CAIRO - Egypt's Muslims have offered condolences to Christian Copts over the death of their religious leader Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the country's Coptic Orthodox Church.
"His death is a tragedy and a great loss for Egypt and its people of Muslims and Christians," Egypt's Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa said in a statement.
Pope Shenouda, 89, the Patriarch of Saint Mark Dicoeses, died Saturday, March 17 after a long struggle against illness.
Bells tolled in Cairo's Abbasiya district, site of Egypt's main Coptic cathedral, as the news spread.
Hearing the news, thousands of Copts gathered in front of Cairo's Abbassiya Cathedral to mourn their spiritual leader.
"Don't say the pope died ... The pope is in heaven!" chanted weeping Copts who had gathered at the Cathedral to pay their final respects to their pope.
His body was placed on St Mark's seat at dawn on Sunday and will be embalmed to preserve the body until the funeral on Tuesday.
Shenouda became the 117th Pope of Alexandria in November 1971, and was popular among Egypt's Christians and Muslims alike during his four decades in power.
Shenouda and the Coptic church endorsed ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak when he ran for his fifth term in 2005, reflecting the views of many Copts, who saw Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamists.
Under more than a quarter century of Mubarak's rule, relations between the government and the Coptic church were generally smooth, with the Pope portrayed in state media as a symbol of religious harmony, despite occasional outbreaks of sectarian violence.
Shenouda's criticism of Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel landed him in trouble with then-president Anwar Sadat.
Sadat banished him to the Wadi el Natrun monastery north west of Cairo and stripped him of his temporal powers.
He was released and given back his authority by Mubarak in 1984, three and a half years after Sadat's assassination.
Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Muslim Sunni world, also paid tribute to Pope Shenouda's role in defending Arab causes.
"Egypt has lost one of its rare men at a sensitive moment when it most needs the wisest of its wise - their expertise and their purity of minds," Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayyeb said.
"He held the question of Jerusalem and the Palestinian problem in his conscious," he was quoted as saying by the state news agency MENA.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, also said Pope Shenouda had a long journey of service during Egypt's history.
"The Freedom and Justice Party sends its deepest condolences to the Egyptian people and our Christian brothers over the death of Pope Shenouda III," FJP leader Mohamed Mursi said.
Egypt's military rulers also described Shenouda as a "dedicated national symbol and a statesman of a rare caliber".
Presidential aspirant Amr Moussa said he was saddened by Pope Shenouda's death.
"We have lost a great value and a pre-eminent pope," said Ahmed Shafiq, another presidential contender, and a Mubarak-era prime minister.
Several Arab and world leaders also offered condolences over the death of the Coptic pope.
"He was also keen to preserve the unity of the brotherly Egyptian people," UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan said in a cable of condolences to Fld. Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt's ruling military council.
US President Barack Obama also said Shenouda will be remembered as a "man of deep faith and an advocate for unity and reconciliation".
"His commitment to Egypt's national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together," Obama added in a White House statement.
A Vatican spokesman said Pope Benedict offered prayers for the Coptic pope.The Catholic Church joins Christians in their pain and prayer over the death ... of their spiritual leader," he said.