A council of Egypt’s Coptic Christians in Cairo voted on Monday in a process that will lead to the selection of a new pope for the ancient church, as the community struggles to assert its identity and rights in a rising tide of Islamism that has left many Copts fearful for their future.
The succession follows the March death of the charismatic Pope Shenouda III at the age of 88, after 40 years as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The congregation represents the majority of Egypt’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 83 million people.
About 2,400 clergymen, community leaders and Egyptian Coptic notables gathered in the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo for the voting. They were choosing a short list of three candidates from a field of five monks and auxiliary bishops.
By late Monday, acting Pope Pachomios said more than 93 percent of the council voted, and selected Bishop Raphael, 54, once an aide to Shenouda; Bishop Tawadros, 59, an aide to the acting pope, and Father Raphael Ava Mina, the oldest among them at 70, a monk in a monastery near Alexandria and a student of the pope who preceded Shenouda.
The final selection of the new pope will take place in a ceremony Sunday, when the three names are put in a box and a blindfolded child picks one out, a step believed to reflect God’s will in the choice. The acting pope asked Copts to fast for three days to aid the selection of the Church’s 118th pope.
Initially, the five candidates were selected by a group of clergymen, who winnowed them down from 17 applicants. Among those who did not make the cut were clergymen seen as too hard-line, making controversial statements against Islam, and trying to impose a heavy conservatism among Copts.
“Coptic leaders are looking for a candidate who had no public and media debates. They are looking for new faces that can build consensus,” said Sameh Fawzi, a Coptic scholar.