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Egypt's Copts choose new pope for uncertain times

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 12:02 pm •  Published: November 4, 2012

We "will start by organizing the house from within," Tawadros told reporters after he was named pope. "It is a responsibility," he said from the monastery complex of Wadi Natrun northwest of Cairo where he was praying. "Most important is ... that the church, as an institution, serves the community."

In a recent television interview, Tawadros said the youth-led uprising marked a turning point in the church's relations with younger generations.

Tawadros was formerly an aide to the acting Pope Pachomios and he was selected as pope on his 60th birthday, Egypt's state-run MENA news agency reported.

It said he was born Wagih Sahby Baqi Soleiman and had two sisters. Tawadros became a pharmacist who briefly managed a government-run pharmaceutical lab in Egypt until he went to a monastery in Wadi Natrun in 1986 where he studied religion for two years. He was ordained a priest in 1989.

The new pope will face tremendous challenges in navigating Egypt's changing political realities, where Islamists are now dominant and the liberal and secular groups behind last year's uprising are struggling. At the center of the political squabbling is the role of Islam in the new constitution, currently being drafted.

Christians, along with liberals and secularists, oppose demands by the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative groups to enshrine a stricter adherence to Islamic law.

Violence is also an ongoing concern.

Copts have faced attacks since the uprising, and disputes with their neighbors have sometimes flared into deadly clashes.

On New Year's Eve 2011, about a month before the uprising began, the bombing of a Mass in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria killed 21 people — the worst attack against Copts in at least a decade. No one has been arrested.

In October 2011, soldiers drove armored vehicles into a crowd in Cairo protesting the failure of the military rulers who took over from Mubarak to protect Copts. Twenty-six people, mostly Copts, were killed.

The papal election comes during a shift in Christian attitudes about their relations with the state. For years, Christians largely relied on the church to secure protection for their rights through the former pope's close relationship with Mubarak.

But Shenouda had longstanding critics within the community who questioned why a cleric should act as an intermediary between them and the state. Others criticized him for not being tough enough with the former regime.

"I don't accept that the church continues representing the community, but it should continue the role of serving the community," said Sidhom, the newspaper editor.

Following the uprising and the pope's death, more Copts, particularly youths, have been emboldened to act outside the church to independently demand rights, better representation and freedom of worship.

Some critics of Shenouda's papal style hope the change will usher in a patriarch who is head of the church but not necessarily a political leader of the community.

Kirolos Zakaria, 20 year-old engineering student, said he wants the Christian community in Egypt to participate more in politics, but he does not want to see the pope involved.

The process of electing a new pope began weeks ago and on Monday, about 2,400 clergymen and church notables drew up a short list of three. The other two candidates were Bishop Raphael, 54, a one-time aide to Shenouda, and Father Raphael Ava Mina, the oldest among them at 70, a monk in a monastery near Alexandria.

There was controversy surrounding the selection process with congregants wanting a greater say in selecting papal nominees. Another issue the church is grappling with is strict rules that allow for divorce only in the case of adultery or conversion.


Additional reporting by Sarah El Deeb.