CAIRO - Thousands of Christian and Muslim mourners gathered in Cairo Tuesday, March 20, to say a final farewell to Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic minority.
"I can't tell you how much sorrow I have inside me, Ivon Mosaed, a 52-year-old Christian Copt who heads an educational institute offering foreign languages courses, told Reuters.
This was a great, great man and it will be hard to find anyone like him again.
Egypt held the funeral service Tuesday for Pope Shenouda, who died on Saturday after a long battle against cancer.
During the service, Shenouda's body, dressed in robes and a gold crown, lay in an open coffin, as patriarchs of Orthodox churches said prayers.
Members of the ruling military council attended the service as well as the speaker of parliament, Saad al-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and several Egyptian ministers, MPs and public figures, both Christian and Muslim.
Religious leaders from across the world, including a delegation of senior Catholics from the Vatican, also attended the funeral.
"Because he is resting, does not mean we have lost him," Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, who flew in from Ethiopia for the funeral, said at the emotional service, aired live on television.
Mourners repeated the prayers, which echoed around the cathedral's tall, white nave adorned with gleaming gold icons. Some wept as they prayed.
After the funeral, the pope's body was taken from Cairo's Saint Mark Cathedral to his final resting place in a 4th ancient cathedral monastery in the Egyptian desert.
As the cathedral's gates opened, thousands of mourners thronged behind the car carrying the pope's coffin to bid farewell to the pope.
Egypt has declared Tuesday a day of national mourning.
Flags were flown at half mast around the country, and an unprecedented security plan was put in place in the capital and in the Nile Delta province of Beheira, where the pope was to be buried in St Bishoy monastery.
Paying tribute to the Coptic pope, many Muslims attended the funeral.
"I am so sad of course and many of my Muslim relatives are sad as well," Muslim university student Iman, who was dressed in black and wearing a black veil, told Reuters.
"He was a decent Egyptian man who was also known for being very wise."
Named pope of Alexandria in 1971, Shenouda led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, for four decades.
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.
Pope Shenouda 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.
One of Shenouda's oft-repeated sayings, also cited in newspapers, was: "Egypt is not a nation we live in, rather it is a nation that lives in us."
Board members of the Catholic Church's city councils would vote to choose three candidates to replace Shenouda.
A young child would make the final choice by picking one of those three names out of a hat."We need someone who would defend the rights of Christians but through calm diplomatic means that would not create grudges with Muslims or the state," Mustapha al-Sayyid, a politics professor at Cairo University, told Reuters.