A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 4, 2012

Handicapping the OTHER Egyptian Election: the Coptic Pope

With the Egyptian Presidential electoral race a confused mess, what about the other major leadership race in the country: the selection of a new Coptic Pope? Since Pope Shenouda III died in March, the hierarchy and followers of the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East have been gearing up for the election of the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of Preaching of Saint Mark.

With the end of the 40-day mourning period for Shenouda last month, the process of nominations for the papal throne has begun. Recently a church spokesman indicated that there were already 14 names of bishops and priests placed in nomination, with nominations open until May 17. As is traditional the Acting Pope or locum tenens, Bishop Bakhomious, has refused nomination as he will oversee the process.

I discussed the overall election process just after Shenouda died. The process will identify nominees and winnow them down to a final three (or possibly four) candidates. These names will be placed in a box on the high altar of the Cathedral of Saint Mark, and a randomly chosen child will be blindfolded and will draw one name. This so-called "altar lot" is seen as guaranteeing that the Holy Spirit oversees the final choice, though the hierarchy and the faithful have chosen the candidates.

The Holy Synod: Is the Next Pope One of These Men?
Just as Roman Catholics like to speculate about papal candidates prior to a Papal Conclave, so Copts tend to do the same before their Papal election. In Italy, potential candidates for Pope are popularly known as papabile, a word I have always thought should be translated as "Popables" or something similar. Copts have their own discussions of potential candidates.

The Middle East News Agency (MENA) recently identified the bishops it called the top three candidates; there seems to be a general agreement these three are the most prominent, so I thought I'd briefly discuss them here. If you want a broader range of potential Popes, see this group of profiles by Hani Labib. Or you can browse the biographies of the members of the Holy Synod. (Mostly Arabic.)

The three identified by MENA and most other discussions as the front-runners (though they may not turn out to be the three whose names go into the lot box) are Metropolitan Bishoy, Bishop Musa, and Bishop Yuannis. Two are in their 70s and would be unlikely to enjoy the 40-year reign Shenouda did.

All are bishops. An ancient tradition of the Church held that the Pope should be chosen from the monks, not from the bishops, but over the 19th and 20th centuries this was neglected. Shenouda was a General Bishop, which was considered less controversial than choosing the bishop of a geographic diocese. Of these three supposed front-runners, one (Bishoy) is a diocesan bishop (and also holds general jurisdiction as General Secretary of the Holy Synod); the other two are general bishops). Some will prefer to choose a monk, but the reality of the modern church is that the bishops tend to be better known in the church as a whole than all but the most famous monks.

Metropolitan Bishoy
Metropolitan Bishoy
Bishoy, who is 70, is General Secretary of the Holy Synod and Metropolitan of Damietta and Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Demiana, is one of the best-known figures in the Church as well as one of the most senor Metropolitan bishops. He is also a lightning rod of controversy, having frequently offended Muslims and non-Coptic Christians with his statements. I've discussed him before, and he has long maintained a bilingual website, though it seems to be offline now, perhaps due to the election. He is perhaps the best=known of the senior bishops, and one with the highest media profile. As General Secretary of the Holy Synod since 1985, he is also well-known to the other bishops and abbots.

Bishoy has made a number of statements through the years that have alienated Muslims, including a remark that non-Coptic Egyptians were "guests" in the country; he has also written critiques of the Qur'an that offended Muslims. With the rise of Islamist politics, a Pope with a history of confronting Islam could make the Church's already awkward position worse. In addition, Bishoy publicly supported the succession of Gamal Mubarak to the Presidency (as did Shenouda), which hardly makes him an appealing figure post-revolution. Nor are his relations with other Christians smooth, despite being in charge of outreach to other churches: he has questioned whether Catholics and Eastern Orthodox can be saved (though Shenouda worked hard at improving relations with both communions). He has indicated that a Copt who marries a Protestant is committing adultery.

So, while he is well-known and very high-profile, he also has high negatives.

Bishop Musa
Bishop Musa, 74, General Bishop for Youth Affairs, is another popular figure with an important distinction:
Bishop Musa
he was the only senior member of the Coptic hierarchy to openly support the revolutionaries prior to the fall of Husni Mubarak in a series of newspaper articles. Founder of the bishopric for youth affairs and an active writer, preacher, and spokesman, he is considered much more conciliatory and less confrontational than Bishoy. He would likely be seen as a figure who would seek consensus.

Bishop Yuannis
Bishop Yuannis is only 52 years old and thus is more likely to have a lengthy papacy should he be chosen.
Bishop Yuannis
He was the Papal Secretary to Shenouda, and has been very active in Church affairs and as an administrator. He is also said to have had good relations with state institutions, which could make him a good liaison with the government. Some consider him ambitious, and his closeness to Shenouda may be seen by some as a qualification and by others as an impediment.

If other candidates emerge as the process evolves, I'll talk about them here.

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