CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church chose a new pope, Tawadros II, in a sumptuous service on Sunday and Christians hope he will lead them through an Islamist-dominated landscape and protect what is the Middle East’s biggest Christian community.
Christians, who make up about a tenth of Egypt’s 83 million population, fret about political gains made by Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. Radical Islamists have been blamed for attacks on churches several times since but Copts have long complained of discrimination in Muslim-majority Egypt.
In a ritual steeped in tradition and filled with prayer, chants and incense at Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo, the names of three papal candidates chosen in an earlier vote were placed in a wax-sealed bowl before a blindfolded boy picked out one name.
Copts, who trace their church’s origins to before the birth of Islam in the 7th century, believe this long-established selection process ensured worldly influences did not determine the successor to Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades until his death in March at the age of 88.
“Pope Tawadros II is the 118th (leader of the church), blessed congratulations to you,” said interim Pope Bakhomious, dressed in gold-embroidered robes, who has temporarily been in the post since Shenouda’s death.
As he held the name aloft, the congregation in the packed cathedral applauded. The formal ceremony to install Bishop Tawadros as the pope will take place on November 18, a priest said.
The new pope, bishop of a region in the Nile Delta north of Cairo, had trained as a pharmacist before joining the priesthood. Clerics said he turned 61 on Sunday, but state media gave his birth date as November 4, 1952 suggesting he had turned 60.
Church experts said he had strong communication skills and had called for peaceful co-existence in Egyptian society.
“I am so happy. I have had dealings with Bishop Tawadros before and he is a very wise and calm man,” said 20-year-old Marina Nabil, speaking amid applause in the cathedral.
Coptic activist and lawyer Peter el-Naggar also welcomed the new pope. “He is not the kind of man who would compromise in our rights,” he said.
Muslim leaders and politicians offered congratulations and voiced hopes he would foster greater national unity.
Mona Saleh, a 65-year-old Muslim, watched the whole ceremony, which lasted several hours and was broadcast on state television. “I am glad for my country to have a new pope,” she said, speaking on the street near the cathedral.
In a ballot last week the candidates had been whittled down to the three. Voters included leading members of the church, public figures and a handful of representatives of the Ethiopian church, which has historic links to the church in Egypt.
The other two candidates for the papal post were Bishop Rafael, a 54-year-old who qualified as a doctor before entering the priesthood, and Father Rafael Afamena, a 70-year-old monk who studied law before taking on holy orders.
Echoing the worries of many of Egypt’s Copts, shopkeeper Michael George said before the service: “Christians fear the Islamists’ rule especially because their presence is encouraging radicals to act freely.”
Since Mubarak was ousted, Christians have complained of several attacks on churches by radical Islamists, incidents that have sharpened longstanding Christian complaints about being sidelined in the workplace and in law.
As an example, they point to rules that make it harder to obtain official permission to build a church than a mosque.
Sectarian tensions have often flared into violence, particularly in rural areas where rivalries between clans or families sometimes add to friction. Romantic relations between Muslims and Christians are regularly to blame for clashes.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamist movement from which President Mohamed Mursi emerged to win power via free elections, has sworn to guard the rights of Christians.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party congratulated the church. The party chief, Saad al-Katatni, said on his Facebook page that he was “optimistic about fruitful cooperation with (the pope) as spiritual leader of Coptic brethren.”
Christianity spread into Egypt in the early years of the faith, several centuries before Islam emerged from the Arabian Peninsula and then swept across North Africa and beyond.
To indicate their earliest links with Christianity, Copts point to a biblical account of how Jesus’ family sought refuge in Egypt soon after his birth.
The Coptic Orthodox church is the biggest in Egypt, although there is also a much smaller Coptic Catholic church, as well as smaller groups affiliated to other churches abroad.
Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, head of al-Azhar mosque and university, the prestigious seat of Sunni Muslim learning, also congratulated the new pope and wished him success in the helping unite the nation, al-Azhar said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich