New pope named for Egypt's embattled Coptic Christians
Bishop Tawadros has become the new pope of the largest sect of Egyptian Christians at a time of increasing difficulty for the minority.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church chose a new pope today,¬†putting a new leader at the helm of Egypt's largest Christian sect at¬†a time of increasing difficulty for the minority.
After a three-and-a-half hour long liturgical service, the acting pope¬†blindfolded an altar boy, who reached into a glass container to select¬†the name of the 118th pope from among those of three finalists, in¬†accordance with Coptic tradition.
The huge cathedral erupted in joyful applause as the acting pope¬†unfolded the piece of paper the boy had chosen, holding it up to¬†reveal the name of the church's new spiritual leader: Bishop Tawadros.
Bishop Tawadros takes the helm of¬†the church at a difficult time for Christians in Egypt. He must seek¬†to protect Christians from a rising tide of hostility and attacks and¬†navigate a relationship with Egypt's first Islamist president as many¬†are fearful about the rise to power of Islamists in post-uprising¬†Egypt.
A generational shift
The ascendancy of the relatively young new leader (he is 60) marks a¬†generational shift. Shenouda III, who died in March at the age of 89,¬†led the church for 40 years. During his tenure, while the church¬†expanded outside of Egypt, at home it turned inward, as Copts¬†increasingly withdrew from public life and relied on the church to¬†secure their rights within the state. It is too soon to know yet what¬†kind of path Bishop Tawadros will chart for the church in the¬†post-uprising Egypt, says Samia Sidhom, an editor at the Coptic¬†newspaper Watani.
But he is widely respected, says Ms. Sidhom, and his younger age gives¬†him an advantage in a country whose massive youth population is tired¬†of leaving decision making to the elders. In an interview with local¬†media two weeks ago, he stressed the importance of listening to young¬†people and including them in the decision making processes, says Sidhom. "This is something which is quite promising where the church¬†is concerned," she adds.
During the long, traditional service at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo,¬†thousands of black-clad priests, nuns in gray habits, and invited¬†laypeople joined in liturgical chants that rose to vaulted ceilings.¬†They waited with bated breath as the blindfolded altar boy chose the¬†next pope, a tradition meant to ensure that God's choice, not man's,¬†prevails.
After the ceremony was over, and the new pope's picture was flashed¬†onto the screen at the front of the cathedral, many of those heading¬†toward the exits amid the pealing of the cathedral's bells said they¬†trusted that God had chosen the right man for the difficult job.
"We can't see the future, but God can, and he chose the one who can do¬†the best for us in this time," says Mina Samy Awad. He says he met¬†Bishop Tawadros at a church opening on Egypt's northern coast three¬†years ago, and that the bishop was "so friendly. He ate with us and¬†listened to us."
Mr. Awad, a young unemployed college graduate from Alexandria, says¬†hostility against Christians has increased in recent years in ways¬†that directly affect daily life. He grew up with the sons of his¬†grandfather's Muslim employee, he says, and until recent years they¬†were friends. Now, they don't speak to him as much. "Last Easter, when¬†I was going to church, he didn't want to say 'happy feast' to me," he¬†says. "I asked him why. He said, 'I will only say that for Muslims.'"
Christians have long faced discrimination in Egypt. Former President¬†Hosni Mubarak portrayed his rule as a protection against radical¬†Islamists, but at the same time he enforced discrimination in areas¬†like building houses of worship. But since the uprising last year,¬†attacks on Christians have become more common. Numerous churches have¬†been attacked and burned, and sectarian clashes are on the rise.
In¬†one recent incident, five Christians were reported injured in a¬†village south of Cairo when villagers tried to prevent Christians from¬†reaching a church for Sunday services. Recently, several Christians¬†have been put on trial for blasphemy, with one Christian man sentenced¬†to six years in prison for allegedly posting a cartoon on Facebook¬†deemed insulting to Islam and the president.
Tawadros and the state
There were several sectarian incidents in Tawadros' bishopric during¬†his tenure, says Sidhom, mainly involving seizure of church land and¬†attacks against church-run community centers. In each case, the¬†bishopric leaders appealed to the authorities, who failed to resolve¬†the problems in a satisfactory way, says Sidhom.
In some corners of the Christian community there are calls for the¬†church to step away from politics and for Christians to engage in¬†political and public life as individuals, instead of as part of the¬†church. But it's unlikely the new pope can move significantly in this¬†direction under current conditions, says Sidhom.
"For this to happen,¬†Egypt should have a civil society. Copts should be treated as equal¬†citizens, so whenever they are wronged they will be calling for their¬†rights within civil institutions, based on their rights as citizens.¬†So far we have not reached that. As long as we have not reached that¬†point, it will be, practically speaking, very difficult to tell the¬†church to stay out of politics."
Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 83¬†million, and the Coptic Orthodox church is the biggest Christian sect.¬†According to tradition, the church was founded during a visit to Egypt¬†by the apostle Mark around 50 AD. It separated from other Christian¬†churches at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD over a dispute about the divine nature of Christ. Pope Shenouda III led an effort to urge¬†closer cooperation and dialogue between Christian denominations.