Coptic Church moves toward picking new pope
Coptic Church moves toward picking new pope
Tuesday, October 30, 2012 07:30:39 PM
A council of Egypt's Coptic Christians voted on Monday in a process that
will lead to the selection of a new pope for the ancient church, as the
community struggles to assert its identity and rights in a rising tide
of Islamism that has left many Copts fearful for their future.
The succession follows the March death of the charismatic Pope Shenouda
III at the age of 88, after 40 years as the leader of the Coptic
Orthodox Church. The congregation represents the majority of Egypt's
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 83 million people.
About 2,400 clergymen, community leaders and Egyptian Coptic notables
gathered in the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo for the voting. They were
choosing a short list of three candidates from a field of five monks and
By late Monday, acting Pope Pachomios said more than 93 percent of the
council voted, and selected Bishop Raphael, 54, once an aide to
Shenouda; Bishop Tawadros, 59, an aide to the acting pope, and Father
Raphael Ava Mina, the oldest among them at 70, a monk in a monastery
near Alexandria and a student of the pope who preceded Shenouda.
The final selection of the new pope will take place in a ceremony
Sunday, when the three names are put in a box and a blindfolded child
picks one out, a step believed to reflect God's will in the choice. The
acting pope asked Copts to fast for three days to aid the selection of
the Church's 118th pope.
Egypt's Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the
state and the country's Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims have
occasionally broken out, sparked by church construction, land disputes
or Muslim-Christian love affairs.
The new election comes during a shift in Christian attitudes on their
relation to the state. For years, Christians largely relied on the
Church to secure some protection for their rights, using Shenouda's
close relationship with longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
With Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising last year and Shenouda's
death, many have been emboldened to act beyond the Church's hold and
participate more directly in the nation's politics to demand rights,
better representation and freedom of worship. Signs of rebellion over
the close relation with the state had already begun to surface before
the uprising in January 2011.
"If Egyptian Copts are represented by the Church, they will be
considered second-class citizens, because they are subjects of the
Church first before they are subjects of the state," said Yousef Sidhom,
the editor of Egypt's main Coptic newspaper. "Many have mocked this,
saying how can the Copts demand citizenship rights while accepting to
remain under the umbrella of the Church in the face of the state."
The more vocal stance among Copts, particularly the youth who organized
into movements independent of the Church, has come with the rising power
of Islamist groups long repressed under Mubarak, and after a series of
violent attacks against churches and Christians.
The election of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi heightened
fears among the Copts that their rights would be curtailed. The fears
have been further fueled by the process of writing a new constitution,
which is dominated by Islamist groups seeking to increase the role of
Islam in legislation.
Mina Thabet, a 23-year old Coptic activist, said young Christians have
rejected the previous isolation of their community from national debate,
which he said was imposed in part by the Church to try to insulate
Christians from both Mubarak's police state and the mushrooming of
radical Islamists in past decades.
"Our battle now is the constitution," Thabet said. "Everyone should have
a say in its writing. The religious institutions, like the Church on the
one hand, must have a say...but also civil groups and activists."
For Joseph Malak, a lawyer from Alexandria, calls for the new pope to
disengage from politics are "risky" at a time when Islamist groups are
increasingly dominant in political life.
Speaking to the Copts United website, Malak said the Church should
remain at the front of demanding the Copts' rights.
Bishop Basanti, a member of the Coptic Church's Holy Synod, said the new
pope will work with the Church's layman council, to address the
community's demands and reach out to the country's leadership.
"The new pope will be a preacher of peace," Basanti told pan-Arab
Al-Jazeera television in Egypt. His priorities "will be to demand the
rights of the Copts, the rights of all those killed" in violence, as
well as freedom of worship.
Morsi has promised to be inclusive in decision-making and reach out to
Christians, but Basanti said the new president has yet to back up his
words with steps that would reassure the Copts.
Rights groups and the U.S. State Department have criticized the Egyptian
government for failing to curb violence against the Christian minority,
saying that at times, security forces themselves were involved.
There has also been an increase in court cases accusing Christians of
insulting Islam. Usually there is little evidence, but radical Islamist
outrage over the alleged insults often forces authorities to detain the
Christians, allegedly to protect them.
Many among the Coptic community are demanding the Church become more
inclusive as well, seeking changes in its internal laws to allow for
more representation in the running of the Church's affairs and selection
of the pope.
The five candidates were selected by a group of clergymen, who winnowed
them down from an initial 17 applicants. Among those who did not make
the cut were clergymen seen as too hard-line �" making controversial
statements against Islam, and trying to impose a heavy conservatism
Coptic leaders "are looking for a candidate who had no public and media
debates. They are looking for new faces" that can build consensus, said
Sameh Fawzi, a Coptic scholar.