By John Pontifex
EGYPT’S new Coptic Orthodox Pope should break with the past, take a lower political profile and allow the Coptic faithful to speak up for themselves in defence of their rights.
Praising Pope-designate Tawadros II’s early statements favouring a spiritually-focused pontificate over a political one, Coptic Catholic Bishop Kyrillos William stressed the need for the new leader to “leave the lay people to represent themselves”.
Speaking from Upper Egypt in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Bishop William, Patriarchal Administrator of the Coptic Catholic Church, said Pope-designate Tawadros was the best of the three candidates in the final round.
Bishop William went on: “Pope Tawadros has got to work for the rights of Christians but not so much in a political way – leave the lay people to represent themselves.
“Many people thought the last Pope [Shenouda III, who died in March] spoke for all the Copts.
“This was not right. The Copts have to speak for themselves while the Pope deals with pastoral and spiritual affairs.”
Bishop Kyrillos, acting leader of Egypt’s Coptic Catholics in place of Patriarch Cardinal Antonios Naguib who had a severe stroke last December, recommended that the new Coptic Orthodox Pope set up a “council” for Coptic Christians which would give significant voice to the lay faithful.
Bishop William was speaking today (Monday, 5th November) a day after attending the ceremony in St Mark’s Cathedral, Alexandria, in which Tawadros was nominated after a six-year-old blind-folded boy plucked his name from a glass bowl – an event the Coptic Catholic leader described as “very exciting”.
Bishop William’s comments come after widespread criticism of Pope Shenouda’s allegedly political interventions, particularly his early 2011 calls on the faithful to stop protesting against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, appeals they largely ignored.
In his ACN interview, Bishop William went on to insist that ecumenical cooperation would be crucial in the new Coptic Orthodox Pope’s struggle against Islamic extremism, much of which targets Christians.
He said: “I don’t know what the new Pope can do [to tackle Islamist violence] but Churches have been working together to build a council of Churches and we hope that we will be able to meet him soon personally and talk about it then.”
Stressing the Pope-designate’s ecumenical credentials, Bishop William said that Franciscan Sisters described how every year the Coptic Orthodox leader had visited their centre for blind children outside the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
Bishop William said that during Pope Shenouda’s time ecumenical relations were complicated by controversies including the ‘re-baptism’ of Catholics and other Christians marrying in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Other Coptic Catholic bishops welcoming Tawadros’s nomination included Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor and Bishop Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza.
Also stating that Tawadros was the best of the three final short-list of candidates, Bishop Zakaria said the Pope-designate could prove crucial in helping to steer Egypt’s draft constitution away from forcing non-Muslims to follow Islamic Shari’a law.
Speaking from Luxor, Bishop Zakaria told ACN: “Really we are in a difficult time with the constitution especially given the influence of the Salafists [extremists] and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We need to stand up for the rights of Christians.”
Praising the Pope designate’s skills as an administrator and spiritual leader, Bishop Zakaria said: “He has had 10 years of experience as a bishop. He will be in favour of better relations with other Churches. I pray for that. Let us wait and see.”
And Bishop Aziz said: “Together with the Coptic Church we have prayed and fasted that a worthy successor to His Holiness Pope Shenouda III would be chosen.
“This has now come to pass with the nomination of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II. We hope that the new Pope will be able to guide his Church with strength and wisdom through all the difficulties that exist in Egypt at the present time.”
He too underlined the difficulties of the draft constitution, adding: “We demand no privileges, but equality for all citizens, whether Christians or Muslims.
“Such a just constitution would be of benefit to all citizens of Egypt, not Christians.
“Thus, on this level there is no difference between us and our Muslim fellow citizens.”
The Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt is 200,000-strong, compared with the Coptic Orthodox Church which has up to 10 million.
By John Pontifex