n Egyptian court rejected pleas for the reinstatement of Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III today and called for the appointment of a new leader of the largest Christian minority in Egypt and the Middle East.

The court's decision amounted to a rejection of Shenouda's appeal of a 1981 decree by the late president Anwar Sadat withdrawing his endorsement of the Coptic pope's appointment and preventing him from saying mass. Shenouda retired to a desert monastery.

Sadat had charged that Shenouda incited sectarian strife between Egypt's Moslem majority and the Copts. The unrest of that time culminated a month later in the assassination of Sadat by a Moslem extremist group.

The court recommended that "specific measures should be taken to select and appoint an acting pope to take over the church's administration until a new pope is selected and appointed."

Egypt's Coptic community, estimated at about 5 million of the 45 million Egyptians, reacted with restraint. The pope's lawyer said he intended to appeal. Hanna Narooz, who is also a member of the Holy Synod, said in an interview that the decision was "totally unacceptable to any Copt." He denied that it could cause a rift among Copts.

The court verdict said that "since the defendant was appointed to his post by a presidential decree, only the president is entitled to cancel the decree in question." The pope's lawyer stressed, however, that the Holy Synod was the only body that could depose the pope and elect a new one and that this would only take place if the pope was proven guilty of heresy or corruption or found to be insane.

The lawyer said he hoped President Hosni Mubarak would make a good will gesture toward the Copts by overruling the court's judgment. Narooz warned that "the government has put itself in a bad position, and the Copts' dismay could further alienate them from it."

The Copts' disappointment stemmed partly from their having accepted that Mubarak, in contrast with Sadat, did not regard Shenouda as politically ambitious. "The president told us long ago that he was holding nothing against the pope. He just said that he feared the pope's reappearance could unleash another wave of sectarian incidents," Narooz said.

The court ordered the dissolution of a five-member committee Sadat had appointed to perform the pope's duties.