Obama Congratulates Egypt's Embattled Copts for Choosing New Pope

U.S. President Barack Obama late Sunday congratulated Egypt's Coptic Church for choosing a new pope to fill the leadership void at a time when the minority Christian community is anxious about its future amid the rise of Islamism and deteriorating security.

Hours after Bishop Tawadros, bishop of the Nile River delta region of El Beheira, was chosen as the next Coptic pope in an elaborate Mass on Sunday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said in a statement that the U.S. shares the new leader's commitment to unity, tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

"The President sends his warm congratulations to Coptic Orthodox Christians and all Egyptians on the joyous occasion of the selection of Bishop Tawadros as the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy See of St. Mark the Apostle," he said. "We wish him great success in leading the Middle East's largest Christian community during a time of great change in the region, and reaffirm our strong support for religious freedom and mutual respect among people of all faiths."

Tawadros will be ordained as Pope Tawadros II on Nov. 18, roughly eight months after the death of Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for 40 years.

Tawadros, the 60-year-old bishop, is close to the interim pope, Bishop Pachomius.

Tawadros was chosen in an elaborate Mass where a blindfolded child picked a paper carrying his name from a crystal chalice. The two other candidates were Bishop Rafael of central Cairo and Bishop Rafael Ava Mina of St. Mina Monastery in Alexandria, according to Egypt Independent.

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.

Expectations are high from the new leader. "The situation for us in Egypt is not stable," 27-year-old Peter Nasser, a volunteer at the Mass, told The Associated Press. "We hope the incoming pope will make our problems known to the outside world," he added, voicing hopes that Tawadros will also raise the profile of Christians in this country, as his predecessor did.

Nasser said the government of President Mohammed Morsi, who is from Muslim Brotherhood, discriminates against minorities.

Yousef Sidhom, the editor of Egypt's main Coptic newspaper, also said Copts are suffering from the increased lawlessness. "There is great apprehension about what tomorrow holds for everyone."

Christians have faced numerous attacks after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last year following an uprising. Mubarak, an authoritarian leader, kept Islamists under tight control, and apparently had good relations with Pope Shenouda.

Bakhomious, the interim head of the Coptic church, expressed unhappiness with the government after Morsi appointed his first cabinet in August with just one Christian in it. And the day before Morsi appointed the cabinet, Muslim extremists attacked a church and Christian homes in a village outside Cairo.

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

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