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Father to 'all Arabs': Egyptians mourn death of Coptic pope

CAIRO – Thousands of mourners dressed in black gathered in Cairo on Tuesday for the funeral of Egypt's Orthodox Christian Pope Shenouda, who was revered my millions throughout the country as a leader for all Egyptians.

Copts felt like "they were nobodies" after Shenouda's death, mourner Mina Hany Naeem, 17, told NBC News.

"With him I felt like I was wearing white and everyone looked at me, and without him I feel naked and everyone is looking at me," he said. "When he was Pope nobody ever said Muslim and Christian – we were all Egyptians."

Shenouda, who died on Saturday at age 88, promoted religious harmony, winning respect among the Muslim majority, but his last years witnessed a growth in sectarian tension that worsened with the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last year.

"Pope Shenouda was a father to us all, to all Arabs, a very patriotic person," mourner Saber Farag Saleh, a 50-year-old construction engineer, told NBC News. "He protected us from divisions. He taught us to love the other and all religions."

Religious figures from several countries, including a Catholic delegation from the Vatican, and foreign ambassadors massed in the Orthodox Cathedral as long-bearded Coptic priests wearing bulbous black miters prayed over Shenouda's body lying in an open coffin, a golden miter upon his head and a gold-tipped staff in his hand.

Christians gather to bid farewell to Egypt's Pope Shenouda III

A delegation from the ruling military council and several candidates for Egypt's upcoming presidential elections attended the funeral. Security was tight, with dozens of police and army trucks scattered around the cathedral and plainclothes police posted on bridges and in streets nearby.

The prayers were led by Bishop Bakhomious, head of the church of Bahaira, a district in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, who will temporally hold the post of pope for two months until a new leader is elected.

'Fix all problems with prayer'
Some mourners worried who would follow Shenouda, who spent his final years trying to comfort a community disturbed by the rise of political Islam.

"It's a big loss, he looked after us all, it's a big loss for all Christians and Muslims," teacher Jaqueleen Mikhail, 25, told NBC News. "Nobody will ever be like the Pope Shenouda, he was humble and full of love and wise. He would fix all problems with prayer."

Egypt has seen less of the religious violence and discrimination that prompted members of ancient Christian communities to migrate from Iraq and other Arab countries.

But Coptic Christians, who comprise about a tenth of Egypt's 80 million people, have long complained of discrimination and in the past year stepped up protests, which included calls for new rules that would make it as easy to build a church as a mosque.

Shenouda strongly opposed Islamic militancy but strove to quell growing anger among Copts at Islamic extremism, attacks on churches and sectarian clashes often sparked by inter-faith romances and church building permits.

Photo blog: Egypt's Coptic Christians mourn the death of Pope Shenouda III

Many Muslims were among the mourners. He was a familiar figure for generations of Egyptians and Muslim Egyptians respected him as a staunch nationalist, an outspoken critic of Israel and a social conservative.

Dr. Essam Arian,  a member of parliament and the deputy of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political party) said that he was planning to attend the funeral. "We hope the next pope can continue in the path of  reconciliation.  History will judge him.”

Sheikh Zachariah Mohammed Marzouq, the second Imam of Al Azhar Mosque, echoed those comments. 

“He was a wise man and a national figure.... He managed by his wisdom to dissolve any kind of conflict between the sects of the nation, the Christians and the masses of Muslims," said Marzouq. "He was a man inviting peace and love and brotherhood.  We send our condolences to our brothers the Copts on the loss of Pope Shenouda."

Thousands have paid their respects at the cathedral since he died. For much of the time, Shenouda's body was put in a seated position on a ceremonial throne dressed in gold and red embroidered vestments.

On Sunday, the cathedral had to close its doors several times in an attempt to contain the crowds. Two mourners died killed in the crush, medical sources said.

The burial is expected to take place at the Wadi el Natrun monastery in the desert northwest of Cairo, where the late pope had requested he be interred.

NBC News' Charlene Gusbash and Taha Belal, staff and Reuters contributed to this report.

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