The Orthodox Coptic Pope: What's Next for the Coptic Church?
After the passing of Pope Shenouda III as leader of Egypt's Coptic Church last Saturday, attention has now turned to who will succeed him as the spiritual leader of the country's Christian community, especially at the present critical time in Egypt's history when the country is going through various political, social and economic upheavals.
The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church chaired by Bishop Bakhomious, the senior archbishop, announced on Sunday that the funeral of Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Holy See of St Mark, would take place at the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya in Cairo at 11am on Tuesday.
Bishop Bakhomious was chosen as chair after Bishop Mikhail of Assiut declined the position despite being the most senior bishop because of his declining health. Bakhomious is archbishop of Beheira and five western cities. He was appointed bishop in December 1971 and became an archbishop in 1990.
As soon as the Holy Synod appoints Bakhomious as locum tenens and a decree to this effect is issued by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), he will become caretaker pope of the Church according to traditional protocol.
However, there is still some ambiguity about what will happen next, and whether Pope Shenouda's successor will be chosen according to the Church's 1957 charter or whether the Holy Synod will amend the charter. Pope Shenouda was once asked about this, and he reportedly said that such things could be taken care of "after I am gone," thereby scotching any suspicions that he might have wanted to choose his own successor.
Ordinarily, the choice of a new pope to lead the Church takes place according to a charter dating back to November 1957, which states that any monk older than 40 who has spent 15 years or more in his religious order can put himself forward as head of the Church. Anyone doing so should hold the rank at least of bishop and should have responsibility for education, services, scientific research, youth, or similar. In other words, he should not simply be a diocesan bishop, since the Church views such bishops as being "married" to their parish responsibilities and inseparable from them.
Of the more than 100 bishops in the Holy Synod, the Church's supreme legislative body, there are 20 so-called "public" and non-diocesan bishops who are eligible for nomination. These include the popular Bishop Moussa, bishop for youth affairs, born in 1938; Bishop Yoaanas; Bishop Armiya and Bishop Boutros.
Another well-known bishop both to the general public and in Coptic circles is Bishop Roweis, who often joined Pope Shenouda at Christmas mass. There is also Bishop Yohanna, bishop of the churches of Misr Al-Qadima in Old Cairo; Bishop Daniel, bishop of Maadi and Dar Al-Salam, and Bishop Rafael, the bishop of central Cairo.
The election of the next pope of the Coptic Church, the 118th since the Church was founded by St Mark the Evangelist at the beginning of the Christian era, will be held at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo and will be chaired by the caretaker pope Bakhomious. The process will begin at 9am and last until 5pm and will be attended by a representative from the Ministry of Interior.
There is no quorum for the election, and once the votes have been counted the names of the three top candidates will be announced. The Sunday following the elections, a procedure will be held at St Mark's Church in Cairo to choose the next pope from among the three top candidates. Their names will be placed on the altar, and after mass a blindfolded child will pick one of the names. The name of the person picked will become the next pope of the Coptic Church.
In addition to the qualifications for candidates for the position, the electors must also meet certain criteria. The latter are members of the Church's General Congregation, formed of the Holy Synod and General Lay Council of the Church. They must be older than 35 years old and have a university degree. Of the members of the Synod, these include the bishops and archbishops of the Church, the heads, deputies and secretaries of monasteries, 12 priests from Cairo, seven from Alexandria, incumbent and former members of the cabinet and any incumbent Coptic members of parliament.
They also include current members of the Congregation's branch councils, as well as Coptic judges and other civil servants, doctors, lawyers, newspaper owners, editors and journalists who are members of the Press Syndicate, and finally 12 senior parish leaders.
Since the martyrdom of St Mark, the apostle who spread the Christian message in Egypt, the process of choosing a pope for the Coptic Church has gone through many social and religious upheavals. St Mark was one of the apostles chosen by Jesus Christ to spread his message to the world, and he was martyred in 68 CE.
Those responsible for the martyrdom of St Mark engineered his replacement by Anianus, a cobbler, who was appointed to run the affairs of Egypt's Christian community. Twelve other priests were also chosen, and these were told that if the pope should die another must be appointed in his place from among the council of 12 priests, which should always have that number. The procedure continued until the Church's 19th pope, Alexandros, banned married priests from becoming pope and laid down the rule that only a bishop could become pope.
The Church's third pope, Milius (Avilius) (84-96 CE), was chosen because of his chastity, piety and zeal, and these qualities were then established as the criteria for choosing subsequent leaders of the Church. The idea of drawing names emerged under the fourth pope, Kerzonos (Kedronus) (96-106 CE), when the bishops consulted the Christian congregation in Alexandria, suggesting that drawing names be used as a way of deciding who should occupy the papal throne.
A further phase began with the election of Amanius (Eumenes) (131-144 CE), also unmarried, a rule that was sometimes ignored, who was the director of the Church's main theological seminary. From this period onwards, popes could also be chosen from among the directors of seminaries, as these were thought to be the most knowledgeable of Christian theology and the traditions of the Church.
