AP News

Egypt's Copts choose new pope for uncertain times


CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's ancient Coptic Christian Church named a new pope on Sunday to spiritually guide the community through a time when many fear for their future with the rise of Islamists to power and deteriorating security after last year's uprising.

The death earlier this year of Pope Shenouda III, a familiar figure who led the church for 40 years, heightened the sense of insecurity felt by many Egyptian Christians. They will now look to Bishop Tawadros, who will be ordained Nov. 18 as Pope Tawadros II, to fill the void in leadership.

Tawadros, 60, was chosen in an elaborate Mass where a blindfolded boy drew the name of the next patriarch from a crystal chalice.

"The situation for us in Egypt is not stable," said 27 year-old Peter Nasser, a volunteer at the Mass. "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.

Nasser accused the current government, led by President Mohammed Morsi of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, of discriminating against minorities. He claimed the new leadership does not work in the interest of all Egyptians.

But even under authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, who ran Egypt for nearly three decades until he was ousted in February 2011, rights groups say police were lax in pursuing and punishing those who attacked Christians and few Copts were named to genuinely powerful posts in government.

Morsi, who was elected in Egypt's first free presidential race, has named a number of Christians as advisers and vowed to work closely with the community. But Christians are skeptical.

Morsi congratulated Tawadros and spoke of Egyptian "unity" and "brotherly love" between Copts and Muslims.

Copts, estimated at about 10 percent of the country's 83 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the Muslim majority state. Under both the old regime and the new Islamist leadership, violent clashes with Muslims have occasionally broken out, often sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.

The newfound political power of Islamists in Egypt, who control the presidency and won parliamentary elections, has left many Christians feeling deeply uncomfortable.

Copts have faced sporadic, violent attacks by Muslim extremists. That has been compounded by deterioration in security and law enforcement since the uprising. In some cases, Coptic families or entire communities have had to flee their towns as a quick-fix solution to avoid more violence.

Yousef Sidhom, the editor of Egypt's main Coptic newspaper, said Copts are suffering from the increased lawlessness.

"There is great apprehension about what tomorrow holds for everyone," he said.

Another worry for Christians is that the new political powers are pressing for a stronger role for Islamic law in legislation. They are increasingly concerned about further marginalization and a possible curtailing of their rights of worship and expression.

Around Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral, where the colorful ceremony to select the new pope was held at midday, there was a heavy police presence.

"We will pray that God will choose the good shepherd," acting Pope Pachomios told the packed cathedral as he used red wax to seal a chalice with three names inside and then placed it on the altar during Mass.

There was a moment of silence before the name was drawn by a blindfolded boy. When the new pope was announced, thousands of worshippers erupted in applause, tears and prayer.

All three senior clerics whose names were in the chalice were considered consensus candidates who stayed out of disputes both within the church and with other groups, including Islamists. Several candidates were eliminated because they were considered either too conservative or too liberal.

We "will start by organizing the house from within," Tawadros told reporters after he was named pope. "It is a responsibility," he said from the monastery complex of Wadi Natrun northwest of Cairo where he was praying. "Most important is ... that the church, as an institution, serves the community."

In a recent television interview, Tawadros said the youth-led uprising marked a turning point in the church's relations with younger generations.

Tawadros was formerly an aide to the acting Pope Pachomios and he was selected as pope on his 60th birthday, Egypt's state-run MENA news agency reported.

It said he was born Wagih Sahby Baqi Soleiman and had two sisters. Tawadros became a pharmacist who briefly managed a government-run pharmaceutical lab in Egypt until he went to a monastery in Wadi Natrun in 1986 where he studied religion for two years. He was ordained a priest in 1989.

The new pope will face tremendous challenges in navigating Egypt's changing political realities, where Islamists are now dominant and the liberal and secular groups behind last year's uprising are struggling. At the center of the political squabbling is the role of Islam in the new constitution, currently being drafted.

Christians, along with liberals and secularists, oppose demands by the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative groups to enshrine a stricter adherence to Islamic law.

Violence is also an ongoing concern.

Copts have faced attacks since the uprising, and disputes with their neighbors have sometimes flared into deadly clashes.

On New Year's Eve 2011, about a month before the uprising began, the bombing of a Mass in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria killed 21 people — the worst attack against Copts in at least a decade. No one has been arrested.

In October 2011, soldiers drove armored vehicles into a crowd in Cairo protesting the failure of the military rulers who took over from Mubarak to protect Copts. Twenty-six people, mostly Copts, were killed.

The papal election comes during a shift in Christian attitudes about their relations with the state. For years, Christians largely relied on the church to secure protection for their rights through the former pope's close relationship with Mubarak.

But Shenouda had longstanding critics within the community who questioned why a cleric should act as an intermediary between them and the state. Others criticized him for not being tough enough with the former regime.

"I don't accept that the church continues representing the community, but it should continue the role of serving the community," said Sidhom, the newspaper editor.

Following the uprising and the pope's death, more Copts, particularly youths, have been emboldened to act outside the church to independently demand rights, better representation and freedom of worship.

Some critics of Shenouda's papal style hope the change will usher in a patriarch who is head of the church but not necessarily a political leader of the community.

Kirolos Zakaria, 20 year-old engineering student, said he wants the Christian community in Egypt to participate more in politics, but he does not want to see the pope involved.

The process of electing a new pope began weeks ago and on Monday, about 2,400 clergymen and church notables drew up a short list of three. The other two candidates were Bishop Raphael, 54, a one-time aide to Shenouda, and Father Raphael Ava Mina, the oldest among them at 70, a monk in a monastery near Alexandria.

There was controversy surrounding the selection process with congregants wanting a greater say in selecting papal nominees. Another issue the church is grappling with is strict rules that allow for divorce only in the case of adultery or conversion.

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Additional reporting by Sarah El Deeb.


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