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Pope Shenouda III: Leader of the Coptic Church who led his people through troubled times

The death of Pope Shenouda III, leader of Egypt's Coptic minority, comes at a perilous time for a community experiencing growing insecurity. An impressive, patriarchal public figure, he had been able to provide his flock of some eight million Christians with a degree of protection by cosying up to the Mubarak dictatorship which coincided with three-quarters of his four-decade reign. Generally he made his demands behind the scenes while keeping Christians' anger over violence and discrimination in check. It was a balancing act in which he gave frequent interviews, speaking on key domestic and regional developments while never allowing himself to show anger at times of crisis.

The strategy was only partly successful: the final years of the Mubarak era saw a growing number of hate crimes against Christians. They included the car-bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that left 23 dead in January 2011, and the attacks by Salafist mobs on churches along with Christian homes and businesses in Marsah Matrouh and the Cairo suburb of Imbaba.

With the growth of civil disorder during the "Arab Spring" it became obvious that Copts were increasingly vulnerable. Nearly 100,000 are believed to have left Egypt for better lives in the Europe, the US or Australia since the recent troubles began. Pope Shenouda's response was similar to other members of the Egyptian establishment, including the military leaders now in power. At first he appealed to the protestors in Tahrir square to return home – only to express his support for the revolution after Mubarak's departure.

Shenouda's approach may have been partly attributed to declining health, but also to the perception of his community's growing vulnerability with the rise of the Salafist movement. Its political front, the al-Nur party, achieved an impressive 27 per cent of the vote in the November 2011 parliamentary elections – the first genuinely free elections since the 1952 coup that brought the Nasser regime to power. Many Salafists, who are said to have received generous funding from ultra-conservative sources in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf , want to see the Copts reduced to the dhimmi ("protected" but second-class status) they had in accordance with Islamic law in pre-colonial times.

Although Copts experienced bureaucratic discrimination after 1952, with severe planning restrictions on church-building, the formal equality Copts have enjoyed since the abolition of dhimmi status in the 19th century now appears under threat. Salafist gangs regularly raid Coptic businesses to exact the jizya or poll tax that used to be exacted from minorities under the Sharia law.

Nazir Gayad Roufail, the youngest of eight children, was born in 1923 in Assiut in Upper Egypt. After graduating from Cairo University with a BA in history, he completed his military service before working as a teacher of English and social studies. He attended evening classes at the Coptic Theological Seminary, where he graduated in New Testament studies, working as a Sunday school teacher and instructor at a monastic school before moving to a monastery in the Western Desert.

For six years, from 1956 to 1962, he emulated St Anthony, the father of Egyptian monasticism, by living as a hermit in a cave some seven miles from the monastery. "I found in monasticism," he said, "a life of complete freedom and clarification." His personal support for monasticism after becoming pope is credited with reviving the movement, which has seen the ordination of hundreds of monks and nuns, the renovation of monasteries and convents and the establishment of new ones, including several outside Egypt.

In 1962 Gayad was appointed Dean of the Coptic Theological Seminary, with the status of bishop. He was given the episcopal name of Bishop Shenouda. He brought women into the seminary, with several graduating to become lecturers. His support for the right of people to choose their priests and bishops were resisted by Pope Kyrillos VI, who suspended him for a period.

At a time of change, however, his principles did him no harm. Highly regarded as an intellectual, and the author of numerous books, he was a popular lecturer. In 1971 on the demise of Kyrillos he was enthroned as 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark. He continued to lecture, and received numerous honorary degrees in theology from American and Germany universities.

During the early years of his papacy Shenouda enjoyed good relations with President Anwar el-Sadat. In time, however, Sadat's policies led to a falling-out. In the late 1970s, following his expulsion of Soviet military advisers, Sadat sought to counter-balance the influence of the Nasserist left by relaxing the restrictions imposed on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a move Shenouda held responsible for increasing attacks on Copts. In spring 1981, as a protest against the weak government response to the attacks, Shenouda refused to hold public Easter celebrations or to receive the presidential delegates who normally attend them. Sadat responded to this snub by exiling him to a monastery (hardly a punishment for such a holy man), imprisoning eight bishops, 24 priests and banning two Coptic magazines, including El-Keraza, which Shenouda edited.

After Sadat's assassination by Islamic extremists in 1981 the restrictions were relaxed and for most of his tenure Shenouda enjoyed good relations with Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, who he saw as a bulwark (albeit a flawed one) against the fundamentalist threat. But Shenouda remained a critic of the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel. A papal decree he issued banned Copts who visited Christian shines in Jerusalem or Israel from receiving Holy Communion. Shenouda declared that Christians must only visit Jerusalem with their Muslim brethren after the conflict with Israel has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.

Despite the esteem in which we was held as an ascetic and theologian, many Copts, especially in the large US and Australian diasporas, felt his decree to be an unacceptable mixing of religion and politics. But he was committed to Christian unity. In 1973 he met Paul VI in Rome, becoming the first Coptic Pope of Alexandria to meet his Catholic counterpart in more than 1,500 years.

Nazeer Gayed Roufail, religious leader: born Assiut, Egypt 3 August 1923; named His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church of Alexandria 14 November 1971; died Cairo 17 March 2012.