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

Cairo

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee