Copts put faith in new pope for protection

Blindfolded altar boy selects new figurehead for church amid hopes that new leader will guard Copts' position in an Islamist-dominated Egypt.

Egyptian caretaker of the Coptic Church, Bishop Pachomius, observes blindfolded altar boy Bishoy Girgis Masaad picking the name of Bishop Tawadros from a chalice as the 118th pope of Egypt's Coptic Christians.
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CAIRO // A blindfolded altar boy reached into a crystal chalice yesterday and drew the name of the next patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church, in an ancient ceremony at the Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo.

The scroll-like paper he drew out bore the name of Bishop Tawadros, appointing him as the 118th pope, as thousands of worshippers erupted in applause, tears and prayer when his name was announced.

The Altar Lot, as the process is called, allowed for what Christians believe is God's will in making the final decision among three candidates.

Bishop Tawadros, who will be ordained November 18 as Pope Tawadros II, comes to power at a time of vulnerability for the more than eight million Copts in Egypt, about one tenth of the country's population.

Many will look to him to fill a void in leadership following the death of Pope Shenouda, who led the church for 40 years. The pope's death in March, at the of 88, heightened the sense of insecurity felt by many concerned at how their lives would be affected by Islamists coming to power and incidents of sectarian tension across the country.

The fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak last year has led to increasingly powerful Islamist groups, of which Mohammed Morsi, a long-time official of the Muslim Brotherhood, is president. Although seen as close to Mubarak's regime, Pope Shenouda was also considered a strong guardian for the Copts who used his political connections to maintain the community's way of life in Egypt.

At the centre of the political squabbling in Egypt is the role of Islam in the country's new constitution, currently being drafted.

The Christians, along with liberal and secularists, oppose demands by Islamists to increase the role of Shariah. The prospects of a stronger role for Islamic law in legislation increase the community's concern of further marginalisation, or of a curtailing of their rights of worship and expression.

In this sense, there was more at stake than who would become pope yesterday.

Pope Tawadros II, 60, who was previously a bishop in the Nile Delta, will have to grapple with how to maintain the security of Copts in Egypt, and walk a delicate line with the new Islamist-dominated government.

Islamic extremists have attacked churches and caused ruptures in several villages across the hinterlands of Egypt, prompting Copts to temporarily flee their homes for safety over the past year and a half.

The new pope is also facing tension from within the Coptic community, with new Coptic activist groups - inspired by the sweeping democracy in institutions and government across Egypt - pushing for changes within the church itself.

Issues such as the right to obtain a divorce are more in the spotlight now than they were under his predecessor, who was seen as a strong-armed defender of the Copts with highly conservative views on the individual rights of his flock.

For now, the filling of the vacancy of the top position in the church was cause for celebration among Copts.

Volunteering at the mass, 27 year-old Peter Nasser said he hoped the new pope would raise the profile of Christians in Egypt. "The situation for us in Egypt is not stable," he said. "We hope the incoming pope will make our problems known to the outside world."

* With additional files from Reuters and the Associated Press


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