Although it is a general rule that members of the Church choose the pope who is to lead them, at times God may reveal to the pope before his death who his successor will be. This happened for the first time during the reign of Pope Yolyanous (Julian) (178-190 CE), the 11th pope, who was visited by an angel, who told him that "whoever gives you a grapevine tomorrow is the one who will sit on the papal seat after you."
The next morning, a humble man of Coptic origin called Demetrius came upon a grapevine that had ripened early while out trimming the vines and decided to give it to the dying pope. The leaders of the community had gathered around the patriarch in order to decide on a successor, and Yolyanous passed on what the angel had told him. Grapes do not grow in winter, as it then was, and the story was dismissed. But at that moment, Demetrius came to them with the grapevine and presented it to the pope.
The pope reminded those present of the angel's words the day before and commanded them to elect the person God had pointed to as the next pope. They obeyed, although Demetrius subsequently did not live in Alexandria, but preferred to spend his time travelling across Egypt on his evangelical mission, as had St Mark before him.
The 13th pope, Yaroklas (Heraclas) (232-247 CE), was the first to take the title of pope, meaning "father", with the agreement of the patriarchs of Alexandria. Yaroklas was responsible for the establishment of many new parishes, and he appointed 20 new bishops. He was popular both among the people and the priests, and they began calling him "pope", a title that had not previously been accorded to any of the Christian patriarchs.
The 14th pope, Dionius (Dionysius) (247-265 CE) was originally pagan, converting to Christianity after he had read the letters of St Paul. As a result, he converted to Christianity and joined a seminary, excelling there and becoming its director. When the pope of the time died, the people and clergy chose him to sit on the throne of St Mark.
Such stories indicate that the origin of the pope of the Coptic Church, even if pagan, is unimportant, so long as the holder of the post has distinguished himself in his Christian mission.
Sometimes, the pope chooses his own successor, as happened under the 17th pope, Boutros I (Peter I) (300-311 CE), also known as the "Seal of Martyrs" because he witnessed the greatest persecution that had taken place up until that time against the Christians. Boutros's reign also saw the introduction of the Coptic calendar. Before he died, Boutros met with two of his followers, Arshlos (Achillas) and Alexandros (Alexander), and told them that they would become popes after him, which is indeed what happened.
Pope Athnasious (Athanasius) (326-373 CE), the Church's 20th pope, was chosen by Alexandros, even though he tried to evade the responsibilities that come with this onerous post. Athnasious was eventually persuaded to agree to his enthronement, and the Christian community of the time brought him to Alexandria and placed him on the throne of St Mark.
Athnasious was 28 years old at the time, and for the first time 50 bishops laid hands on him as part of the ritual of enthronement. Athnasious was the first pope to establish a branch of the Church outside Egypt, namely the Church of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and he appointed a bishop to head it in 330 CE. The late Pope Shenouda III was known as the "Athnasious of the 20th Century" for his work in spreading the Christian message. At the end of his life, Athnasious, too, chose his own successor.
With the spread of the monastic movement in Egypt at this time, Pope Temothaos (Timothy II Aelurus), the 26th pope, (457-477 CE) was chosen from among the monks at the Al-Qalmun Monastery in Fayoum and was nominated by the bishops. Pope Yohana II (John II), the 30th pope, (507-517 CE) was the first known to have spent time in the Al-Ghar Monastery in Al-Sharqiya as a monk before he was chosen as patriarch.
The popes later continued to be chosen from among monks, and the patriarchs of the Abi Moqar Monastery in Wadi Al-Natroun were often chosen as popes, especially since the Byzantine Church at the time had begun to persecute the Egyptian Coptic Church, wanting to extend its control across Egypt.
At the time of the Arab conquest, history tells us that Pope Binyamin (Benjamin I), the 38th pope (620-659 CE), was the first to come from outside Alexandria, being born in Mariut. The Arabs established their capital at Cairo, and Abdel-Aziz, the new ruler of Egypt, ordered the country's Copts to elect their new leader in the city of Babylon, later Old Cairo, after the death of Pope Yohana III (John III), the 40th pope, in 686 CE. This tradition continued until the 11th century, though the attendant rituals continued to take place in Alexandria.
In his History of the Coptic Church, Mansi Yohana writes that Pope Simon, the 42nd pope, (689-700 CE) was the first non-Egyptian pope. The ruler of Egypt at the time, Abdel-Malek ibn Marwan, was asked to confirm Simon's appointment. When he asked about the latter's nationality, he was told that Simon was Syriac, and Abdel-Malek ibn Marwan responded by saying that it would be better if the pope of the Church was a national of Egypt. However, those present argued that Simon should be given the post nonetheless.
