The head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, has died on Saturday at the age of 88, after a long battle against illness.
The Coptic patriarch suffered from back and kidney problems for years and repeatedly travelled to the United States for medical treatment.
He was born on 3 August 1923 in Asiut, Upper Egypt and has been the Pope of Alexandria since November 1971 when president Anwar El-Sadat was in power.
"We lost today a great icon. His presence was crucial in repelling many threats against the country,” Amin Eskandar, a member in the People’s Assembly (parliament's lower house), said in a phone call with state television channel Nile News.
"His patriotism and wise approaches to any issue were very helpful. May God compensate us for the loss of that great man.”
Shenouda was widely acclaimed by Christians and Muslims alike in recent years for his regular efforts to contain sectarian tensions following a number of incidents – some involving the burning of churches, but was also criticized for turning the church into a political entity.
He was also known for his support of Palestinian rights in the decades-long Middle East conflict. Because of these and other stances, he was often described as an Arab nationalist by many observers.
In 2001, he famously stated he would never visit Jerusalem unless he entered the country with a Palestinian visa along with Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, the late Grand Imam of Egypt’s foremost religious authority, Al-Azhar.
"I was full of admiration for the great patriotic stances he took throughout his life,” said Mohamed Refaa El-Tahtawy, the former spokesman of Al-Azhar.
"I remember his great remarks about the visit to Jerusalem, when he refused to go there under the Israeli occupation,” he added.
Relationship with Sadat, Mubarak
Shenouda had a frosty relationship with late Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat, who placed him under house arrest in 1981, marking the climax of repeated disputes between both men.
Sadat was enraged after Shenouda implied that Egyptian Christians were getting a discriminatory treatment from authorities.
However, he enjoyed a warm relationship with Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in a popular uprising in January 2001.
Shenouda heaped praise on the revolution few days after Mubarak departed on 11 February but was criticized by many Christians for failing to scold Egypt’s ruling military following the infamous Maspero incident in October last year.
Clashes between Christian protesters and the army left at least 29 dead in front of the state TV building.
Many political and religious figures mourned the loss of Shenouda and delivered tributes to the man who led the Egyptian church for four decades.
“We offer our deep condolences to every one of our Christian brothers for the loss of Pople Shenouda,” Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said in a statement.
“May God help all our Christian brothers overcome this ordeal and bring a successor who can keep promoting the sense of unity between all citizens,” he added.