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Egypt's grief-stricken Christians fear a new wave of persecution

Death of Coptic Pope Shenouda III leaves millions of worshippers around the country without a spiritual leader

The death of Pope Shenouda III, 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 yesterday as they waited to file past the body of Pope Shenouda, dressed in ceremonial robes and sitting in the papal chair. Ashraf, 26, a blacksmith, said as he stood beside the outer wall of the cathedral that "the very existence of Shenouda made us feel protected".

A tired-looking woman, who would not give her name, was sitting on the pavement holding a child. She said: "I wish I could get in to see the body. I feel worse that our protector has gone. God knows what is going to happen."

Egypt's Copts, estimated to number 10 to 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 now fear 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, 88, 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 careful to give support to President Mubarak. He was briefly stripped of his temporal powers by President Anwar Sadat in 1981, for accusing the government of being tolerant of extreme Islam.

His successor, to be chosen by a synod of bishops, is unlikely to exercise the same authority in defence of Egypt's embattled Christian minority. The bishops will choose three candidates, whose names are written on pieces of paper and placed in a box. The final choice is made by a blindfolded boy, who picks one of the names.

There have been a series of violent attacks on Copts and their churches in the past year. In fighting between Copts and Muslims in the central Cairo slum of Imbaba in May, 15 people were killed, 242 injured and the Virgin Church was burned out. A demonstration by Copts in October saw 27 killed, many of them by a security vehicle driven at full tilt into the crowd.

"In the last week alone we have had a schoolteacher 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 there are between 15 and 16 million Copts in Egypt, out of a total population of 85 million, but the state claims the number is smaller and has refused to release official census figures. The opening of new churches without 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 Islamic Sharia law and to sectarian persecution. They are worried that Egypt will become more like Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and that they will share the fate of Iraqi Christians, many of whom have been forced to flee. Mr Aziz says 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 past year as a first step to immigration.

Islamic parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, have issued condolences over the death of Pope Shenouda. But Copts are suspicious that a new constitution will be more Islamic than before.

Mounir Yehia, 54, an agricultural engineer who was 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 the 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."

Minority in a Muslim nation

The Coptic Orthodox Church is a branch of Christianity founded in Egypt, but has devotees across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The apostle Mark is believed to have visited Egypt country in 50AD.

The Pope of Alexandria, formerly the late Shenouda III, below, leads the church from Cairo. About 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million people are Christian, and have endured bouts of sectarian violence in the mostly Muslim nation for four decades.

Egypt's former leader, Hosni Mubarak, allowed the church a greater role in public life in return for Shenouda's support. However, since Mubarak's fall last year, Copts have protested against discrimination amid fears that Islamic figures rising to political power will impose strict Sharia law.