seen here.
The burial place at St. Bishoy’s monastery was originally constructed as a museum for the monastery’s historic artefacts but was awaiting His Holiness’ instructions before opening it. In consultation with Bishop Sarabamoun, Abbot of St. Bishoy, Metropolitan Bakhomios decided that it would be a fitting resting place for the Pope and the necessary changes were commenced. It is reported that large numbers of monks from surrounding monasteries in the Wadi El Natrun are converging on St. Bishoy’s monastery and that people are already erecting tents in the monastery’s vicinity in expectation of Tuesday’s burial of His Holiness.
Abba Seraphim regrets that his was indisposed during the night, so wasn’t able to attend the mass this morning at the Cathedral. He will be resting today and expects to be at the funeral tomorrow.
The army, having been invited to assist with crowd control, have soldiers inside St. Mark’s Cathedral this morning guarding the entrance to the sanctuary. As a result, things are much calmer than yesterday. This is the first time that the army has entered the Patriarch’s precincts, previously they were confined to guarding the entrance. This historic decision shows the concern of the Holy Synod for the health and welfare of mourners and it’s desire to ensure that the solemnities are conducted respectfully and with order.
It is reported that Gamel Mubarek, son of the former President, and himself imprisoned, has requested his wife to offer condolences on his behalf at the Pope’s death.
The Liturgy at the Cathedral this morning was led by His Eminence Metropolitan Wissa of Baliena.
Abba Seraphim and His Grace Bishop Angaelos arrived on the same flight at Cairo airport at 5.15 a.m. local time.
Abba Seraphim was met at the airport by Shenouda Mamdouh, his secretary in Egypt. The Holy Synod will meet at noon at the Patriarchate. after which details of the arrangements for the Pope’s funeral will be announced. Metropolitan Mikhael of Assuit, the senior Metropolitan (consecrated by Pope Yousab II in 1946) will preside.
The Supreme Military Council has granted Coptic Christians a three day holiday to enable them to pay their respects to His Holiness.
The embalmed body of His Holiness, fully vested in pontifical vestments, had been transferred to St. Mark’s Cathedral and is seated on his throne. The staff of the Papal Residence have been admitted before the general public come to bid farewell to the Pope.
The Sunday morning Liturgy is being celebrated in St. Mark’s Cathedral with the body of His Holiness presiding from the throne. Metropolitan Bakhomious of Beheira is the principal celebrant.
Update 11.37am: Bishop Moussa told mourners at the cathedral that Pope Shenouda would be buried at the Bishoy Monastery after the funeral in Cairo on Tuesday at 11am.
Update: 12pm: Abba Seraphim will be attending a Monday Liturgy. Tuesday is the Pope’s funeral, followed by reception of condolences from the government and religious visitors. The Synod will meet again on Thursday.
Following the news of the death of H.H. Pope Shenouda, Abba Seraphim will fly to Cairo overnight , and will arrive first thing on Sunday, 25 March. All British Orthodox Churches will now observe full mourning with prayers being offered for the repose of Pope Shenouda.
A statement has just been received from His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy, General Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, announcing the death of His Holiness Pope Shenouda on 17 March 2012
Further announcements will follow shortly.
His Holiness Pope Shenouda III died at 5.15 p.m. He suffered a heart attack, but was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital.
Copts all over the world are joining the mourning. Abba Seraphim, along with other Coptic clergy are on their way to Cairo to attend an urgent synod.
On Saturday evening, thousands of Copts gathered in the courtyard of Abbasiya Cathedral aiming to pay their last respects to the deceased patriarch. “We are not sure when this will be possible,” said one source. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
Another source indicated that no one would be admitted into the presence of the dead pope until the day of the funeral, “which will be held on Tuesday, three days from now, to make time for followers of the pope to come form across Egypt and from abroad.”
By Saturday evening, most presidential hopefuls, who had by and large made an effort to frequent Coptic mass since the end of the Mubarak regime, were offering their condolences.
“With one or two exceptions we expect all presidential hopefuls to be present in the funeral mass,” added the source, indicating that all state bodies, political parties and groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, had already contacted the church. “Many have been asking how they might pay their respects and participate in the funeral mass.”
Meanwhile, official and church sources said a high level state representation is scheduled for the funeral mass. The head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is expected to be at the cathedral to offer his condolences, while SCAF’s second in command, Sami Annan, is expected to be present throughout the mass.
Tantawi decreed three days of official mourning for Copts.
Annan and several SCAF members were invited to attend Christmas Mass on 6 January despite the outrage of the Coptic public at the military’s conspicuous involvement in the tragedy that befell Coptic demonstrators on 9 October while they protested a series of attacks on Coptic churches across Egypt.
Diplomats and some foreign dignitaries are expected at the funeral which will probably take place at the Abbassiya Cathedral before the coffin is taken to the monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun for burial.
“We offer our deep condolences to every one of our Christian brothers for the loss of Pople Shenouda,” Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said in a statement. “May God help all our Christian brothers overcome this ordeal and bring a successor who can keep promoting the sense of unity between all citizens,” he added.
An Egyptian army statement said that the Pope was a “rare statesman who worked with all of his energy to promote the wellbeing of the nation.”
Bishop Bakhomious (Pachomious) of Behera will head the Coptic Orthodox church for an interim period of two months. The General Congregation Council, which is part of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, will nominate three bishops, one of which is to succeed Pope Shenouda III.
The names of the three bishops will be written on three papers, and a child will pick one, unseen, from a box. This method is used in order for the “will of God” to play a role in the process.
Pope Shenouda is trending on Twitter worldwide as people report the news.
BBC News report: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17416429
BBC News Obituary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17416731
Photographs taken from Cairo: http://theorthodoxchurch.info/blog/news/2012/03/snaps-from-cairo-after-the-demise-of-pope-shenouda-iii/
Pope Shenouda’s body is presented on his Papal throne: http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/718671
Who will be the successor to Pope Shenouda? http://www.egyptindependent.com/node/718491