CAIRO -- A bishop from the Nile delta was chosen to lead the Coptic Orthodox Church on Sunday when a blindfolded altar boy picked his name from a glass chalice in a ceremony resonant with tradition but marked by anxiety over heightening tensions between Christians and Muslims across Egypt.
Bishop Tawadros became the Church’s 118th pope after his name was selected from three finalists at a Mass in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. He succeeds Pope Shenouda III, who died in March after four decades as patriarch of the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Copts make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 82 million.
Tawadros inherits a Church uneasy over simmering sectarianism amidst the rise of hard-line Islamists. Many wonder if he will choose to be a vibrant voice for a Christian community that has endured recent church burnings, deadly attacks and fears that Copts will be further isolated by the government of President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the once-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Cheers echoed through the cathedral when the acting head of the Church, Bishop Pachomious, read out Tawadros’ name, picked by a blindfolded boy whom the devout believed was guided by God. The new 60-year-old pope was a pharmacist before entering a monastery in 1986, according to the official state news agency. He had been serving as a bishop in Beheira in northern Egypt.
The Coptic Laity Council was reported as praising Tawadros for “his wisdom, firmness and ability to maintain good rapport with everyone in his province, both Christians and Muslims alike.”
The Coptic Church, which was founded in the 1st century by St. Mark and predates Islam, has, despite periods of unrest, long co-existed with Muslims. The secular government of deposed President Hosni Mubarak routed radical Islamist movements and offered Copts a degree of security. But Christians have felt increasingly marginalized in recent years and thousands began leaving the country when Islamists rose to political prominence with the ousting of Mubarak in 2011.
Similar apprehensions have gripped non-Muslims across the region as the upheaval of the so-called Arab Spring has reshaped the political landscape. Morsi has promised inclusive government but has appointed no Copts or women to key positions. Copts worry about civil rights and demands by ultraconservative Islamists to filter the country’s new constitution through Sharia law.
Young Christians -- inspired by the same uprising that brought the Islamists to power -- have turned politically active and no longer want to rely on the Church to advance their rights. Shenouda was revered by most Copts but he was criticized for being compliant to Mubarak and for attempting to buffer his congregation from the realities of living in a Muslim-dominated nation.
The new pope “shouldn’t hide Christians like before. He shouldn’t say, ‘I’m worried about you and worried that you might get hurt,’” said Remon Amin, a 23-year-old stock trader. “We don’t want any more of that. No more hiding. We want to be the same as anyone else.”
Saad Katatni, head of the Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party, said on his Facebook page that he was “optimistic about fruitful cooperation with [the new pope] as spiritual leader of Coptic brethren.”
Sectarian suspicions are high, however, and Copts, who have been adrift since Shenouda’s death, are bitter after a number of bloody assaults. A church bombing in Alexandria in 2011 killed 21 people and an attack months later by soldiers and thugs on a peaceful protest left more than 20 Christians dead.
The pope should “stay away from politics. He’s a spiritual man,” said Emad El Erian, a spokesman for a Coptic youth coalition. “President Morsi has a file on his desk with everything that happened to the Copts. The church burnings. The evicting of Christians. . . . He should be the one who is judged on how Copts are treated.”
Tawadros is expected to be formally installed as pope during a ceremony Nov. 18.
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-- Jeffrey Fleishman and Hassan El Naggar
Photo: The name of the new Coptic Church head Tawadros is displayed after a blindfolded altar boy selected it from a chalice Sunday in Cairo at St. Mark's Cathedral. Credit: Mahmud Khaled / AFP/Getty Images