New pope chosen to lead Coptic church


Some huddle in a conclave before announcing their decision in a puff of smoke. Others ballot church dignitaries and pray for the wisdom to elect the right leader.

Not so the Coptic Orthodox Church, which yesterday selected its new pope by getting a blindfolded boy to pick a name from a bowl. The winner, Bishop Tawadros, became Pope Tawadros II. In a felicitous quirk of fate, it also happened to be his birthday.

They call it the altar lottery, and it is how the Coptic church has been picking its head since the 18th century. After the death of Pope Shenouda III in March, candidates from within the church put themselves forward to a lengthy selection process where 2,500 prominent Christians from both inside and outside the church whittled them down to first five, and then finally three, candidates.

The other two candidates were the auxiliary bishop of central Cairo, Bishop Rafael, and Fr Rafael Ava Mina, a monk at the St Mina monastery near Alexandria. After the boy had picked out the name of Bishop Tawadros, the other two names had to be picked out of the bowl too, to ensure transparency.

Sherif Azer, a Coptic Christian and human-rights advocate who has been critical of the church’s recent political stances, said: “The idea behind it is to invoke divine intervention, which doesn’t fit with the concept of a democratic election.

“Some active church members have already discussed reviewing the process, but I don’t think this issue will be brought up anytime soon as the pope will serve for a lifetime.”

Bishop Tawadros is to be officially enthroned on November 18th. But in his first comments after being chosen, he humbly said: “The other two candidates were more deserving than me. I put myself in the hands of Christ, who is the true leader of the church.”

Many challenges

The new pope will have his hands full in the corporeal realm as he takes over a church that has not yet fully come to terms with the death of Pope Shenouda III, who steadied the helm for four decades, and amid sectarian attacks against Christians in Egypt.

“The new pope is entering into a position that places him in a similar situation that each pope has had to deal with in the past, but this time with much higher tension,” said Christian blogger Amira Mikhail.

“In general, all high-profile Christian leaders are faced with the constant decision between being politically and religiously sensitive to the majority religion [Islam] and the government, and also what is best for the Christian minority group. In the past and quite unfortunately, this balance has not always been found.”

The new pope’s predecessor had always toed a line close to the state, seeing it as the only bulwark against increased Islamist fanaticism and sectarian tensions. This came to a head during what came to be known as the Maspero massacre in October 2011, when 27 Christian protesters were killed by army soldiers who opened fire on them and ran over them with military vehicles.

The church’s refusal to condemn the ruling military junta led to criticisms from within the Coptic Christian community and from revolutionary forces outraged at the silence emanating from the pope.

In a nod to the delicate balancing act he will have to assume, Bishop Tawadros said: “We would like to thank the state and the media who paid great attention to this lovely event and have shown us great affection.”

“I think the new pope has two options,” Mr Azer said. “Either be outspoken and make the church the official representative of the Copts, openly demanding their rights, or remove the church completely from the political realm.” – (Guardian service)