A Coptic Orthodox Pope for uncertain times

On Sunday the 10-15 million strong Coptic Orthodox Church elected a new Pope, to replace Pope Shenouda III who died in March.

In an elaborate yet prayerful ceremony at St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo, with chants and incense in the air, the names of three papal candidates chosen in an earlier vote were placed in a wax-sealed bowl before a blindfolded boy - himself one of 12 shortlisted children - picked out a single name. It belonged to Bishop Tawadros (Theodoros), a quietly-spoken and unassuming 60-year old former pharmacist who had only been a monk since 1988 and a bishop since 1997.

With a reputation as a theologian and someone committed to Christian-Muslim dialogue, Pope Tawadros II (as he will become when he is officially enthroned on 18 November) is an interesting 'choice'. But then the very nature of his selection, with its echoes of the way in which the disciples selected Matthias as the twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:12-26), suggests that this was not really a 'choice' at all, but an act of God.

On behalf of the trustees and staff of Embrace I have already written to our Patron, His Grace Bishop Angaelos in the UK, conveying our congratulations and prayers for the new Pope. I have written in similar terms to HG Bishop Youannes, who heads the development arm of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, COC-BLESS, which has in recent years become one of our key partners. I am sure all Embrace supporters will want to add their prayers to ours at this time of hope and uncertainty in Egypt.

Pope Tawadros will face many challenges as Egypt tries to find its feet after the revolution which toppled President Mubarak in February 2011. Pope Shenouda had been a supporter of President Mubarak, in an arrangement which has been a commonplace across the Middle East: a fearful religious minority allying itself with an authoritarian ruler as protection against the Muslim majority. This arrangement has of course unravelled as the region's dictators have fallen, leaving the region's Christians uncertain about the future, especially with the rise in fundamentalist Islam. In Egypt these fears have been compounded by the election of an Islamist President and parliament, and the prospect of a new Egyptian constitution which enshrines (Article 2) the principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) as "the main source of legislation". So Pope Tawadros II certainly needs our prayers as he seeks to engender stability and confidence within Egypt's Coptic community.

But given God's obvious hand in his election, he looks the right man for the job. He has a broadly-based background (he even studied pharmacy in the UK for a while) and has managerial experience, having run a medicines factory. More importantly, in a recent interview he emphasised the need for Copts to integrate into Egyptian society:

"Integrating in the society is a fundamental scriptural Christian trait...This integration is a must - moderate constructive integration. All of us, as Egyptians, have to participate”. In the same interview he said that his priorities included “living with our brothers, the Muslims” and “the responsibility of preserving our shared life.

It is to be hoped that the Muslim Brotherhood politicians who now lead Egypt will respond in kind. At the heart of the Coptic Orthodox Church's ministry has been its outward facing social ministry, the kind which Embrace supports through COC-BLESS and the Salaam Centre. So it has been especially pleasing to see the new Pope's recent comments on this aspect of the church's work: 

"The most important thing is for the church to go back and live consistently within the spiritual boundaries because this is its main work, spiritual work. Most important is … that the church, as an institution, serves the community.

Amen to that! For this is the very heart of our work at Embrace the Middle East. Empowering local Christians to serve the wider community. All of us at Embrace pray that the ministry of Pope Tawadros II will be one of great blessing and fruitfulness, and that our partnership with his church, both in Egypt and the UK, will deepen and strengthen.