Ancient traditions to guide selection of new Coptic pope

Nader Habib, Sunday 18 Mar 2012

As all of Egypt mourns the passing of the Coptic patriarch, the wheels of tradition will soon start moving to elected a new pope to carry the ancient Egyptian church forward

Pope Shenudah III
Pope Shenudah's body in full papal regalia on the seat of St Mark

 "Don’t say the pope died ... The pope is in heaven!" chanted thousands of Coptic Christians who had gathered at Cairo's Abbassiya Cathedral to pay their final respects to Pope Shenouda III who died on Saturday. His body was placed on St Mark's seat at dawn on Sunday and will be embalmed to preserve the body until the funeral on Tuesday.

It is said that the pope wished to be buried at Anba Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun.

Following Shenouda's death, the eldest member of the Holy Synod's archbishops will become acting pope until a new patriarch is seated. If the eldest archbishop, Anba Mikhail of Assiut, who was consecrated in 1946, declines to undertake the role, Archbishop Anba Pachomeus of Beheira, who was consecrated in 1971 and is the second eldest member of the Holy Synod, will become acting patriarch for two months until a new pope is elected.

According to Coptic Orthodox tradition, the pope is elected by a number of processes. Candidates, chosen among monks and archbishops, must be at least 40 years old and have been monks for at least 15 years. Following an election, the names of the three candidates with the most votes are written on pieces of paper and placed in a box to be picked by a child — not more than nine years old — whose eyes are closed.

The candidates are nominated through the Holy Synod (the highest authority in the church, comprising 120 archbishops), the Monks Synod, Melli Council members, dioceses, and members of the Coptic Councils in the People's Assembly and Shura Council.

Once His Holiness was asked in his weekly lecture whether it was possible to skip over these processes in choosing the pope. His Holiness answered "No." A white dove is said to have descended onto Shenouda's desk. The people then understood the great value of tradition.

In such difficult times for Egypt, the loss to the country's Copts of their religious leader is a hard blow. In recent months, many have felt in dire need of his wisdom, love and capacity to make correct decisions. Indeed, all Egyptians, not only Christians, held Shenouda in high regard and many will mourn his passing.

Intellectuals, writers and politicians have expressed regret at his death during live TV coverage of events at Abbassiya Cathedral.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, issued a decree to give Coptic Christians three days holiday so they can pay their final respects to the pope.

Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Al-Azhar, the Muslim world's most respected Sunni institution, described Shenouda's death as "a tragedy and great blow to Egypt and its people."

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which has the largest number of seats in parliament, also mourned Shenouda and praised him for his "nationalistic history and significant contributions." 

The liberal Wafd Party praised Shenouda for his "wisdom that spared Egypt sectarian strife."

The ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, sent his condolences to the Egyptian people, describing Shenouda as a symbol of tolerance and coexistence who was eager to keep Egypt united.


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