Military police restrain mourners for funeral of Pope Shenouda III
The death of Pope Shenouda III has cast a shadow on Coptic Christian community Reuters

The death of Pope Shenouda III, who led the Egyptian Coptic minority for 40 years, comes at a time of uncertainty for Christians in Egypt.

Shenouda died on 17 March at the age of 88. He was made patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt in November 1971.

His death represents the end of an era for Egyptian Copts who have been left without a patriarch in a country where anti-Christian crimes have been on the rise over the last few years.

Tens of thousands of mourners turned up to his funeral at St Mark's Cathedral in central Cairo in a day of national mourning.

Shenouda's Successor: A Difficult Task

For four decades, Pope Shenouda III represented the 10 million-strong Coptic Christian community in Egypt. For many, he was more than just their spokesperson and leader; he was a symbolic father figure who fought for the community's cause.

Shenouda wrote more than 100 books and gave many interviews, upping the profile of the Coptic Church inside and outside the country.

In 1973, he was the first Coptic Orthodox pope to visit Rome in 1,500 years and under his leadership the Coptic Orthodox Church has experienced growth in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Africa.

He was often praised for bringing about stability to the Coptic minority with a role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator. He also lobbied for the church to play a bigger role in Egypts domestic affairs by increasing engagement with the state's leadership.

Now Copts are in limbo while the complex succession process goes through. It could take months.

"Ultimately there would be some changes and ultimately the establishment, in other words the church, remains bigger than any individual, even a patriarch like Pope Shenouda III," Soliman Shafiq, a commentator on Coptic affairs, told the online edition of Ahram.

"Away from matters of faith, which remain immune, there are serious questions as to how the Coptic Orthodox Church and Copts would attend to their role in a country undergoing transition because during his years Pope Shenouda decided and the congregation of Copts followed."

One of the Coptic community's main concerns will be to ensure that the new leader can maintain a high profile and a dialogue with Egypt's rulers as well as the various political and religious factions dominating the country's political and social's sphere.

"It is true that during his years, Pope Shenouda upgraded the engagement of the church in national affairs," said Youssef Sidhom, editor of Watani, a newspaper focused on Coptic affairs. He added, however, that this "nationalist or patriotic role of the church established by Pope Shenouda" should not undermine the exercise of citizenship on the part of Copts.

"We are hoping that the next patriarch will keep the national role of the Coptic Church," said Sidhom. However, he added, that "after 25 January [2011 - the start of the Egyptian uprising] it can no longer be acceptable that the church is the single body that speaks for the rights of Copts, simply because this runs counter to the adequate exercise of citizenship."

Christians in a Muslim Majority

Christians in Egypt have complained about discrimination and human rights violations for decades. They say they suffer from persecution, harassment, threats, attacks, confiscation of properties and even murder.

Mixed marriages or relationships between a Christian and a Muslim are also still frowned upon.

Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt was widely perceived as a moderate state but since his outing the political climate has changed and various Islamist factions now dominate the parliament.

Despite claims that Mubarak championed secularism under his leadership Christians still suffered from discrimination and activists repeatedly warned against government-led persecution as well as harassment by fundamentalist Islamist groups.

In the last year of Mubarak's regime attacks against Christian villagers and churches grew and similar incidents continue to emerge in the Egyptian press regularly.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party insists it is moderate and is willing to work with the various political and religious factions in the country. The party issued a statement last year ahead of the Coptic Christmas saying it wanted to "protect the churches".

Tensions related to Copts in Egypt are not only confined to Islamist groups or political parties as one of the worst incident reported against Christians over the last year involved the military.

In October, a group of Coptic demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt. The demonstration started peacefully but clashes between with security forces erupted and 28 people, mainly Copts, with more than 200 were injured.

The military was blamed for the deaths and accused of encouraging violence towards Christians.

Egypt is still a country in transition and with the presidential elections scheduled for May, one of the church's main objectives will be to build on the political momentum that follows from the Coptic involvement in the January 2011 protests that led to the fall of Mubarak.