CAIRO – A council of Egypt's Coptic Christians voted on Monday in a process that will lead to the selection of a new pope for the ancient church, as the community struggles to assert its identity and rights in a rising tide of Islamism that has left many Copts fearful for their future.
The succession follows the March death of the charismatic Pope Shenouda III at the age of 88, after 40 years as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The congregation represents the majority of Egypt's Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 83 million people.
About 2,400 clergymen, community leaders and Egyptian Coptic notables gathered in the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo for the voting. They were choosing a short list of three candidates from a field of five monks and auxiliary bishops.
By late Monday, acting Pope Pachomios said more than 93 percent of the council voted, and selected Bishop Raphael, 54, once an aide to Shenouda; Bishop Tawadros, 59, an aide to the acting pope, and Father Raphael Ava Mina, the oldest among them at 70, a monk in a monastery near Alexandria and a student of the pope who preceded Shenouda.
The final selection of the new pope will take place in a ceremony Sunday, when the three names are put in a box and a blindfolded child picks one out, a step believed to reflect God's will in the choice. The acting pope asked Copts to fast for three days to aid the selection of the Church's 118th pope.
Egypt's Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the state and the country's Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims have occasionally broken out, sparked by church construction, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs.
The new election comes during a shift in Christian attitudes on their relation to the state. For years, Christians largely relied on the Church to secure some protection for their rights, using Shenouda's close relationship with longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
With Mubarak's ouster in a popular uprising last year and Shenouda's death, many have been emboldened to act beyond the Church's hold and participate more directly in the nation's politics to demand rights, better representation and freedom of worship. Signs of rebellion over the close relation with the state had already begun to surface before the uprising in January 2011.
"If Egyptian Copts are represented by the Church, they will be considered second-class citizens, because they are subjects of the Church first before they are subjects of the state," said Yousef Sidhom, the editor of Egypt's main Coptic newspaper. "Many have mocked this, saying how can the Copts demand citizenship rights while accepting to remain under the umbrella of the Church in the face of the state."
The more vocal stance among Copts, particularly the youth who organized into movements independent of the Church, has come with the rising power of Islamist groups long repressed under Mubarak, and after a series of violent attacks against churches and Christians.
The election of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi heightened fears among the Copts that their rights would be curtailed. The fears have been further fueled by the process of writing a new constitution, which is dominated by Islamist groups seeking to increase the role of Islam in legislation.
Mina Thabet, a 23-year old Coptic activist, said young Christians have rejected the previous isolation of their community from national debate, which he said was imposed in part by the Church to try to insulate Christians from both Mubarak's police state and the mushrooming of radical Islamists in past decades.
"Our battle now is the constitution," Thabet said. "Everyone should have a say in its writing. The religious institutions, like the Church on the one hand, must have a say...but also civil groups and activists."
For Joseph Malak, a lawyer from Alexandria, calls for the new pope to disengage from politics are "risky" at a time when Islamist groups are increasingly dominant in political life.
Speaking to the Copts United website, Malak said the Church should remain at the front of demanding the Copts' rights.
Bishop Basanti, a member of the Coptic Church's Holy Synod, said the new pope will work with the Church's layman council, to address the community's demands and reach out to the country's leadership.
"The new pope will be a preacher of peace," Basanti told pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television in Egypt. His priorities "will be to demand the rights of the Copts, the rights of all those killed" in violence, as well as freedom of worship.
Morsi has promised to be inclusive in decision-making and reach out to Christians, but Basanti said the new president has yet to back up his words with steps that would reassure the Copts.
Rights groups and the U.S. State Department have criticized the Egyptian government for failing to curb violence against the Christian minority, saying that at times, security forces themselves were involved.
There has also been an increase in court cases accusing Christians of insulting Islam. Usually there is little evidence, but radical Islamist outrage over the alleged insults often forces authorities to detain the Christians, allegedly to protect them.
Many among the Coptic community are demanding the Church become more inclusive as well, seeking changes in its internal laws to allow for more representation in the running of the Church's affairs and selection of the pope.
The five candidates were selected by a group of clergymen, who winnowed them down from an initial 17 applicants. Among those who did not make the cut were clergymen seen as too hard-line — making controversial statements against Islam, and trying to impose a heavy conservatism among Copts.
Coptic leaders "are looking for a candidate who had no public and media debates. They are looking for new faces" that can build consensus, said Sameh Fawzi, a Coptic scholar.