For centuries, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt has chosen its leader through a complex, month-long process
A blindfolded child will deliver the final word on the election of the successor of Shenouda III, the recently deceased Coptic Pope. According to customary voting practice, the child will pull one of three cards, with various names written on them, out of a silver urn. For centuries, the Coptic Orthodox Church has chosen its leaders through this unique system, at the end of a complex, multi-step process which lasts several months.
The current procedure dates back to 1957, and thus has been used to choose the last two Coptic popes: Cyril VI, who reigned from 1959 to 1971, and Shenouda III, who led the largest Egyptian Church for the last forty years. On 31 October 1971, he, too, was chosen through the “sacred election by lot”: before the entire community, the smallest of the altar boys was given the task of extracting one of the three cards which contained the names of monks Samuel and Timothy al-Maqarinext alongside Shenouda's name. This is an ancient way to visibly demonstrate that the election has been entrusted to the will of God.
It should be noted right away, though, that the child’s role only comes into play at the end of a lengthy selection process. The first step - which must take place within seven days after the death of the Coptic pope - is the appointment of a regent, chosen by the Holy Synod (the assembly of Coptic bishops) to lead the Church until it chooses a successor. Usually it is one of the eldest of the bishops. Under his leadership, within the space of a month, a committee consisting of fourteen members of the Synod, has the task of preparing, based on reports received, an initial list of five or six candidates for the election. There are specific criteria that need to be met: the future Coptic pope must be over 40 years old, he must have lived as a monk for at least fifteen years, and must never have been married.
Once chosen, this list is then published in Egypt's three major Arab-language newspapers, communicating the names of the candidates to all the faithful of the Coptic Church. For this reason, the next step takes place only after three months. At that point a grand assembly is called, including the 74 bishops of the Coptic Church and twelve representatives from each diocese, chosen from elders and leaders of associations. This is a large body, consisting of one thousand people who will be voting for the candidates. The three that receive the most support will have their names on the ballot during the ceremony of the “sacred election by lot.” The ceremony is held during a public ritual which the entire community of the faithful is invited to attend.
Thus, the 119th Coptic pope will be named just four months from now. And, interestingly, the procedure for his appointment in Egypt coincides with the campaign for the election of the President of the Republic: that vote is set for 23 and 24 May, with possible run-offs on 16 and 17 June. Another interesting problem will be to find out to what extent the Coptic diaspora communities will take part in the election of a new pope. Today, members of the diaspora are more numerous than in 1971 and have their own bishops.
Both the funeral of Pope Shenouda III and the election of his successor will take place in Saint Mark's Cathedral. The new cathedral, opened in 1968 in the Abbasyia district, holds the relics of the Evangelist who - according to tradition - was the founder of the Church of Alexandria. In 1968, in a gesture of profound ecumenical significance, Paul VI donated part of the remains of Saint Mark's, venerated for centuries in Venice, to the Coptic Church. In 1973, following this gesture, Paul VI and Shenouda III signed a joint declaration in which they gave “thanks in the Holy Spirit to God for the fact that, after the great event of the return of the relics of St. Mark to Egypt, relations between the Churches of Rome and Alexandria have continued to grow.”
Since the age limit for the election is relatively low - just 40 years of age - it is not unusual for a Coptic Pope to reign for very long periods of time, as with Shenouda III. The record, however, belongs to his predecessor, Cyril V, who led the Coptic Church from 1874 to 1927 - 53 years. This period of time was not only long, but vital to Egyptian history: it witnessed the end of Ottoman era, British domination, the independence movement of Mustafa Kamil Pasha, the First World War, the revolution of 1919, and the independence of 1922.