In 776, after the death of the 47th pope, Mina I, the tradition of drawing names to decide on his successor began. The bishops gathered and waited for several days until God had called on someone to take up the position. They decided to write the names of the candidates down on small pieces of paper and place them on the altar while the bishops, priests and congregation prayed and sang "kir yalison" (may God forgive). A child was then asked to select one of the pieces of paper, the person whose name appeared on it being chosen as the new pope.
The idea of choosing a pope from among the laity re-emerged with the election of Pope Yohana VI (John VI), the 74th pope, in 1189 CE during the reign of sultan Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin). Yohana was a widowed merchant who did not wish to take another wife. Although the rules stated that the pope must have been a bachelor all his life, Aba Al-Magd's extensive knowledge (this was Yohana's name before he became pope) and his virtue made him an obvious candidate.
During the French invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century, because of the persecution of the Copts at the time, Pope Morcos VIII (Mark VIII), the 108th pope, decided to move the Cathedral headquarters to Al-Azbakiya and to the church called Old Batrakhana. Morcos was the first pope to be buried in this church.
The Church's General Council was created after the death of Pope Demetrius II, the 111th pope, when Bishop Morcos, archbishop of Alexandria, became influential in 1862. Morcos felt overwhelmed by his duties and decided to create a consultative body to assist him in managing the affairs of the Church. The state later granted official recognition to this Council.
When Pope Kirollos V (Cyril V) became pope, he drew up a charter that required the Council to be more involved in the affairs of the Church, including schools, endowments, personal status issues and the ordination of priests. The terms of this involvement were codified in the 1883 Charter, though at least at first Council members took little interest in Church affairs, and this first Council was later dissolved.
There were disputes over the election of the new pope in 1927, when Bishop Yoaanas, the pope's deputy, asked police to disperse demonstrations against him at St Mark's Church at Mehatet Al-Raml in Alexandria. The protests were against the charter issued in the same year, which, the protesters said, would have served the interests of the Church's Council, mostly secularists and members of the Wafd Party, by allowing any Copt to nominate himself for the position of pope without the prerequisite of being a monk.
Eventually the composition of the Council changed, and the clergy became the majority on it. Bishop Yoaanas, the pope's deputy, won the throne of St Mark by 70 votes to two, the loser being Habib Girgis, the founder of secular Sunday schools and mentor of Pope Shenouda III.
After Bishop Yoaanas came Bishop Macarius III, archbishop of Assiut and the Council's candidate. Known as a reformist, Macarius later abdicated because of clashes over the charter. After Macarius, Bishop Yosap (Joseph II) became pope, but he enjoyed little collective support. Eventually, Yosap was kidnapped by a group of secularist young people called the Coptic Nation and held in the Mar Girgis Convent. He was deposed by Council decision in September, 1955, and exiled to the Al-Mahraq Monastery.
Popes elected according to this version of the charter did not enjoy the support that would have guaranteed their survival on the throne. For three years, the Church was without a patriarch between December 1956, and March 1959, when Pope Kirollos VI (Cyril VI) was elected. Yet another dispute erupted over the charter, with Council members and young people from the Sunday School Movement opposing traditionalist clergy.
The minister of supply at the time, Kamal Ramzi Esteno, approached president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, drafting what he called a "middle-ground charter" that would combine the demands of the Holy Synod and some of those of the secularists. Esteno added the stipulation that the pope should be chosen by drawing a name from the top three candidates in the elections.
This second version of the Church's charter is still in use today. It was under these rules that Pope Kirollos VI, who came third in the elections with 468 votes, became pope thanks to the choice of Rafiq Bassili El-Tukhi, the child who selected the piece of paper with his name upon it.
After Pope Kirollos died in 1971, Church affairs came to a head, remembers writer Maged Attiya, who lived through the events. "There was a need to elect a new pope quickly, to meet the requests being made by president [Anwar El-] Sadat, even if through the Holy Synod alone and without elections," Attiya recalls. "Bishop Shenouda himself objected to such a step and the battle over the charter came to a head, but because time was short it could not be amended."
Despite differences over the charter, the Council met and Bishop Samuel, bishop of social services, won 440 votes. Bishop Shenouda won 434 votes, and Father Timthos Al-Makari won 312. The final decision was made when child Ayman Ghali drew the name of Bishop Shenouda from the three winning candidates, Shenouda becoming Patriarch of the See of St Mark on Sunday 31 October 1971, at St Mark's Church in Klot Bek, Alexandria.
By Nader Habib
Any predictions on who the next Coptic Pope might be? Please share what you think!
- Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III: In Memoriam
- In the hands of a child: picking Egypt's pope comes down to 'altar boy lottery'
- Did the Coptic Church Undermine Ba Ba Shenouda's Ban on Easter Pilgrims?
- Global South pope takes office off the back of Lebanese vote-in
- Mourning Pope Shenouda III: AMERICAN IN ARABIA Ponders the Value of Human Life