CAIRO -- Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church began the first phase of voting Monday to elect a new spiritual leader to replace Pope Shenouda III, whose death in March left behind a Christian community increasingly worried over the rise of a new Islamist-led government.
An assembly of more than 2,400 Coptic scholars and public officials cast ballots, narrowing a list of five papal candidates down to three finalists: Bishop Rafael, 54, a doctor and current assistant bishop for central Cairo; Bishop Tawadros, 60, of the Nile Delta district of Beheira; and Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70.
The names of the finalists will be written on ballots and placed in a box. In accordance with church tradition, a blindfolded child from the congregation will draw the name of the new pope Nov. 4 during a public ceremony at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. The pope will be enthroned in a ceremonial celebration Nov. 18.
The long-anticipated election for the 118th pope of Alexandria, as the leader of the church is known, came as a relief for thousands of anxious Copts, who often said they felt "orphaned" after the death of Shenouda. The late pope led the church for more than four decades and was revered among Copts, who make up about 10% of Egypt's 82 million people.
Shenouda was a calming voice in a country troubled by growing sectarian animosities even under the seemingly secular regime of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year. Churches have been attacked and peaceful Christian protesters have been killed. The Coptic community has felt increasingly isolated since new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was inaugurated in June.
Morsi’s government includes few Christians, women and other minorities. Copts are also concerned over how strongly sharia, or Islamic law, will influence the nation’s new constitution in terms of civil and religious freedoms. When the Cabinet was chosen in August, the church’s acting leader, Bishop Pachomious, refused to congratulate the prime minister on the formation, which he called "unjust" for failing to be inclusive.
-- Reem Abdellatif
Photo: Egyptian Coptic priests wait in line Monday at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo to cast their votes in the election of a new pope. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency