Egypt’s Coptic Pope Shenuda III, spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, died on Saturday at the age of 88, state media and cathedral sources said.
He had suffered health problems for years and recently stopped receiving treatment for liver failure and tumors or swelling in his lungs because he was too feeble, the Coptic Church said.
“The last days were the hardest in the Pope’s life, as he was unable to walk,” said the statement carried by the official MENA news agency.
The official MENA news agency said Shenuda suffered from several diseases, including liver problems and pulmonary problems.
He was forced to cancel a weekly sermon last week over health concerns.
Named Coptic pope of Alexandria in 1971, Shenuda led the Copts, estimated at 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, for the best part of a generation that saw Egypt hit by a wave of Islamic militancy from which he sought to protect his people.
News of Shenuda’s death was certain to cause dismay among Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic population, many of whom looked up to him as a spiritual guide.
He was placed under house arrest by former president Anwar Sadat for his outspoken criticism of Sadat’s courting of Islamists.
But Shenuda was supportive of Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown by a popular uprising more than a year ago which led to an Islamist-dominated parliament – the first in the country’s history.
Shenuda, immediately recognizable by his long white beard, was believed to have viewed the widely despised Mubarak as a bulwark against Islamists, who believe non-Muslims should not be allowed to rule the country.
He was also seen as a check on more radical Copts who urged more forceful reactions to sectarian attacks that have plagued their community, especially after Mubarak’s ouster.
Theologically, Shenuda was conservative, slamming a court decision calling on his church to allow divorce.
Shenuda’s community is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches that are not in communion either with the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox churches because of a 5th century disagreement over the nature of Jesus.
However, the pope maintained a keen interest in promoting church unity.
He served as head of both the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, and founded churches in several African countries.