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News > World >

Copts choose new Pope

by Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent

Posted: 05 Nov 2012 @ 06:33

AP PHOTO / NASSER NASSER

Click to enlarge

A blindfolded boy draws the name of the next pope from a crystal chalice next to acting Coptic Pope Pachomios, centre, during the papal election ceremony at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012.

Credit: AP PHOTO / NASSER NASSER

A blindfolded boy draws the name of the next pope from a crystal chalice next to acting Coptic Pope Pachomios, centre, during the papal election ceremony at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012.

The Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt has a new spiritual leader, Pope Tawadrous II, who has promised to work for greater integration with the ruling Muslim majority. Bishop Tawadrous, aged 60, was one of three Coptic leaders to be chosen in elections last week. On Sunday, in line with tradition, a blindfolded child selected one of three pieces of paper to choose the ultimate winner.

Pope Tawadrous, who graduated in pharmacy and worked for a time in the pharmaceutical industry, was ordained as a monk in 1988 before becoming a priest. Ten years later he became a bishop. He has written 12 books of theology.

After his appointment, Pope Tawadrous said that he wanted the Coptic Church to concentrate on spiritual work and on reorganisation in a way that would enable younger people to play a greater part. He has indicated in the past his commitment to ensuring that Copts remain part of Egyptian society as a whole rather than being an isolated minority group. In a recent interview with Coptic television, he said that "moderate, constructive integration" was essential. "We must concentrate on what will bring Egypt's children together, not on what will drive them apart."

He said that, in the wake of the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, "we must listen to the young generation's point of view and hold mature discussions with them."

But the new Pope will face the task of how to respond to younger Copts who reject the Church's traditional policy of keeping a low profile and refraining from open political activity. Pope Shenouda, despite his charismatic personality, frowned on those members of his community who sought political platforms to demand an end to discrimination against Copts. In the wake of recent attacks on Coptic targets, there have been calls for the creation of political parties specifically to defend Christians' rights.

Pope Tawadrous will also have the difficult task of trying to steady the nerves of the eight million or so Copts in Egypt, most of whom feel uneasy at the recent turn of political events there. While Christians stood side-by-side with Muslims in the revolution that toppled President Mubarak, the country has since experienced division, with Islamists on one side and secularists and Christians on the other. As Makram Muhammad Ahmad, an al-Ahram columnist, wrote earlier this week, Egypt is experiencing "a sharp state of polarisation dividing the society into advocates of a religious versus a civil state and the absence of healthy dialogue on outstanding issues".

The Christians' concern have been exacerbated both by the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood and the increasing assertiveness of Salafists. President Muhammed Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders have assured Christians that their rights will be respected, but acts of violence against Coptic targets have continued, and there has been a rise in the number of cases of women without their heads covered receiving verbal abuse on the streets. Many Copts believe the Islamists' long-term agenda is to see Egypt become an Islamic state in which non-Muslims will be, at best, second-class citizens. Under these circumstances there is little hope of Copts seeing their demands - including the right to build new churches - being met.

Although Copts continue to complain of discrimination, the Islamist-dominated government has taken at least one step to ease sectarian tension: it is allowing quotes from the Bible to be included with those from the Qur'an in secondary school curriculum, provided that the former do not contradict Islamic principles. The Copts will also take some comfort from the fact that Egypt's state-run Nile TV beamed live broadcasts of last Monday's preliminary voting for the new Pope. By contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood's Misr 25 TV mentioned the ballot only in passing.

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