Coptic Elections: The second round

by Andrew Leber

Father Paul Marqus of the Holy Virgin Church in Zamalek took a brief break from appointments with parishioners to meet with The Memo to speak about the Coptic Church ‘s upcoming Papal elections. “The next Pope will be chosen on Nov. 4,” he said.

The electoral committee of the Holy Synod, charged with narrowing down the list of 17 candidates to a workable number, announced five names several weeks ago after several rounds of secret balloting. Even before the names were announced, many Coptic commentators had called for a focus solely on the monastic candidates, arguing that they carried much less political baggage than the more established Bishops. Still, many were surprised that neither Bishop Bishoy nor Bishop Youannes, widely viewed as frontrunners for their strong connections with the church hierarchy, appeared on the list of five names.

The candidates selected for the next round of elections on October 29th were all outside the centralized church administration in one form or another. Three of them were monks: Frs. Pachomius al-Suriani and Serafim al-Suriani, the two youngest remaining nominees, serve at the Suriani Monastery in the valley Wadi Natrun, while Fr. Rafael Ave Mena, at 70 the oldest of the candidates and a former student of Pope Kyrillos VI, is a beloved figure at Mar Mina Monastery in the same valley. The remaining two, Bishops Rafael and Tawadros, have been assigned to auxiliary or general positions throughout their careers, instead of being tied down to a particular diocese.

The new Pope will face immense challenges as he works to modernize Church administrative structures both within Egypt and among the widespread Coptic diaspora. Metropolitan Bishop Pachomius, caretaker of Church authority until the elections are completed, stated as such in a recent interview with CBC reporter Lamees al-Hadeedy. In the interview, he emphasized the need for the Pope to draw on the expertise of the broader Coptic community through the institution of an advisory committee, composed of Coptic experts in various fields.

Equally important, though, will be the need to incorporate the increasingly global character of the faith into Church structure and practice. As Bishop Pachomius noted, at the time when the current election law was drafted in 1957, “there simply weren’t any churches abroad at all.” Now, though, with some 20 percent of all of the Papal electors coming from outside the country, the Metropolitan Bishop sees a clear need to draft a new election law accounting for the difficulties of travel and the needs of communities who live, work, and pray outside of Egypt. This global character is reflected in several of the current candidates — Father Pachomius spent years serving Coptic communities in Rome and speaks fluent Italian, while Father Seraphim has directed the Papal residence in New Jersey and worked with communities as far apart as Northern Britain and Honolulu, Hawaii.

Regardless of which name is drawn out of the urn in St. Mark’s Cathedral on Nov. 4, the new Pope will find Pope Shenouda III a tough act to follow. For 40 years, the Shenouda articulated the place of Coptic Christians in Egypt, was widely known and respected across religious lines for his sermons on faith and in Egypt in general, negotiated the tricky and murky relations between the Coptic Church hierarchy and the Egyptian state, and, in his spare time, managed to leave behind an impressive body of poetry. As Bishop Pachomius noted at the outset of the interview, Shenouda III will be remembered as one of the most influential church leaders not just for the past 200 years, but for the past millennium of the Coptic Church.

As I wrapped up my interview, I only had one pressing question for Father Paul: How will the Church choose the child who will pick the name of the next Pope out of a silver urn, blindfolded, on Nov. 4? “Oh, they’ll just look around the Church when they’re about to choose the Pope and pick any boy in the congregation,” he said. At least one thing in this ongoing process will be simple, then.

UPDATE: On Monday, October 29th, 2012, the Coptic Church announced the election of Fr. Rafael Ave Mena, Bishop Rafael, and Bishop Tawadros as the final three candidates for the Coptic Papacy.

This is the second part in an ongoing series on the election of the new Pope of the Coptic Church of Egypt. The first part can be found here.