Egypt’s Coptic Christians voted yesterday for a new leader to succeed Pope Shenuda III, who died in March, leaving behind a community anxious about its status under an Islamist-led government.
The death of Shenuda, who headed the church for four decades, set in motion the process to elect a new patriarch to lead the community through the post-revolution era in Egypt, which is marked by increased sectarian tension.
More than 1,000 eligible voters --— Coptic public officials, MPs and journalists — lined up in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral, seat of the Coptic papacy, to choose a candidate.
Five candidates — two bishops and three monks — are vying to become the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa in the Holy See of St Mark the Apostle.
A council of senior clergy, current and former Coptic public officials, lawmakers, local councilors and journalists will also cast a vote.
The names of the top three vote-getters will then be written on separate pieces of paper and placed in a box on the altar of St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo.
On Sunday, a child will be blindfolded and asked to choose one of the papers.
The person chosen will be enthroned in a ceremony on Nov. 18.
The candidates are Bishop Rafael, 54, a medical doctor and current assistant bishop for central Cairo; Bishop Tawadros of the Nile Delta province of Beheira, 60; Father Rafael Ava Mina, the oldest of the five candidates at 70; Father Seraphim al-Souriani, 53 and Father Pachomious al-Suriani, 49.
They have been visiting churches and preaching across the country ahead of the voting.
Copts around the world were asked to fast for three days before the voting and a second period of fasting will begin tomorrow, selection committee spokesman Bishop Paul said.
One cleric who did not make the short list is hardline Bishop Bishoy because of, as the state-owned Egyptian Gazette said in a recent editorial, “his fierce attacks on other denominations and his previous statements to the press that could have sparked sectarian sedition in the country.”
Bishoy came under fire over comments he made about the Koran and his exclusion suggests the church is trying to keep controversial figures out of the race.
Egypt’s Copts, who make up between 6 percent and 10 percent of the 83 million population, have regularly complained of discrimination and marginalization, even under the secular regime of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled last year.
The subsequent rise of Islamists, and the election of Islamist Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi have sparked fears of further persecution at home despite Morsi’s repeated promises to be a president “for all Egyptians.”
In the latest incident, five Egyptian Coptic Christians were injured on Sunday in clashes with Muslims at a church in a village south of Cairo, security sources said.
The violence took place as Muslim villagers attempted to block access to the church as the Coptic faithful arrived from throughout the area to attend Sunday mass.
Bishop Morcos, chairman of the church’s influential media committee, recently told the state-owned Al-Ahram weekly: “We reject the notion of a religious state that would prevent us from exercising our freedom as Copts.”
“The state should be ruled by law and not religion,” he said.