CAIRO — A council of Egypt’s Coptic Christians began a process Monday that will lead to the selection of a new pope for the ancient church, as the community struggles to assert its identity and rights amid a rising tide of Islamism that has left many Copts fearful for their future.
The succession follows the death in March of Pope Shenouda III at age 88, after 40 years as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Copts are 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 first phase of voting, parts of which were shown live on state television. They narrowed the field of candidates from five to three.
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.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the state and the country’s Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims have broken out occasionally, sparked by church construction, land disputes, or Muslim-Christian love affairs.
For years, Christians largely relied on the church to secure protection for their rights, using Shenouda’s close relationship with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longtime president.
Now with Mubarak’s ouster and Shenouda’s death, many in the community have been emboldened to try to participate more directly in politics to demand rights, better representation, and freedom of worship and expression.