CAIRO – 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 amid 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 — parts of which were shown live on state TV. They were choosing a short-list of three candidates from a field of five monks and auxiliary bishops.
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.
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 amid 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.
Now with Mubarak’s ouster in a popular uprising last year and Shenouda’s death in March, many in the community have been emboldened to act beyond the Church’s hold and try to participate more directly in the nation’s politics to demand rights, better representation and freedom of worship and expression. 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 and groups 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, including by the security forces, and a crackdown on freedom of expression.
The election of Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi heightened fears among the Copts and other minorities that their rights would be curtailed, and that they might become targets of extremist Muslim attacks. 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,” like himself.
Bishop Basanti, a member of the Coptic church’s Holy Synod, said the new pope will work with the Church’s layman council, known as el-Maglis el-Melly, 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 the words with steps that would reassure the Copts.
Rights groups and the U.S. State Department have criticized the Egyptian government recently for failing to curb violence against the Christian minority, saying that at times security forces themselves were involved. In a recent flare-up of violence after a dispute between a Christian and Muslim, the whole Christian population of the village of Dahshour was forced to flee because of threats and failure of police to protect them.
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 the Church’s internal laws to allow for more representation in the running of the church’s affairs and selection of the pope.
The five candidates among whom the voters were choosing the short-list Monday included three monks and two auxiliary bishops.
The youngest of the candidates, at 49, is Father Pachomios, a monk in a monastery in Wadi Natrun in western Egypt. The oldest is 70-year-old Father Raphael Ava Mina, a monk in a monastery near Alexandria and a student of the pope who preceded Shenouda.
The candidates also include Bishop Raphael, 58, once an aide to Shenouda, and Bishop Tawadros, 59, an aide to the acting pope. The fifth candidate is Father Seraphim, a 53-year-old monk who resides in the U.S., according to the state-owned Al-Ahram online newspaper.
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 a number of senior figures from Shenouda’s papacy who were seen as too hardline — making controversial statements against Islam, trying to impose a heavy conservatism among Copts and aggressively putting bishops before disciplinary committees.
The disqualified figures were “polarizing,” said Sameh Fawzi, a Coptic scholar. Coptic leaders “are looking for consensus figures to build the Church from inside.”
“They were also looking for a candidate who had no public and media debates and disagreements. They are looking for new faces.”