x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Copts look for new pope to be their protector in Egypt

One of three men will be chosen as leader of 8 million believers.

CAIRO // The selection today of a new Coptic Christian pope comes at a sensitive time for the more than eight million Copts in Egypt.

With the Egyptian government headed by a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts are looking for a protector who will guard their way of life and freedom of expression in a country now dominated by discussions about applying Islamic law.

"There is certainly a sense among Copts of tremendous vulnerability that coincides with the vacuum at the top of the church," said Kurt Werthmuller, an adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute's Centre for Religious Freedom in the US. "There are fears about the viability of having a strong Coptic presence in the years and decades to come."

The loss of Pope Shenouda III, who died on March 17, has exacerbated the feeling of vulnerability, he said.

"Pope Shenouda was one of the most crucial Coptic leaders for nearly half a century," Mr Werthmuller said.

The selection of a new pope is down to three candidates: Bishop Raphael, 58, a well-known figure in the Coptic community who represents Central Cairo and Heliopolis; Bishop Tawadros, 60, who is based in the Nile Delta city of Buheira; and Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70, a monk-priest based in Alexandria.

The three men have been fasting for three days before today's selection as part of tradition, which is known as the Altar Lot. In Coptic tradition, a blindfolded boy will reach into a glass jar and grab one of three pieces of paper with each candidate's name.

The process is meant to allow God's will to have the final say.

The three names were chosen through an election last week, where the Coptic community voted from a list of five men. The list of five was itself narrowed down from a list of 17 by the papal election committee.

The 20 months since Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt's president has been one of the most trying periods for Coptic Christians in decades. Sectarian tensions were already escalating before the protests that ended his 30-year regime began on January 25 last year.

Three weeks earlier, 23 people were killed and 97 injured when a church in Alexandria was bombed.

In October last year, 28 people involved in a sit-in near the state television headquarters in Cairo were killed during clashes with the military. Many were Copts, who had marched there to protest against the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt.

In the past two months, there have been reports of Copts fleeing a village near Rafah in North Sinai after disputes arose between Christians and Muslims, but they returned after a few weeks.

The revelation that the filmmaker who created the clip for Innocence of Muslims, which insulted the Prophet Mohammed and ignited protests across the Islamic world, was a US Copt of Egyptian origin only fuelled the anti-Coptic flames.

There have also been tensions within the Coptic community itself over the past year, especially surrounding marriage and divorce. Under Egyptian law, the Coptic church has the power to grant divorces. Pope Shenouda III only allowed for divorces in the cases of adultery - which has been difficult to prove - and if a spouse converts to another religion or sect of Christianity.

A draft of the new constitution - which has not been finalised - leaves the Coptic church with the same powers as it had under the Mubarak regime.

The difficulty of obtaining a divorce has led to some unexpected pleas from Coptic activists.

One group, named Copts 38 after a 1938 bylaw that allowed for more reasons to obtain a divorce, went so far as to ask for Copts to be granted the same rights as Muslims under Sharia.

The group has also called for Copts to be allowed to obtain civil marriages, without having to obtain permission from the church.

bhope@thenational.ae

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