Who will lead the Copts?

Bishops and monks and prominent lay people play their part in choosing the next leader of Egypt's Copts, the Middle East’s biggest Christian community. But the ultimate decision will be made in a very public casting of lots that echoes Acts 1.26.

Who will lead them? Coptic Christians at the funeral of Pope Shenouda in March 2012The people of Egypt will choose their next president this weekend (16-17 June 2012) following last month’s narrowing of the pool from 13 to 2 candidates. But another election that will shape the voice Christians have in Egypt’s future is also now under way – the selection of the next Coptic Pope.

When Pope Shenouda lll – head of the Coptic Church– died on 17 March this year, tens of thousands flooded the streets around Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral to express their grief. SAT-7’s Egypt Office Executive Director, Farid Samir, said “lots of Christians felt they had become orphans”. As leader of the largest Christian community in the Middle East for 41 years, Pope Shenouda had been a respected spokesperson and champion for the country’s Christian minority. He also made strong efforts to heal rifts between Christians and the Muslim population. All Christians, not just Copts, felt they had “lost an important leader and pioneer”, Mr Samir said.

Three months on, the Coptic Church is involved in a process which has seen 17 nominees being publicly announced. Archbishop Pachomius of Beheira (an area north-west of Cairo) is holding the reins as acting Patriarch. But behind the scenes, the 150 bishops, abbots and archbishops of the Church’s Holy Synod, along with a council of elected lay people and a 100-strong committee of leading Copts from business and public life, are working on reducing the list to three final candidates.

After this – and the process is likely to take several months – there will be some remarkable theatre. The final three names will be placed in a box on the altar of St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo during a Sunday communion service. As the acting patriarch, the Holy Synod and all the other committee members look on, a blindfolded five-year-old child will be chosen from the congregation and brought forward to draw from the box the name of the next Patriarch.

The unusual procedure dates from bye laws formulated in the wake of disputed elections in the 1920s and 1940s. But it is modelled on the Book of Acts (Acts 1.26) where an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot was chosen by prayer and casting lots.

Pope Shenouda's funeral: mourners outside St Mark's Cathedral Whatever political deliberations will have played a part in the Pope’s selection up to this point, the final step is intended to allow for ‘divine participation’, a church official has said [1]. Interestingly, it’s a method a Church of England adviser [2] has contrasted positively with the more secretive selection of the Archbishop of Canterbury – a process also under way for when Archbishop Rowan Williams retires in November.

Whoever the Coptic community select, it is unlikely his political role will be identical to Pope Shenouda’s, however. According to SAT-7 ARABIC Programming Manager, George Makeen, Pope Shenouda was forced to become a political figure and defender of the Coptic community at a time when it was marginalised under the authoritarian rule of President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. As a result, “Our choices as Egyptian Christians pretty much depended on how the Pope thought,” Mr Makeen says.

But, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Mr Makeen believes much has changed. “Now Egyptian Christians are thinking for themselves. They are out demonstrating on the streets. Today the Church is seeking justice and equality. It is looking to move on from survival to being part of a spiritual and cultural revival. Now Egypt has these hopes for freedom, Christians want to be – and be seen – as active players in our society.

“So my prayer would be for an open-minded person, a spiritual leader who is active in promoting relationships and cooperation between the denominations, and who supports a generation that is looking to think outside the box and to engage the Bible with all areas of life and society.”

For prayer:

[1] http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/5384/

[2] http://ethicalcomment.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/egypt-and-the-altar-lot/

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