Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of Copts in Egypt and abroad, is currently in the United States for another surgical operation in less than two years. Not surprisingly, Copts and the government are already thinking of the pope’s successor, especially now that he is 83 years old and suffering from kidney failure.
During his 37-year-papacy, the Coptic Orthodox Church has expanded enormously, and the highest religious authority has accordingly gained more political weight. During the 1970s, the Pope was at the frontline against rising political Islam which at the time had led to a clash between President Anwar Sadat and the Pope.
During the mid-1980s, an agreement was made between the regime and the Pope based on mutual interests: Pope Shenouda and the top clergymen were now the only representatives of Copts in return for their unceasing and unconditional support of the regime. Occupied by the belief that the top clergymen are their genuine representatives in a society noticeably sinking in Islamization, Copts have become “clients of both the church and the state. For this reason, Copts go to church to baptize, to pray, to marry, and to demonstrate in case of a problem.
There are three major powers that will definitely have a say in the succession process. The regime, especially its security arms, doesn’t want to see another Pope Shenouda. He is a charismatic leader with a very challenging character. This makes deals, negotiations and sometimes confrontation between both sides tough. It seems that a person who supports the regime, without the Copts’ full support is the best choice.
The regime doesn’t want a weak person who cannot mobilize Copts, but also does not want a domineering person, whose choices could be confrontational.
The second influential group is Copts in the Diaspora. They have money and a voice. Pope Shenouda is the real founder of the Coptic church in many countries around the globe, from Europe to Pakistan, including the United States, Australia, Canada and more recently some Latin American countries. Living abroad, around two million Copts want to play a major role in the election of the next pope.
Contrary to the regime’s preferences, their choice would be totally different. Because they preceive their Christian fellows in Egypt as persecuted and discriminated against, migrant Copts hunt for a powerful pope to fight for more religious freedom.
The third group is Coptic businessmen, who want a peace-making pope to maintain co-existence and harmony in society. They believe that they can only make money in a secure environment, which cannot exist if there is sectarian strife.
Pope Shenouda became the Patriarch in November 1971, with great hopes for church reform. Many of his accomplishments can be classified under the umbrella of “horizontal development, in which churches and clergymen multiply in number both in Egypt and in the Diaspora. Nevertheless, the long-held dream of modernizing the church, as the Pope himself mentioned before his papacy and was called for by some secular Coptic figures, has not been reached in full.
One of three top clergymen is expected to succeed the Pope; Bishop Moussa, Bishop Youaans and Bishop Bishoy. Bishop Moussa is a popular leader who has a great influence on Copts, especially the younger generation. In a government-brokered demonstration against the war in Iraq in 2003, he joined politicians including Gamal Mubarak and demonstrators from all political shades. Despite his popularity among the Coptic community, he decided to keep a distance from a high profile life, telling his close allies that he has no interest in the upcoming papacy battle.
The second candidate is Bishop Youaans, the secretary of Pope Shenouda. His close relationship with the current charismatic Pope provides him with access to top government officials, a privilege that makes him more powerful. However, the privilege may turn into a curse since many bishops are not on good terms with him.
The third contender is Bishop Bishoy, the secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Known as a hard-line clergyman, Bishop Bishoy is a theologian, close to the heart and mind of Pope Shenouda. However, many complain of his extremist positions when it comes to the relationship with other Christian denominations, especially the evangelical church.
Nevertheless, he is believed to be the closest candidate to the papal throne. For the regime, Bishop Bishoy seems to be an ideal choice. He is strong to the extent that he can rally Copts behind the regime without pursuing an opposing path. Since he has some problems with secular Copts and some top clergymen, nobody expects him to challenge the ruling regime.
Bishop Bishoy is a strategist religious leader. It is hard to tell what is going on in his head regarding the upcoming battle over the papacy. He was better introduced by a number of newspapers, including Al-Masry Al-Youm, as a devout theologian who overwhelmingly supports Gamal Mubarak to become the next president of Egypt, and vehemently appears as a hard-line defender of Christianity and Copts.
Sameh Fawzyis an Egyptian journalist, PhD researcher, and specialist on governance and citizenship.