CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church chose a new pope, Bishop Tawadros, in a sumptuous service on Sunday that Christians hope will lead them through an Islamist-dominated landscape and protect what is the Middle East’s biggest Christian community.
Many Christians in Egypt, who make up about a tenth of the population of 83 million, are worried about political gains made by Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. They have long complained of discrimination in Muslim-majority Egypt.
In a ritual steeped in tradition and filled with prayer, chants and incense at Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo, the names of three candidates chosen in an earlier vote were placed in a wax-sealed bowl before a blindfolded boy picked out one name.
Copts believe this long-established process ensured worldly influences did not determine the successor to Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades until his death in March at the age of 88.
“Pope Tawadros II is the 118th (leader of the church), blessed congratulations to you,” said interim Pope Bakhomious, dressed in gold-embroidered robes, who has temporarily been in the post since Shenouda’s death.
As he held the name aloft, the congregation in the packed cathedral applauded. The formal ceremony to install Bishop Tawadros as the pope will take place on November 18, a priest said.
The new pope, bishop of a region in the Nile Delta north of Cairo who clerics said turned 61 on Sunday, had trained as a pharmacist before joining the priesthood.
Church experts said he had strong communication skills and had called for peaceful co-existence in Egyptian society.
“I am so happy. I have had dealings with Bishop Tawadros before and he is a very wise and calm man,” said 20-year-old Marina Nabil, speaking amid applause in the cathedral.
The other two candidates were Bishop Rafael, a 54-year-old who qualified as a doctor before entering the priesthood, and Father Rafael Afamena, a 70-year-old monk who studied law before taking on holy orders.
In a ballot last week the candidates were whittled down to a choice of three. Voters included leading members of the church, public figures and a handful of representatives of the Ethiopian Church, which has historic links to the church in Egypt.
Echoing the worries of many of Egypt’s Copts, shopkeeper Michael George said before the service: “Christians fear the Islamists’ rule especially because their presence is encouraging radicals to act freely.”
Since Mubarak was ousted, there have been several attacks on churches by radical Islamists. Those incidents have fuelled longstanding complaints that Christians are sidelined in the workplace and in law. They point to rules that make it harder to obtain official permission to build a church than a mosque.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamist movement from which President Mohamed Mursi emerged to win power via free elections, has sworn to guard the rights of Christians in the overwhelmingly majority Sunni Muslim nation.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party congratulated the church. The party chief, Saad al-Katatni, said on his Facebook page that he was “optimistic about fruitful cooperation with (the pope) as spiritual leader of Coptic brethren.”
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)