The Altar Lottery: Papal Elections in Egypt and the Ramifications on Constitutional Diplomacy

The 4th November marked the culmination in a rather bizarre and controversial process that resulted in Bishop Tawadros being ordained Pope Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, thus becoming the leader of the largest Christian community in the Middle East.  An estimated 10% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians (around 8 million people) making them the largest single minority in Egypt’s Muslim majority country.

The process for selecting a new pope began immediately after the death of Pope Shenouda III in March 2011.  The position of locum tenens was given to Archbishop Pachomios, who has overseen the election process as guided by the 1957 bylaws, which regulate the papal election.  Ironically, one of the first challenges facing the newly appointed Pope is in reforming these controversial regulations.

The selection regulations meant that only 2417 Copts were eligible in voting for their preferred nominees.  The enfranchised were drawn from “notable” Coptic laymen, Coptic public officials and local councillors, and Coptic Bishops and Archbishops.  Those against the bylaws point to its exclusivity and the perceived elitism of its regulations.  This system of election has only been employed 10 times since having first been introduced in the 8th century and there are accusations that it has no spiritual or legal basis with some calling for it to be discarded altogether.

The process started with a committee mandated with creating a shortlist of 17 candidates to be Shenouda’s successor.  A papal nominations committee then whittled the group down to 5 candidates, which included 2 bishops and 3 monks.  The penultimate round included the enfranchised group casting their ballots to select the 3 that they wanted to see in the final round.

The top three finalists included: Bishop Raphael, 54, an auxiliary Bishop of central Cairo who is known for having good relations with young Copts; Bishop Tawadros, 60, Auxiliary Bishop for Northern Beheira Governorate, Auxiliary to Archbishop Pachomios and known for having good relations with Islamists; and Father Rafael Ava Mina, 70, a monk at St. Mina Monastery, author of several religious books and once deacon for the 116th Pope, Kyrillos VI.

Finally, yesterday morning after the 8am mass, this odd and contentious election process reached its zenith as a blindfolded Coptic child put his hand into a bowl containing the three candidate’s names and pulled out the small box with Bishop Tawadros’ name in it.  Those in favour of this rather unconventional practice claim that this ensures that the selection is in God’s hands.

A member of the Holy Synod, Tawadros was born in 1952 and studied pharmaceutical sciences at Alexandria University and was ordained Bishop in 1997 by the Late Pope Shenouda III.  His broad experience and managerial skills, he used to run a medicine factory, will be useful assets in helping him confront the challenges ahead.

Within the Church itself he has issues to contest with.  Bishop Raphael spoke of how the new pope must devote himself to reorganising the Church from within and draw in the alienated and disillusioned Coptic youth that have moved away from the Church.  Moreover, there is the issue of getting state approval in amending the controversial 1957 papal election bylaws as well as the 1938 bylaws, which govern the rules of divorce and remarriage.

Outside of the Church, the issues at stake are arguably larger.  The Egypt Independent newspaper ran an article a week ago suggesting a ‘depoliticising’ of the Church, but with the volatile arena that he is stepping into, it seems that the question is not whether Pope Tawadros II will be involved in the politics, but to what degree he will be involved.

A month ago a 1-year anniversary march took place remembering the Maspero massacre where 27 people, mostly Copts, were killed during a peaceful protest, which was itself in reaction to the demolition of a Church in Upper Egypt.

A week later, there were large clashes in Tahrir Square, in part driven by the anger at the unrepresentative make-up of the Constitutional Assembly; the seculars, women and Copts all claiming little representation in it’s members.  Around the same time the Constitutional Assembly released it’s draft constitution, which has received criticism from across the board.

Human Right’s Watch asked for the constitution to make some serious changes, saying that it “falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and, surprisingly, torture and trafficking”.

The Commercial Workers’ Syndicate released a joint statement condemning the draft for omitting their 50% seat quota in Parliament calling it a “violation of rights”.

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of the country’s first Islamist President it’s understandable that some Copts would be worried about their future – especially how it will be enshrined in the constitution.  This isn’t to say that they will be targeted or alienated, but some of the constitutional articles lay grounds for worry.

Article 2 says, rather vaguely, that, “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation”.  The exact application of this is predicated on the hermeneutic advice from Al-Azhar’s senior scholars with regards to the Sharia (as enshrined in Article 4), as well as the judiciary, legislative and executive bodies in power at the time.  Due to its ill-defined wording, one can safely say that the future of Egypt and its dealings with the Coptic Christians (as well as all the other minorities, I might add) is dependent on whoever seizes the upper hand in its interpretation and application.

Which brings us back to the role of the newly appointed.  Pope Tawadros II was known as an Islamist-friendly, peace-seeking Bishop, but now that he is head of his Church, the consequence of his rhetoric and promise of his actions – be they more or less politically inclined – is of the utmost importance to the largest minority in Egypt.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Altar Lottery: Papal Elections in Egypt and the Ramifications on Constitutional Diplomacy

  1. Rolland Claus

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