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.
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 to vote. They were choosing a short list of three candidates from five.
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 hardline — making controversial statements against Islam and trying to impose a heavy conservatism.
By late on 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 on Sunday when the three names are put in a box and a blindfolded child picks one out.
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 former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The election of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, of the country’s first Islamist leader, 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.
Mina Thabet, a 23-year old Coptic activist, said young Christians have rejected the previous political isolation of their community.
“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.”
Many in the Coptic community are demanding the Church become more inclusive as well, seeking changes in its internal laws to allow for more representation.
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