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Egypt declares day of mourning for Pope

10:55 Tue Mar 20 2012

Egypt's military rulers have declared a national day of mourning for the funeral of Coptic Pope Shenuda III, the spiritual leader of the Middle East's largest Christian community.

Tens of thousands have flocked to Cairo's St Mark's Coptic cathedral since Shenuda died on Saturday at the age of 88, to catch a final glimpse of body, which was dressed in golden robes and crown and had been sat upright on the papal throne.

Flags will be flown at half mast, as preparations were under way for the funeral service at the cathedral on Tuesday, followed by Shenuda's burial at the St Bishoy monastery in the Nile Delta.

Tens of thousands of people queued for hours on Sunday to get close to the throne, many weeping and lamenting their loss as the church scrambled to find a new leader of the anxious Coptic community.

Worshippers in black hoping for a final blessing from their spiritual leader took pictures of Shenuda on their mobile phones, amid tears and wailing.

Three of the mourners were crushed to death in the crowd and 137 injured, according to the health ministry, prompting church officials to cut short the viewing and close the cathedral to the public.

Thousands of grief-stricken people continued to mass outside.

One woman in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia was in a critical condition after trying to commit suicide, the official MENA news agency reported.

Shenuda had been battling a long illness and his death set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch.

The selection of a new pope of the Coptic Church of Alexandria will take place amid a fragile period of political instability following an uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, and rising Islamism.

Copts make up an estimated 10 per cent of Egypt's population of 82 million. They are the target of frequent sectarian attacks and complain of systematic discrimination.