Coptic Church Chooses Pope Who Rejects Political Role

Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

Coptic clergymen at a ceremony on Sunday for choosing a pope.

CAIRO — A blindfolded 6-year-old reached into a glass bowl on Sunday to pick the first new Coptic pope in more than 40 years, a patriarch who promises a new era of integration for Egypt’s Christian minority as it grapples with a wave of sectarian violence, new Islamist domination of politics, and internal pressures for reform.

Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The acting Coptic pope, before a banner of Bishop Tawadros, held up the names of other candidates to show that the selection was fair.

Speaking to the television cameras that surrounded him at his monastery in a desert town, the pope-designate, Bishop Tawadros, indicated that he planned to reverse the explicitly political role of his predecessor, Pope Shenouda III, who died in March. For four decades, Shenouda acted as the Copts’ chief representative in public life, won special favors for his flock by publicly endorsing President Hosni Mubarak, and last year urged in vain that Copts stay away from the protests that ultimately toppled the strongman.

“The most important thing is for the church to go back and live consistently within the spiritual boundaries because this is its main work, spiritual work,” the bishop said, and he promised to begin a process of “rearranging the house from the inside” and “pushing new blood” after his installation later this month as Pope Tawadros II. Interviewed on Coptic television recently, he struck a new tone by including as his priorities “living with our brothers, the Muslims” and “the responsibility of preserving our shared life.”

“Integrating in the society is a fundamental scriptural Christian trait,” Bishop Tawadros said then. “This integration is a must — moderate constructive integration,” he added. “All of us, as Egyptians, have to participate.”

Coptic activists and intellectuals said the turn away from politics signaled a sweeping transformation in the Christian minority’s relationship to the Egyptian state but also addressed a firm demand by the Christian laity to claim a voice in a more democratic Egypt.

“It can’t continue the way it used to be,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani. “It is not in the interests of the Copts, if they are trying to speak for themselves as full and equal citizens, to have an intermediary speaking for them, and especially if he is a religious authority. I think the church has gotten this message loud and clear.”

In Egypt’s first free elections for Parliament and president, Christians voted overwhelmingly along sectarian lines, seeking to pool their votes around the most secular candidates — only to see their favorites fall under the Islamist tide. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party won parliamentary leadership and then the presidency, many Egyptians joked that the group put a candidate up for Coptic pope, too.

In recent interviews, intellectuals and activists, and churchgoers leaving Mass after the selection of the pope, all said they had concluded that Christians would have to build alliances with Muslims who shared their goal of nonsectarian citizenship.

“We are not the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Tarek Samir, a sales manager leaving the cathedral after the selection of Bishop Tawadros. “Politics is a dirty word to us, and we do not think it should be mixed with religion. But there are moderate Muslims who live the same life we do, who go to work with us, who live together with us, and if I am in trouble they will help me.”

Copts, often estimated to make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, trace their roots here to centuries before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. They consider St. Mark their first pope; Tawadros II will be the 118th. In some ways, they are now at the spearhead of a challenge confronting Christian minorities across the region amid the tumult of the Arab Spring. In Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, Christian minorities had made peace with authoritarian rulers in the hope of protection from the Muslim majorities. But now the old bargains have broken, leaving Christians to fend for themselves.

In Egypt, the revolution last year coincided with by far the deadliest 12 months of sectarian violence in decades, including the bombing of an Alexandria church weeks before the revolt, the destruction of at least three churches in sectarian feuds, and the killing of about two dozen Coptic demonstrators by Egyptian soldiers squashing a protest — the single bloodiest episode of sectarian violence in at least half a century.

Known as the Maspero massacre after a nearby television building, the slaughter elicited attempts by top generals to blame the Copts and scant sympathy from the main Islamist groups, crystallizing Coptic anxieties.

It also galvanized one of the most active lay Coptic groups, the Maspero Youth Union. When Pope Shenouda overlooked the massacre and thanked the Egyptian military at a Christmas service, members of the youth union jeered — a breathtaking gesture of defiance in the annals of church history.

“Before we had no reaction to sectarian violence,” said Beshoy Tamry, 24, a member of the group. “Now we have more resistance.”

Much less sectarian violence and no deaths have occurred this year, but that has not diminished the Coptic worries, and neither have the pledges of Islamist politicians to protect the Christian minority. “Copts are drowning in fear,” said Wael Eskandar, a Coptic journalist and blogger.

Many Copts say they hope the new pope will ease the strict limitations on divorce adopted about 30 years ago. Egyptian law provides that Christians be governed by the teachings of their church in personal matters like marriage and divorce, so those rules have the weight of law. Coptic women in unhappy or abusive marriages sometimes convert to Islam in order to obtain a divorce more easily, a practice that has added to sectarian friction.

“It is definitely the No. 1 issue on the agenda of any new pope,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Many reformers have also questioned the theatrical process used to select the new pope, who was born Wageh Sobhi Baqi Soliman and marked his 60th birthday on the day he was chosen.

A council of top church leaders selected a group of about 2,400 bishops and elite lay leaders to winnow the candidates down to three possible nominees, excluding any contender with a trace of controversy about him.

Then bishops picked a dozen boys and three understudies. Standing by the altar on Sunday before a cheering crowd of thousands, the first in line drew the lots to determine that 6-year-old Bishoy Girgis Mosad would make the final pick. Visibly anxious, he stood stiffly, glancing sideways and facing straight ahead, until an aging bishop blindfolded him and guided his hand into the elaborate glass bowl to fish out one of three names.

The process, an ancient practice revived in the last century, is supposed to bring the hand of God into the selection process. But some question how much divine will the child can introduce into the process after the elite electors have already eliminated candidates with unconventional views.

“If we are looking for God’s will, why are we electing three nominees?” asked Mr. Tamry of the youth group. “Why don’t we just elect the pope?”

Mayy El Sheikh and Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.

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