Egypt's Copts choose new pope for uncertain times

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 12:02 pm •  Published: November 4, 2012
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CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's ancient Coptic Christian Church named a new pope on Sunday to spiritually guide the community through a time when many fear for their future with the rise of Islamists to power and deteriorating security after last year's uprising.

The death earlier this year of Pope Shenouda III, a familiar figure who led the church for 40 years, heightened the sense of insecurity felt by many Egyptian Christians. They will now look to Bishop Tawadros, who will be ordained Nov. 18 as Pope Tawadros II, to fill the void in leadership.

Tawadros, 60, was chosen in an elaborate Mass where a blindfolded boy drew the name of the next patriarch from a crystal chalice.

"The situation for us in Egypt is not stable," said 27 year-old Peter Nasser, a volunteer at the Mass. "We hope the incoming pope will make our problems known to the outside world," he added, voicing hopes that Tawadros will also raise the profile of Christians in this country.

Nasser accused the current government, led by President Mohammed Morsi of the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, of discriminating against minorities. He claimed the new leadership does not work in the interest of all Egyptians.

But even under authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, who ran Egypt for nearly three decades until he was ousted in February 2011, rights groups say police were lax in pursuing and punishing those who attacked Christians and few Copts were named to genuinely powerful posts in government.

Morsi, who was elected in Egypt's first free presidential race, has named a number of Christians as advisers and vowed to work closely with the community. But Christians are skeptical.

Morsi congratulated Tawadros and spoke of Egyptian "unity" and "brotherly love" between Copts and Muslims.

Copts, estimated at about 10 percent of the country's 83 million people, have long complained of discrimination by the Muslim majority state. Under both the old regime and the new Islamist leadership, violent clashes with Muslims have occasionally broken out, often sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.

The newfound political power of Islamists in Egypt, who control the presidency and won parliamentary elections, has left many Christians feeling deeply uncomfortable.

Copts have faced sporadic, violent attacks by Muslim extremists. That has been compounded by deterioration in security and law enforcement since the uprising. In some cases, Coptic families or entire communities have had to flee their towns as a quick-fix solution to avoid more violence.

Yousef Sidhom, the editor of Egypt's main Coptic newspaper, said Copts are suffering from the increased lawlessness.

"There is great apprehension about what tomorrow holds for everyone," he said.

Another worry for Christians is that the new political powers are pressing for a stronger role for Islamic law in legislation. They are increasingly concerned about further marginalization and a possible curtailing of their rights of worship and expression.

Around Cairo's St. Mark's Cathedral, where the colorful ceremony to select the new pope was held at midday, there was a heavy police presence.

"We will pray that God will choose the good shepherd," acting Pope Pachomios told the packed cathedral as he used red wax to seal a chalice with three names inside and then placed it on the altar during Mass.

There was a moment of silence before the name was drawn by a blindfolded boy. When the new pope was announced, thousands of worshippers erupted in applause, tears and prayer.

All three senior clerics whose names were in the chalice were considered consensus candidates who stayed out of disputes both within the church and with other groups, including Islamists. Several candidates were eliminated because they were considered either too conservative or too liberal.

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