Contenders for Egypt’s Coptic Papacy

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Egyptian caretaker of the Coptic Church Bishop Pachomius casting his vote to elect a new spiritual leader at the Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral in Cairo's al-Abbassiya district on 29 October 2012. (Photo: AFP - Saint Mark's Coptic Cathedral)

By: Abdel Rahman Youssef

Published Monday, October 29, 2012

As voters cast their ballots for the new head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Al-Akhbar looks at the five most likely candidates for the post.

Cairo - The 2,411 electors entitled to vote for a new head for the Coptic Orthodox Church are due to cast their ballots today in the penultimate stage of the process of selecting a successor to Pope Shenouda III, who died in March.

There has been intense interest in the contest since the acting primate, Bishop Bakhomios, announced that only five candidates would stand for election, after 12 nominees on the original list of 17 were excluded by the church’s papal election committee.

The church-appointed electors – those not based abroad are voting at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo’s Abbasiya district between 9am and 5pm – may choose either one, two or three candidates, by crossing out the names of those they do not favor from the ballot papers. Of the three who gain the most votes, one will proceed to be picked at random on November 4, under a procedure known as the “altar lottery,” to be enthroned as the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic See of St Mark.

The choice is between three monks – Rafael Ava Mina, Bakhomios al-Syriani and Seraphim al-Syriani – and two bishops, Rafael and Tawadros. Five bishops and seven monks were ruled out of the running by the vetting committee. Among the major figures excluded were Bishop Bishoy, secretary of the Holy Synod, the church’s highest religious body, Bishop Youannes, secretary at the patriarchal residence, and Bishop Boutros, another of the late pope’s senior aides.

The candidates, ranked roughly according to their generally perceived prospects of success, are:

Father Rafael, considered a front-runner for the Apostolic Throne, with a strong personality, a high media profile, and a reputation for level-headedness and avoiding public comment on highly controversial issues. As Auxiliary Bishop in charge of churches in central Cairo, he is also seen as being familiar with the concerns of the youth – he is close to Bishop Moussa, the popular bishop for youth affairs and one of the three most senior members of the church hierarchy – and of the urban poor, and well-informed about national developments generally. In addition, he often deputized for the late pope in giving mass on major holidays in Alexandria.

Rafael, who is 54, graduated from Ain Shams university’s medical faculty in 1981 before pursuing theological studies and being ordained as a monk in 1984.

His past statements indicate that he takes a close interest in the daily problems faced by the public and thinks the church needs modernization, describing it is a collegiate body that can no longer be dominated by a single figure. He frequently speaks out on issues like unemployment and the importance of developing Upper Egypt, and against believers denouncing each other’s faiths, which he argues serves only to encourage atheism.

He does espouse some traditionalist viewpoints. For example, he opposes divorce for any reason other than adultery, and does not support efforts to reform church doctrine to permit divorce on a list of 10 different grounds. Reading between the lines of his statements, he also believes the church is entitled to intervene to counter perceived injustices against Christians.
Perhaps reflecting his high chances of making it to the final short-list of three candidates, Rafael has suggested that the “altar lottery” procedure should not be applied if one of the trio gains an absolute majority of electors’ votes – though he clearly did not convince enough members of the hierarchy.

Father Tawadros is the Auxiliary Bishop for the Holy Metropolis of Beheira. He is viewed as a conciliatory and calming figure and advocate of rapprochement. He has not been known for speaking out strongly in the media one way or the other on internal church matters or other issues, although he repeatedly stresses the theme of coexistence with Muslims and the need for social integration, urging the Coptic youth in particular not to segregate themselves from the rest of society.

The 60-year-old bishop’s views were perhaps shaped by his background. After graduating in pharmaceutical sciences at Alexandria University, he continued his studies in pharmaceutical engineering and public health in Singapore and the UK, and lived in several different parts of Egypt as head of a pharmaceuticals firm before he became a monk. His subsequent church work in a densely-populated urban area also kept him in close proximity with the lives of ordinary Egyptians.

His chances of election are bolstered by the fact that he is one of only two bishops in the running – although ironically he was nominated by his “rival” Bishop Rafael, who refers to him warmly as a “friend” and “brother.” He also has the support of many other bishops, especially among those ministering to expatriate Coptic communities, and is close to the acting pope, Bakhomios, the oldest and wisest of the church’s bishops.

Brother Rafael Ava Mina has been a monk at the Mar Mina monastery in Matrouh since 1969, he is at 70 the oldest of the candidates for the papacy, and the only one with a non-scientific educational background, having earned a law degree in 1964. He is seen as standing a good chance of making it into the top three, doe to his status as the former personal student of Shenouda’s predecessor, Pope Kirillos VI, and his ties to the many bishops who were schooled at his monastery.

Rafael is sometimes referred to as “the beloved” or “the blessed” due to his seniority, kind demeanor and connection to Kirillos, one of the most popular popes in the church’s history.
He is on record as saying he wants the church to develop closer ties to al-Azhar, the official Muslim religious institution, and other religious groups. But he tends in his statements to address issues in broad spiritual terms and avoid delving into concrete realities – for example, advocating prayer, peace and love as the cure for sectarian tensions.

He has also said that the next pope will be chosen by the hand of God, and that he is therefore unconcerned with the question of which candidate may be more or less deserving of election. He indicated that he had only agreed to run at the urging of bishops who had studied in his monastery and former students of Kirillios who associate him with their mentor.

Also favoring his candidacy is a story that has been doing the rounds. Apparently, on his last visit to Mar Mina to ordain a group of priests, Pope Shenouda left his ceremonial scepter behind at the altar. When aides suggested he collect it, he replied that he might do so at his next visit. Many saw this as a sign from heaven that the next pope would come from that monastery.

Brother Sarafim al-Syriani, is a 53-year-old monk widely seen as the fourth-ranked candidate. He holds a science degree, and worked as a medical researcher for an American institution before being ordained as a monk 1993. He spent three years at the pope’s representative office in the US, and another three in the same capacity in the UK, and is now based in Los Angeles and also works in Canada. He does not have much of a media profile, nor is he known for any particular stand or distinctive contribution to public life.

On the controversy over the current rules for electing the pope, the so-called 1957 Code, he believes the procedure should not be hurriedly changed, but a consensus reached between the various church and other Christian bodies involved in the process.

Serafim also writes classical poetry, vernacular poetry and composes music. Like many other monks, he advocates inter-faith dialogue to resolve sectarian tensions without addressing specifics, urging young people to unite around the core values of respect for mosque, church, faith and homeland.

Brother Bokhomios al-Syriani is the youngest of the candidates at 49, and his youth is generally seen as a disadvantage. With degrees in science and education, he worked as a maths teacher before being ordained as a monk in 1991. He was secretary of the al-Syrian Monastery in Wadi Natrun before moving to Italy to serve as a church representative there.

He is on record as saying the Coptic church in Egypt should draw on the experiences of churches in other countries, including the Catholic church and the Vatican, and the majority of the clerics who nominated him for the papacy are diaspora-based bishops.

Described as a “kind man” by the church’s official spokesman, he espouses a traditional spiritual outlook, stating for example that prayer is capable of causing miracles in all matters related to the church and life. He also believes that enhanced interaction between young Christians and Muslims for the sake of the homeland is the key to improving coexistence.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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