Papal electors gather to vote for the final three candidates at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo's district of Abbasiya, Monday, 29 October (Photo: Sarah El-Rashidi)
Smiles and cheers filled Cairo's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya throughout Monday amid Egypt's first papal elections since 1971.
"Today is the most important day in the church's history," Basilius Qanon, a Coptic priest from the Upper Egyptian Minya governorate, told Ahram Online. "It has been 40 years since we last held papal elections."
The polling, which has been praised for its high degree of organisation, was conducted from 9am to 5pm Monday. Final results will be announced at 9pm the same day.
Following the death of Pope Shenouda III in March, the interim pope, 76-year-old Bishop Pachomios, formed a committee mandated with drawing up a shortlist of nominees to become the church's next patriarch. Earlier this month, the names of five final nominees – including two bishops and three monks – were announced by the committee.
Electors at the cathedral, for their part, voiced pleasure with the choice of papal finalists.
"We're very happy with all five candidates," said Coptic priest Makarious Soliman Malawi, echoing a common opinion among the roughly 2,400 electors.
"God will write our fate," exclaimed Coptic priest and elector Paulos Ewada, declining to divulge which candidates he cast ballots for.
Electors include Coptic archbishops, bishops, lay council members and agents of the archdioceses, as well as renowned Coptic laymen, including leading Coptic media officials. In line with church bylaws, five electors hail from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
After final voting results are announced Monday evening, three finalists will proceed to the final phase of the electoral process: the 'alter lottery,' slated for 4 November, in which a blindfolded child will randomly select the name of the church's 118th pope.
Some have criticised the electoral system, enshrined in the church’s 1957 bylaws, as having no spiritual or legal basis.
"Although some criticise the system, I endorse it," said Coptic priest Soliman. "After all, the revered Pope Shenouda was selected this way."
Posters depicting the five nominees covered the walls of the Cathedral, which reverberated with recorded lectures and sermons delivered by the late pope, along with audio biographies of the five candidates.
Eight ballot boxes were set up for the vote, two of which were reserved for electors living abroad, who either came to Egypt to vote themselves or assigned Egypt-based proxies to vote on their behalf.
Despite the jubilation, Coptic electors acknowledged the many challenges that will face Egypt's new Coptic Orthodox pope.
Many stressed the importance of the new patriarch's diplomatic capacity, as he will be expected to bridge Egypt's sectarian divides while maintaining a rapport with the international community.
"One of the major challenges the new pope will face will be obtaining the legal right to build new churches," said Coptic priest El-Moharaki.
Coptic priest and elector Qanon, for his part, said: "The new pope is a human being like us; he will need God's help and our support."