By Arab News
By Joseph Mayton
A new Coptic Christian Pope may not appear to be a big deal outside the pews of Church, but the reality facing Egypt is that the next pope will largely determine how the country’s two leading faiths will work together; or not.
Currently, there are two sides to the debate over who will lead. The divide currently engulfing the Coptic Church and the Holy Synod tapped to choose the next pontiff pits a more moderate, tolerant branch of leaders with a more reactionary group who are vowing to push hard against the Muslim hard-liners in the country for greater Coptic rights and guarantees. It’s an important internal struggle that will have major national implications.
On the ground, the average Christian is uncertain which way the Church will head. George Zaki, a young man studying to become a priest, says that right now “it is really up in the air” the direction the church will head. “One side I am hearing wants to bring in someone a bit young, strong and energetic to face off against the Muslim hard-liners and push for our rights more openly, while the other wants to maintain Pope Shenouda’s idea that through tolerance and promoting unity, Egypt can have a pluralistic society.”
That, in many ways sums up the debate over who will be the next pope, but it may also turn out to be a matter of chance. The process for nominating the next pope is an interesting one, unlike any other religious institution globally.
The next pope must be at least 40 years old and have been a monk for 15 years just to be nominated. Then, the 110-member committee set up of Bishops and Church leaders will narrow the field until they have three choices, which then go into a glass box and a young child of no more than nine years old chooses the next leader of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.
The three names that ultimately go into the box are the concern now for the Coptic community. A firebrand pope could antagonize the Muslim hard-liners in Parliament, analysts in the country argue, which could alienate the community further, which has seen violence meted out to them by residents in Cairo and the military junta in the past year, with over 30 Christians having been killed.
“What the Coptic community doesn’t need is someone who will anger the Muslim hard-liners in government right now,” said Yussif Qandeel, a reporter at an Egyptian Arabic daily who regularly covers Christian issues. He argued that in his conversations with members of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing – “they want to see someone be pope that they can work with, which means continuing the Shenouda tradition.”
But that might be difficult for the Coptic community to grasp. Although Shenouda was extremely popular, many Christians believed him to be weak at times in standing up for the community’s rights and ability to function in Egyptian society. Thus, it would be easy to see a strong figure, or figures, nominated for the top spot.
Still, the overall sense within the community is more inclined to support a pope who is able to combine the strengths of the Shenouda era, but also someone who stands apart from what many perceived to be Shenouda’s willingness to acquiesce to the past regime.
“What I want is a pope who is truly committed to our needs like Shenouda, but also someone who will stand up even when the Muslim hard-liners are fighting against us,” said Noha, a 30-year-old Coptic woman who participated in the January 2011 uprising, and for her, “this is the most important thing we need. We need a pope who believes in Egypt and can help us all through this transition.”
It will be difficult to replace a man who ruled over the Coptic community for over four decades, but despite the growing internal struggle within the Church, most are optimistic, including Zaki, who believes the future of the Coptic Church will be stronger than ever and the right decision will be made.
“We are a strong people, a strong group of Christians and we have been through a lot in the past years, so I think the future of the Church will not be determined by one choice, but by the strength of our own community and our people as Egyptians,” he said.
It may be a waiting game, and an important one for the country. A moderate pope would arguably go a long way in showing the Church’s commitment to the future of Egypt, both religiously and socially.