Cairo (AsiaNews) - In a press release by the Vatican Press Office, Benedict XVI offered his prayers, noting that Catholics share the pain of the Coptic community following the death of Shenouda III, patriarch of the Orthodox Coptic Church, who passed away at the age of 88 last Saturday.
Thousands of Copts from across Egypt have packed Cairo's St Mark's Cathedral to bid farewell to the late religious leader. According to Egyptian media, mourners converged on the cathedral in a queue that stretches for more than a kilometre. As crowds pressed to see the patriarch's body, three people were crushed to death.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, granted Copts three days off to pay their respect to the patriarch.
Exceptionally, the authorities have also allowed the coffin to lie in state in the cathedral until tomorrow's funeral.
Shenouda will be buried at St Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrun in the Nile Delta, where he spent four years under house arrest (1981-1985) after a dispute with the late president Anwar Sadat.
In his message, Pope Benedict said, "I can say how much the entire Catholic Church shares the suffering of the Orthodox Copts."
The Holy Father stressed Shenouda's commitment to Christian unity, noting his memorable visit to Pope Paul VI on 10 May 1973, the joint Catholic-Coptic statement of faith about the Incarnation of the Son of God and his meeting with John Paul II in Cairo during the Incarnation Jubilee, on 24 February 2000.
In Egypt, important Muslim religious and political leaders have also issued their own statements praising the late patriarch.
The Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's most prestigious institution, Ahmed al-Tayeb, remembered his dear friend, saying that Egypt "lost one of its greatest men".
Cairo-based Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi described Shenouda as "an Egyptian and national personage who took upon himself responsibilities for Egyptians and all Arabs."
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi visited St Mark Cathedral to pay his respects.
The patriarch led the largest Church in the Middle East (6-10 per cent out of a population of 80 million) at a time of great change in the Muslim world but also important tensions.
During his tenure, he focused on developing the faith through research, catecheses and texts that he personally authored. In Egypt, he presided over a growth in monastic vocations at a time when Coptic communities expanded around the world, especially in the United States, Australia and Canada.
At the same time, he opened up his Church to the ecumenical movement, developing a closer relationship with the pope in Rome and strengthening ties with Copts living abroad.