Egyptian Christians await new pope, debate role as Islamists rise to power

March 26, 2012

(The body of Pope Shenouda III, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, rests inside an open casket during his funeral service at the Abassiya Cathedral in Cairo March 20, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer)

Picking a new pope for Egypt’s Orthodox church could take months, officials say, allowing debate to gather pace among Christians over the political role the next leader should have as Islamists rise to power.

Pope Shenouda, who died on March 17, led the Coptic Orthodox church for four decades. He acted as the main political advocate for the nation’s Christians, who make up about a tenth of Egypt’s 80 million people, while Hosni Mubarak was in charge.

Since Mubarak’s ousting last year, Christians have become increasingly worried after an upsurge in attacks on churches, which they blame on hardline Islamists, although experts say more local disputes are often also behind them.

Shenouda’s death, aged 88, has added to those anxieties and left Christians wondering how to make their voices heard when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have swept seats in parliament and are likely to have control over writing a new constitution.

The pope’s post, temporarily filled by Biship Bakhomious, however, will not be filled swiftly.

“The door for nominations (for the pope) opens on April 27 and will stay open for about 20 days,” said Bishop Morcos, spokesman for the Church’s governing Holy Council, adding details of the selection and timeframe would be announced soon.

Peter al-Naggar, a church lawyer, said the process could take “several months.” Shenouda was appointed about six months after his predecessor.

As the potential successors emerge, the question for many Christians is whether the Church’s new leader should seek to remain the main voice for the community or should encourage Christians to engage more actively in politics outside the Church’s umbrella to secure rights they have long demanded.

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