Egypt‘s Coptic Orthodox Church chose a new pope today, putting a new leader at the helm of Egypt’s largest Christian sect at a time of increasing difficulty for the minority.
After a three-and-a-half hour long liturgical service, the acting pope blindfolded an altar boy, who reached into a glass container to select the name of the 118th pope from among those of three finalists, in accordance with Coptic tradition.
The huge cathedral erupted in joyful applause as the acting pope unfolded the piece of paper the boy had chosen, holding it up to reveal the name of the church’s new spiritual leader: Bishop Tawadros.
Bishop Tawadros takes the helm of the church at a difficult time for Christians in Egypt. He must seek to protect Christians from a rising tide of hostility and attacks and navigate a relationship with Egypt’s first Islamist president as many are fearful about the rise to power of Islamists in post-uprising Egypt.
A generational shift
The ascendancy of the relatively young new leader (he is 60) marks a generational shift. Shenouda III, who died in March at the age of 89, led the church for 40 years. During his tenure, while the church expanded outside of Egypt, at home it turned inward, as Copts increasingly withdrew from public life and relied on the church to secure their rights within the state. It is too soon to know yet what kind of path Bishop Tawadros will chart for the church in the post-uprising Egypt, says Samia Sidhom, an editor at the Coptic newspaper Watani.
But he is widely respected, says Ms. Sidhom, and his younger age gives him an advantage in a country whose massive youth population is tired of leaving decision making to the elders. In an interview with local media two weeks ago, he stressed the importance of listening to young people and including them in the decision making processes, says Sidhom. “This is something which is quite promising where the church is concerned,” she adds.
During the long, traditional service at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, thousands of black-clad priests, nuns in gray habits, and invited laypeople joined in liturgical chants that rose to vaulted ceilings. They waited with bated breath as the blindfolded altar boy chose the next pope, a tradition meant to ensure that God’s choice, not man’s, prevails.
After the ceremony was over, and the new pope’s picture was flashed onto the screen at the front of the cathedral, many of those heading toward the exits amid the pealing of the cathedral’s bells said they trusted that God had chosen the right man for the difficult job.
“We can’t see the future, but God can, and he chose the one who can do the best for us in this time,” says Mina Samy Awad. He says he met Bishop Tawadros at a church opening on Egypt’s northern coast three years ago, and that the bishop was “so friendly. He ate with us and listened to us.”
Mr. Awad, a young unemployed college graduate from Alexandria, says hostility against Christians has increased in recent years in ways that directly affect daily life. He grew up with the sons of his grandfather’s Muslim employee, he says, and until recent years they were friends. Now, they don’t speak to him as much. “Last Easter, when I was going to church, he didn’t want to say ‘happy feast’ to me,” he says. “I asked him why. He said, ‘I will only say that for Muslims.'”
Christians have long faced discrimination in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak portrayed his rule as a protection against radical Islamists, but at the same time he enforced discrimination in areas like building houses of worship. But since the uprising last year, attacks on Christians have become more common. Numerous churches have been attacked and burned, and sectarian clashes are on the rise.
In one recent incident, five Christians were reported injured in a village south of Cairo when villagers tried to prevent Christians from reaching a church for Sunday services. Recently, several Christians have been put on trial for blasphemy, with one Christian man sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly posting a cartoon onFacebook deemed insulting to Islam and the president.
Tawadros and the state
There were several sectarian incidents in Tawadros’ bishopric during his tenure, says Sidhom, mainly involving seizure of church land and attacks against church-run community centers. In each case, the bishopric leaders appealed to the authorities, who failed to resolve the problems in a satisfactory way, says Sidhom.
In some corners of the Christian community there are calls for the church to step away from politics and for Christians to engage in political and public life as individuals, instead of as part of the church. But it’s unlikely the new pope can move significantly in this direction under current conditions, says Sidhom.
“For this to happen, Egypt should have a civil society. Copts should be treated as equal citizens, so whenever they are wronged they will be calling for their rights within civil institutions, based on their rights as citizens. So far we have not reached that. As long as we have not reached that point, it will be, practically speaking, very difficult to tell the church to stay out of politics.”
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 83 million, and the Coptic Orthodox church is the biggest Christian sect. According to tradition, the church was founded during a visit to Egypt by the apostle Mark around 50 AD. It separated from other Christian churches at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD over a dispute about the divine nature of Christ. Pope Shenouda III led an effort to urge closer cooperation and dialogue between Christian denominations.