By Joseph Mayton

Cairo, Egypt

In the end, tradition dictates that a blindfolded child will decide who is the next pope for Egypt's 12 million Christians.

But before he selects a name from among three candidates, the Coptic community faces what is almost certain to be a fateful choice as their new leader following the death of Pope Shenouda III last Saturday.

Egypt is in the throes of great change, with the ruling generals, ascendant Islamists and youthful liberals all competing for power and a vision for the future of a country tasting democracy for the first time. The outcome will almost certainly have a major impact on the country's Christians, who account for about a tenth of the population.

Complicating things is that the Copts have little experience in selecting a new leader: Shenouda, who died at age 88, was enthroned as pope in 1971, before most of his flock was even born. The process could take months at a time when Egyptians go to the polls to elect a president and begin work on writing a new constitution.

Ramez Fahmy, a Coptic scholar in Alexandria and former university professor, said the community is divided between those who want the next pope to be someone who will stand up for Coptic rights and serve as a powerful voice for the minority community and those who say it isn't the time to be combative.

"[They] want to continue to the trajectory of Pope Shenouda, who was not only soft spoken, but was honest and open about the future and professed an undying love for Egypt and Egyptians. Most importantly he wanted inclusion and tolerance to win in the country," Fahmy told The Media Line.

What it comes down to, said Fahmy, is whether the new Christian leader will openly and actively "fight the Islamists" or refrain from confrontation in the hope he can "create a multi-plural society where Christians and Muslims survive."

Shenouda was deeply conservative. Although he was sent into internal exile during the early 1980s, when then-President Anwar Sadat tried to force him out of office, the pope later became an ally of Sadat's successor, Husni Mubarak. The pope preferred to work behind the scenes and opposed street protests, including the ones that finally brought down his patron last year.

Copts are subject to official discrimination and popular prejudice, and many had hoped the revolution would change that. So far, however, that has not been the case. A year ago, a Muslim mob torched a church in the village of Soul south of Cairo. Thirteen people died and 140 were injured in the street fighting that followed. Last May, Salafists burned a church in the Cairo's Imbaba neighborhood and clashed with Christians, leaving 12 dead. In both cases the mobs were inflamed by reports of Muslim-Christian love affairs. Last October, a Cairo protest led by Copts demanding greater rights was crushed by soldiers, leaving 27 people dead.

Meanwhile, elections have produced a parliament dominated by Islamists, whose attitude towards Christian alarms many Copts. On Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's biggest Muslim movement - signaled that it was thinking about fielding a candidate in presidential elections slated for May. The Brotherhood had previously pledged not to run a candidate to assuage fears among Copts and liberals of Muslim dominance.

The process of selecting the next pope, which began on Thursday, is hallowed by tradition. But it also is likely to be more open than ever before, thanks to the revolution, said Fahmy, the scholar from Alexandria.

"No longer are Egyptians, Christian or Muslim, going to allow secrecy to run their communities. The one thing that the church realizes, and something Shenouda was pushing for the final year, is the need for an open dialogue with the people, which can only be good for Egypt," he said

The Holy Council of the Coptic Churches of Egypt will choose six candidates for pope among its 110 members. After deliberations, the list will be narrowed to three. Then it comes to chance - or divine providence - when a young child wearing a blindfold pulls one of the three names placed on pieces of paper out of a glass box.

Ramses al-Nagar, who was a leading aide to Shenouda, said custom dictates that the nominee is not younger than 40 years old and that "he should have spent at least 15 years as monk or in the service of the church as a monk." This, al-Nagar explained, "would be able to put forward the most pious man for the position and someone who does not seek power."

On Sunday and Monday, the sentiments at central Cairo's Abbasiya Cathedral, where the pope's body was being prepared for Tuesday's funeral, seemed to favor moderations. Most Christians talked about the message of tolerance Shenouda espoused throughout his years and his unwillingness to foment violence.

"We want an Egypt that is full of peace and forward thinking -- one that the pope wanted," said 20-year-old Noha from Alexandria.

Still, there is a growing faction inside the church that contends that Shenouda was weak and failed to speak up for his followers. One member of the Holy Council who spoke to The Media Line on the succession question said trends in Egypt demanded a fighting pope.

"I think the time for tolerance and understanding is over," he said, asking not to be identified by name. "What is happening now is an assault against the freedom of Christian people to live and pray and to be Christian in this country. We need a pope who will stand up for justice, but who will also stand against the Islamists."

But giving pause for thought, he pulled back, reflecting the dilemma Christians faces in turbulent times. "The next pope should not be a militant. We do not want civil war in Egypt. We just want strength and dignity."


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Copts Debate: Fighting Pope or Peacemaker | Global Viewpoint