The other Egyptian elections: selecting the next Coptic Orthodox pope

St. Mark's Cathedral

by Andrew Leber

When Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria passed away on March 17 this year, the outpouring of grief among Egypt’s Coptic Christian community was tremendous. Tens of thousands of Egyptian Christians and other mourners travelled to the immense St. Mark’s Cathedral in central Cairo, filling the main church and the surrounding grounds. With the passing of Pope Shenouda, the spiritual head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Coptic community faced an uncertain transition at a time when many of Egypt’s political institutions, from the police force to the very constitution, were (and still are) in constant flux.

The end of the mourning period set in motion the lengthy selection process for the new pope, carried out under the supervision of Metropolitan Bishop Pachomius, responsible for the churches of the Nile Delta and second in seniority among the Coptic clergy. According to the 1957 succession law, a committee selected from among the Holy Synod of Coptic Bishops will convene on October 4, to consider an initial list of 17 candidates and hear any objections against them. On November 24, the committee will submit between five and eight names to an assembly of some 2,400 electors, chosen from the elders and leaders among the Church clergy and the various dioceses, as well as five representatives from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Finally, on December 2, the elective assembly will release the names of three final candidates. These names will be placed inside a silver urn on the altar of St. Mark’s, from which a blindfolded male child will draw forth the name of the 118th Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria.

The interior of St. Mark’s Cathedral, where the next Coptic Pope will be chosen.

Pope Shenouda’s successor will join a line of Church fathers stretching back to St. Mark the Evangelist, who first passed through Alexandria in the first century AD en route to undertake missionary work in Africa. Coptic tradition holds that the Church of Alexandria began when St. Mark stopped to have a sandal repaired, managing to convert his Alexandrian cobbler in the process. From these humble beginnings, Orthodox Christianity grew to become the dominant religion in Egypt, remaining so for centuries after the arrival of Islam at the end of the 7th century AD. The monastic traditions of Christian Churches the world over owe their beginnings to the Coptic Desert Fathers, such as St. Anthony, who journeyed out into the deserts to draw closer to God. The importance of the monastic movement to the modern Coptic Church is reflected in the nomination requirements for the papacy, one of which is that all candidates must have spent at least 15 years in monastic life.

The papal elections provide a rare opportunity to focus on the internal issues that the Coptic Orthodox Church struggles with at the outset of the 21st century. When he is finally selected on December 2, the new Coptic Pope will have to begin addressing these issues, which include the rigid and undemocratic nature of the Church hierarchy, the role of women within the Church, the right to divorce (or lack thereof), and the Church’s stance towards other Christian denominations. The Pope will also have to continue his predecessor’s balancing act as the public spokesman for much of the Egyptian Christian community, navigating the Coptic Orthodox community’s place as a significant Christian minority in a largely Muslim country — an estimated 10 percent of a total population of 80 million. Furthermore, the Coptic Orthodox Church is no longer confined to the Nile River and its surroundings: Pope Shenouda’s 40 years at the head of the Church of Alexandria saw him travel abroad more than any previous church leader, appointing the first Coptic Bishops to oversee communities in North America, South America, Europe, and Australia.

All of these issues will play into the selection of the papal candidates over the next few months. The names forwarded to the electoral committee will speak to the Holy Synod’s vision of the Coptic Church in the future as well as the candidate’s personal ties to the Coptic community. With this in mind, we take a closer look at some of the leading candidates:

Bishoy, Metropolitan Bishop of Damietta and Kufr-Sheikh

Secretary of the Holy Synod and head of the Clerical Council for Church Trials, Bishop Bishoy wields great power within the Church hierarchy and enjoys close ties with many of its members. Born in 1942, he is one of the oldest candidates up for nomination and also one of the most conservative, particularly on issues relating to women and other Christian denominations. His hard-line stance, as well as his close ties to Hosni Mubarak-era political figures, has not exactly endeared him to the Coptic community at large. Various statements, such as comparing Coptic women unfavorably to their Muslim counterparts or referring to Muslims as “guests” in Coptic Egypt, have come across as extremely undiplomatic at a time when the Coptic community is navigating a stressful and delicate transition along with the rest of the country. Still, Bishoy has a good measure of support in the Nile Delta as well as in the Giza and Cairo Governorates, as well as within the Holy Synod itself.

Baphnotious, Bishop of Samalut and Taha al-‘Ameda

In contrast to Bishoy, Bishop Baphnotious, born in 1948, has positioned himself as something of a reformer within the Church, a position that has placed him at odds with the Holy Synod over the years. At the heart of the matter is a book which Baphnotious wrote in 1997, which criticized the 1957 arrangement for the selection of the Pope as well as the governing rules of the Holy Synod itself, including those which have allowed Bishoy to sit at the head of the body for some 27 years. In response, Pope Shenouda III ordered the book confiscated, while Baphnotious’ critics have labeled him as following anticlerical Protestant teachings. Still, a significant portion of the Coptic community supports his call for reform, including many of the bishops of Upper Egypt and those in the Coptic diaspora, particularly in North America.

Raphael, General Bishop of Central Cairo

Responsible for many of the churches of central Cairo, Bishop Raphael also helps to oversee the Coptic Church’s Youth Ministry, enjoying a wide following among younger generations of the Coptic community as a result. Raphael has maintained a fairly low media profile over the years, although occasional statements have indicated his view of the Coptic Church as a religious institution first and foremost rather than serving as a Coptic political institution. Born in 1958, he is known for his reticence and self-discipline, while claiming the support of Cairo’s bishops and the heads of the various monasteries.

Youannes, General Bishop for Church Services and Former Secretary to the Pope

At 42, Bishop Youannes is one of the youngest candidates up for consideration by the Holy Synod’s committee. Though known for the composition of many religious hymns, his name has also been connected to allegations of corruption and misappropriation of Church money over the years. This has led some to perceive Youannes as being far too eager for the Throne of St. Mark, particularly after a section of his memoirs was leaked in 2009, revealing a vision in which he saw himself as the future pope of the Coptic Church. Despite these concerns and accusations of cooperating with the Mubarak regime’s security apparatus, Youannes is supported by many bishops of Upper Egypt as well as South America.

Boutros, General Bishop and Fmr. Secretary to the Pope

Born in 1949, Bishop Boutros rose to the rank of Secretary to the Pope by 1988, though he also took up the administration of the Monastery of St. Thomas in Upper Egypt in addition to serving on the governing board of the Church’s television station “Agape.” Beyond managing other Church holdings, he has garnered broad support from the Church’s bishops for defending Coptic rights on numerous occasions, such as when he faced off against the Egyptian state in an attempt to enlarge and renovate the Monastery of St. Thomas — current Egyptian law required an order from the president himself in order to build a new church or enlarge an existing building.


photos by Andrew Leber