Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church chose a new pope, Tawadros II, in a sumptuous service on Sunday and Christians hope he will lead them through an Islamist-dominated landscape and protect what is the Middle East's biggest Christian community. Christians, who make up about a tenth of Egypt's 83 million population, worry about political gains made by Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
Radical Islamists have been blamed for attacks on churches several times since, but Copts have long complained of discrimination in Muslim-majority Egypt. In a ritual steeped in tradition and filled with prayer, chants and incense at Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo, the names of three papal candidates chosen in an earlier vote were placed in a wax-sealed bowl before a blindfolded boy picked out one name.
Copts, who trace their church's origins to before the birth of Islam in the 7th century, believe this long-established selection process ensured worldly influences did not determine the successor to Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades until his death in March at the age of 88.
"Pope Tawadros II is the 118th (leader of the church), blessed congratulations to you," said the interim Pope Bakhomious, who was dressed in gold-embroidered robes. As he held the name aloft, the congregation in the packed cathedral applauded. The formal ceremony to install Bishop Tawadros, 60, as pope will take place on Nov. 18, a priest said.
The new pope, bishop of a region in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, was shown on television praying at Pope Shenouda's tomb in a desert monastery in Wadi el-Natrun surrounded by priests. Bearded, bespectacled and in black priestly robes, Tawadros thanked God, praised his predecessor and said: "I carry love to all our brothers in Egypt," in comments broadcast on television. Church experts said Tawadros, trained as a pharmacist before becoming a priest, had strong communication skills and called for peaceful co-existence in Egyptian society. Church officials said he turned 60 on Sunday, after earlier saying he was 61.
Coptic activist Peter el-Naggar welcomed the choice, adding: "He is not the kind of man who would compromise our rights." In the cathedral, 20-year-old Marina Nabil said amid the applause: "I am so happy. I have had dealings with Bishop Tawadros before and he is a very wise and calm man." Muslim leaders and politicians offered congratulations and voiced hopes he would foster greater national unity. Mona Saleh, a 65-year-old Muslim, watched the whole ceremony, which lasted several hours and was broadcast on state television. "I am glad for my country to have a new pope," she said, speaking on the street near the cathedral. In a ballot last week the candidates had been whittled down to the three. Voters included leading members of the church, public figures and a handful of representatives of the Ethiopian church, which has historic links to the church in Egypt.
The other two candidates for the papal post were Bishop Rafael, a 54-year-old who qualified as a doctor before entering the priesthood, and Father Rafael Afamena, a 70-year-old monk who studied law before taking on holy orders. Echoing worries of many Copts, shopkeeper Michael George said: "Christians fear the Islamists' rule especially because their presence is encouraging radicals to act freely." Since Mubarak was ousted, Christians have complained of several attacks on churches by radical Islamists, incidents that have sharpened longstanding Christian complaints about being sidelined in the workplace and in law.
As an example, they point to rules that make it harder to obtain official permission to build a church than a mosque. Sectarian tensions have often flared into violence, particularly in rural areas where rivalries between clans or families sometimes add to friction. Romantic relations between Muslims and Christians are regularly to blame for clashes. The Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamist movement from which President Mohamed Mursi emerged to win power via free elections, has sworn to guard the rights of Christians. Mursi congratulated the pope and the head of his Freedom and Justice Party, Saad al-Katatni, said on his Facebook page he was "optimistic about fruitful cooperation with (the pope) as spiritual leader of Coptic brethren." Christianity spread into Egypt in the early years of the faith, several centuries before Islam emerged from the Arabian Peninsula and then swept across North Africa and beyond. To indicate their earliest links with Christianity, Copts point to a biblical account of how Jesus' family sought refuge in Egypt soon after his birth.
The Coptic Orthodox church is the biggest in Egypt, although there is also a much smaller Coptic Catholic church, as well as other small groups affiliated to churches abroad. Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of al-Azhar mosque and university, the prestigious seat of Sunni Muslim learning, congratulated the new pope and wished him success.