Your Middle East
Last updated: 2 November, 2012

Choosing a new Coptic pope

The 118th leader of the Coptic Church will be chosen on Sunday. Three candidates to succeed Shenouda III remain, and the new pope will become the spiritual leader of a community uneasy about its status under the new Islamist-led government in Egypt.

In Sunday’s conclave, the names of the three candidates – Bishop Rafael, Bishop Tawadros and Father Rafael Ava Mina – will be written down on separate pieces of paper and placed in a box on the altar of St Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic papacy. A blindfolded child will then pick only one piece. The name on that paper will be enthroned in a ceremony on November 18.

Bishop Raphael is 54 years old and current General Bishop of Downtown Cairo. He was a practicing physician before being ordained a monk in 1990. Seven years later he became a bishop, a role in which he has put a great deal of focus on education, health care and youth outreach. The most well known of the remaining three candidates, he received the most votes during the election on Monday.

Bishop Tawadros, 60, is the current General Bishop of the Nile Delta Province of Beheira. A convert to monasticism, he became a bishop in 1997 and believes that the church should not be a political actor.

Your Middle East spoke to Bishop Tawadros earlier this week who said that he is very happy and humbled by being one of the final three candidates. He praised his fellow candidates and said that they are all good people and either one would be “the right choice” for the Church. Between today and Sunday he will be fasting and praying.

The third papal candidate is Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70, the only remaining monk. The Mar Mina Monastery’s contact to the papacy between 1996 and 2003, Father Raphael had a close relationship with the two previous popes, Cyril VI and Shenouda III. Just as Bishop Tawadros, he wants the church to remain completely independent of all political life.

Opinions are split between those hoping the new pope will take a reduced political role and those who want him to champion Copts’ political rights. The rise of Islamists and the election of the country’s first Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, has sparked fears of further persecution despite his promise to be a president “for all Egyptians.”

“We hope that will take steps back , but I think the policies of Morsi and Salafi will not allow for the next Pope to do that,” said Emad Gadm a political analyst for Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies and former MP of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party to the Daily News Egypt. “I think the hottest issues are outside the Church”, he added, “…to deal with the president, the government, and how to get the rights of Christians as Egyptians, not as a minority.”

“The church needs the pope to be a spiritual man, as well as an administrator able to deal with everyone and reach out to everyone,“ Coptic Bishop Markos of Cairo’s Shubra al-Kheima diocese told al-Ahram Online.

The method of electing a new Coptic pope has changed several times throughout history. The Church of Egypt’s first patriarch is said to be Saint Mark the Evangelist, author of one of the four gospels and the first to spread Christianity to Africa. In its early history, the Church’s head was the only bishop in Egypt and twelve priests based in Alexandria would choose a successor when their leader died. As the Church grew various bishops overseeing different areas of the country began contributing to the selection process.

The current method used was put forth in 1957. Today, nominations are made to the General Congregation Council who review the candidates and then privately eliminate candidates until between five and seven remain. This list is reduced to three candidates by voters chosen among the Church’s clergy, prominent Copts and lay members across dioceses around the world.

On Sunday Bishop Pachomious, the acting patriarch, will receive the paper slip from the child and reveal the name to the congregation. He will also show the other names in the box for transparency. The lot is drawn by a blindfolded child in order to allow God to have a final say in the selection. This process also eliminates internal politics and lobbying that otherwise may have occurred in previous stages of the selection.

The current method has been criticized by the Centre for Human Rights in Alexandria with claims that the selection committee includes individuals of “indecent” crimes. An administrative court has also postponed a case filed by Maged Mikhail who is calling for suspensions of the papal elections claiming the voter list is not representative of the Coptic congregation.