Egypt's Copts Debate Role of New Pope After Shenouda III

A little over a week after the death of Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Orthodox church of Egypt is facing a crucial dilemma in the face of the rise of Islamism. Should the next leader speak for the rights of Christians, like his predecessor did, or should he be a peace-maker?

Names of three possible candidates are being discussed, 69-year-old Bishop Bishoy, an engineer graduate and senior member in the Church's governing Holy Council; 51-year-old Bishop Yoanas, who has a degree in medicine and who was Shenouda's personal secretary; and 73-year-old Bishop Moussa, known for his youth work and for Muslim-Christian relations.

The 88-year-old Pope Shenouda, who was both the spiritual and political leader of Egypt's Christian minority for four decades, died of longtime illnesses on March 17. After his death, President Barack Obama said Pope Shenouda would be remembered "as a man of deep faith, a leader of a great faith, and an advocate for unity and reconciliation." His commitment to Egypt's national unity is also a testament to what can be accomplished when people of all religions and creeds work together, Obama added.

The Copts are divided between whether the next pope should openly and actively "fight the Islamists" or refrain from confrontation to "create a multi-plural society where Christians and Muslims survive," The Media Line quoted Ramez Fahmy, a Coptic scholar in Alexandria and former university professor, as saying.

About 10 percent of the 80 million people in Egypt are Christians, mostly Copts.

"[They] want to continue to the trajectory of Pope Shenouda, who was not only soft spoken, but was honest and open about the future and professed an undying love for Egypt and Egyptians. Most importantly he wanted inclusion and tolerance to win in the country," Fahmy added.

The 20-day process of nominations for the new pope will begin on April 27, according to Reuters. Peter al-Naggar, a church lawyer, was quoted as saying that the process could take "several months."

The waiting period is not easy for the Copts, as the country's lawmakers, a majority of whom are Islamists, are writing a new constitution. Christians have long complained that Egyptian laws make it difficult for them to construct churches, and now with Islamists at the helm they fear the new constitution might not give them the place they deserve in the country.

Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic weekly Al Watani, told Reuters that individual Christians should participate in public life while the church should stay away from it. "Christians have to engage in political parties away from the church. Christians are only 10 percent of the population. The only way for them to have their voices heard is through a healthy political engagement with moderate Muslims."

Can the church afford to stay above politics in a country where Islamists control politics? "It is impossible to keep the church away from politics because we could not keep mosques out of it," Negad al-Borai, a Muslim lawyer and rights activist, was quoted as saying. "We are in the heart of a religious process not a political one."

Christians have faced numerous attacks after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last year. Mubarak, an authoritarian leader, had kept Islamists under check.

However, after the 2010 parliamentary election, Pope Shenouda was believed to have gone closer to the liberal opposition Wafd party as opposed to the Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which reportedly failed to save Copts from sectarian attacks. But in the wake of the Jan. 25 revolution, Shenouda again supported Mubarak and drew criticism from sections of his church.

When elected, the new pope will have complex decisions to make politically to balance advocacy for the minority and maintaining good relations between Muslims and Christians.

The Coptic church's 1957 bylaws say the pope is elected by bishops, former and current Coptic cabinet members and lawmakers, Coptic notables, and Coptic newspaper owners and editors. After the vote, a blindfolded child chooses the pope from the three candidates with the highest number of votes. A candidate must be at least 40 years old and have spent at least 15 years in monastic life.

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