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Acting Pope, Bishop Pachomius, holds aloft the name of his successor


Originally published in The Independent,  4 November 2011

Altar boy Bishoy Massad looked a little awestruck as he stepped up to the podium at the front of the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo today.

But given he was about to decide the fate of around eight million Egyptian Christians – by selecting their next Pope at random with a large blue blindfold wrapped around his head – a few nerves were perhaps understandable.

As dozens of flashing camera bulbs lit up a painting of the Last Supper high in the nave behind him, the acting Pope, Bishop Pachomius, stirred three balls of paper around a transparent glass bowl like a lottery compere.

Young Mr Massad plucked out the name, after which Bishop Pachomius unravelled the paper and theatrically twizzled it around to the TV cameras.

An ecstatic roar from the thousands of clergy and congregants filled the soaring vaults of St Mark’s Cathedral, the Nasser-era house of worship which is the biggest church in Africa.

The reaction was telling; not simply an outburst of emotion for the winner – 60-year-old Bishop Tawadros, the onetime student chemist who now becomes Egypt’s 118th Coptic Pope – but a surge of relief for a community which has found itself feeling threatened following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.

“The Pope is our shepherd,” said 22-year-old Andrew Wagih. “These days the political situation is unstable, so we need him to bring us some hope.”

Yet despite the optimistic words of Patriarch Kyrillos VI, a former Pope who once claimed that Egypt’s Muslims and Christians were one people ‘worshipping the same God in two different ways’, many Copts are feeling increasingly isolated.

The process of writing a new constitution has been dominated by an Islamist-led assembly, while elections since the fall of the old regime have revealed robust support for fundamentalists wanting to shoehorn sharia law onto the political agenda.

In addition the poll comes after years of tensions over church-building permits and the highly combustible issues of conversions and intra-religious love affairs.

“He will have to deal with the current political situation,” said Joseph Sirgis, a 48-year-old architect who was at the cathedral today.  “The political situation is something critical.

“But it is a great day. We have a new Pope. The people have chosen him, and God has chosen him as well.