The head of Egypt's Coptic Church has died at the age of 88. Many Egyptian Christians viewed Pope Shenouda III as their protector over his 41 years as patriarch.
Egyptian media reported on Saturday that the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church had died. The cause was not immediately clear. Shenouda had apparently suffered from ill health for years and had been treated abroad on several occasions.
"The last days were the hardest in the pope's life, as he was unable to walk," said the statement issued by the official MENA news agency.
The Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in world and the biggest Christian community in the Middle East. Copts account for around one-tenth of Egypt's population of over 80 million.
Shenouda, who was 88 years old, was named head of the church in 1971. Ten years later he was forced into internal exile by President Anwar Sadat in 1981 for accusing the government of failing to rein in Muslim extremists. Then-President Hosni Mubarak allowed him to return to Cairo in 1985.
Like Mubarak, Shenouda faced criticism for his iron grip on the church and rejection of any dissent.
The Coptic community views itself as being a target of discrimination within Egyptian society. Tensions have been high in the wake of a series of attacks that began in January 2011 when a Coptic church was bombed in Alexandria, killing 23 people and wounding 79. That was followed by clashes between Copts and Muslims over purportedly forced conversions from Islam to Christianity and church burnings.
Throughout Shenuda insisted that Egypt was the Copts' home.
"Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us," he is reported to have often said.
ncy/ng (AFP, AP, dapd)