CAIRO // With the death on Saturday of Pope Shenouda III, who championed the rights of Egyptian Copts for 40 years as sectarian tensions rose alongside the growth of Islamic extremism, many Copts see themselves as at their most vulnerable in decades.
After the uprising last year that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president and set the country on a new democratic path, there have been a spate of attacks on Copts in Egypt in rural areas.
And with the domination of the parliamentary elections by new Islamist political parties, there has been a renewed discussion about what role the Copts, who make up 10 per cent of Egypt's population, should play in the new government.
"He was our protector, a leader, a guide," said Vivian Fouad, a former head of the Coptic Centre for Social Studies who now works in Egypt's Population Council. "Now, we feel there is no protector. The challenge is that we have to face Islamic fanaticism and become more active in social and political life on our own."
Born Nazeer Gayed in the Upper Egyptian city of Aysut, Pope Shenouda became the first monk to take the top position of the Church of Alexandria, on November 14, 1971. He died on Saturday after a long battle with cancer that spread to several organs. A funeral is planned for tomorrow afternoon.
Pope Shenouda, known for his charisma and intellectualism, played a cautious political role in Egypt in recent years after a turbulent start to his time as pope.
The year he was elected, Pope Shenouda began to clash with President Anwar Sadat for failing to restrain Islamist extremists. Mr Sadat put him under house arrest in a monastery in Wadi Natroun for more than three years from September 1981, during which time the pope wrote 16 books.
Mr Mubarak freed him in January 1985, marking the beginning of a close and conciliatory relationship between Pope Shenouda and the presidency. That support lasted until the final day of the Egyptian uprising, prompting criticism from some Coptic youths who took part in the protests.
Still, for most Copts he was seen as the spiritual leader and guardian of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
"This is one of the greatest losses at the worst of times," said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a Coptic member of the advisory council to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) - the ruling generals who replaced Mubarak - and a former member of parliament. "He was not only a statesman, but a wise man who realised how much willpower and steadfastness it takes to be able to preserve coexistence and national unity in Egypt."
The abiding legacy of Pope Shenouda was clear in the condolences from across religious boundaries, she said. The Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's Grand Mufti were among the prominent Islamic leaders to praise his life on Saturday and yesterday.
His death is "a grave calamity that has afflicted all Egypt and its noble people, Muslims and Christians", said the Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa.
A mechanism for electing a new pope will begin in two months. Bishop Pachomious, the second eldest archbishop in the highest Coptic authority - the Holy Synod, is expected to assume the position of acting patriarch of the church until a council of senior clergy meets to choose a new pope.
Under Coptic traditions, three candidates will be chosen by an election among archbishops and monks. Then a child under the age of 9, wearing a blindfold, will select the new pope from three pieces of paper bearing the names of the candidates in a box.
The new pope will also face demands from segments of the Coptic community in Egypt to address how Copts are represented in Egypt
"Since the 1952 revolution, the pope has been the de facto representative of the Copts in Egypt," said Sadek Wahba, an investment banker in New York whose grandfather was one of the founders of Egypt's secular governing council of the Copts, the Al Majlis Al Milli. "No Coptic minister or member of parliament would be chosen without some consultation of the pope."
The new pope will have to address "fundamental issues about the division of state and church", Mr Wahba said. "With marital status or divorce, for instance, should it be the church that decides how this is done or elected members of parliament?"