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Thousands pay tribute to Shenouda

Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians have lined up outside a cathedral in the Egyptian capital to pay their final respects to the spiritual leader of their ancient church, whose body was seated inside on an ornate throne.

The grief of the faithful filing past Pope Shenouda, who died on Saturday at 88, may also reflect the uncertainty felt by the country's Christian minority following the recent rise of Islamists to power.

In his death, Egypt's 10 million Christians have lost a seasoned protector at a bad time.

"He has been our protector since the day I was born," said a tearful Antonios Lateef as he waited in line to take one last look at the Pope, who spent 40 years at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The crowds outside the cathedral in central Cairo carried crosses and portraits of Shenouda. "Ya Allah!" or "Oh God!," they chanted in unison.

Tragedy struck during the sorrowful day. Three mourners suffocated to death in the crowded church, said Church official Anba Younnes.

Soldiers backed by armoured personnel carriers deployed outside the cathedral, possibly as a deterrent to possible attacks by militant Muslims targeting the large number of Christians gathered or angry over the traffic disruptions they caused.

Shenouda, seated on the throne of St Mark, or Mar Morkos, was clad in the elaborate regalia he traditionally wore to oversee services. His head slightly tilting to the right, he held a sceptre.

Shenouda's death could lead to a long power vacuum.

It could take months before a successor is found, according to Fuad Girgis, a prominent Christian from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and a member of the Church's local layman council, known as el-Maglis el-Melly. "Pope Shenouda assumed the throne of St Mark eight months after the death of his predecessor," he noted. Shenouda will be buried on Tuesday.

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