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Coptic Christian Pope Shenouda III dies at 88

Leader of Egypt's Christian minority suffered from liver failure, lung problems.

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Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, leads Christmas mass in Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo on Jan. 6, 2011. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Shenouda III, the man who worked quietly behind the scenes for his Coptic Christian minority’s place inside a peaceful Egypt, died today in Cairo. He was 88.

As he became too weak to recover, doctors stopped treating the pope for liver failure and tumors or swelling in his lungs, AFP reported.

“The last days were the hardest in the Pope’s life, as he was unable to walk,” a statement from the Coptic Church said, according to AFP.

There are an estimated 8 million Copts in Egypt, or 10 percent of the country’s population.

They trace their origins to St. Mark, who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century.

A strict Orthodox religion, clergy members have great influence over the everyday lives of Copts.

Shenouda, despite upholding a much talked about ban on divorce in the church, also worked to bring his followers greater rights in Egypt despite attacks in a country with growing Muslim influence.

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The Copts seem to be regular targets of violence in Egypt.

A suicide bombing at a New Year's mass in 2011 killed 21, and 27 died during protests last October in Cairo.

The Copts believe they were active in Egypt before Islam’s arrival, The Associated Press said.

“Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” Shenouda said, according to the AP.

He was born Nazeer Gayed on Aug. 3, 1923 in Assiut, and joined the priesthood at an early age. He practiced as a monk for six years before becoming pope at age 37 in 1971, BBC said.

President Hosni Mubarak freed Shenouda from four years of exile after President Anwar Sadat’s assassination.

Some followers wanted him to take a more active role, but he preferred a conservative approach to ensuring Copts' place in Egypt.

He even enjoyed seeing Muslim Brotherhood and military leaders attended his last Orthodox Christian service this January.

“For the first time in the history of the cathedral, it is packed with all types of Islamist leaders in Egypt,” Shenouda said, the AP reported. “They all agree ... on the stability of this country and in loving it, and working for it and to work with the Copts as one hand for the sake of Egypt.”

Now, there’s worry about how successful the new pope will be at balancing Copts’ rights and the growing Islamic influence inside Egypt.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/120317/coptic-christian-pope-shenouda-iii-dies-at-88