Sometime this summer, a young Egyptian boy will step up to the altar in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo and be blindfolded by Metropolitan Bakhomious of Behera. The child will then reach inside a large box and pull out one of three smaller boxes, each containing a name. The name in the box the boy picks will be the world’s next Coptic Orthodox Pope.
The Holy Altar Lottery, as it’s called, is the final step in the Coptic Church’s three-step process for choosing a successor to Pope Shenouda III, who died March 17 at age 88 after leading the world’s 30 million Coptic Orthodox Christians for more than 40 years.
“So God is picking the new pope,” said the Rev. John Ragheb, pastor of St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Monclova Township.
“A combination of man and God: Man-elected and God-chosen,” said Dr. Sabry Gohara, a founding member of the local Coptic church.
The Holy Altar Lottery will be the first one conducted since Nov. 14, 1971, when a 6-year-old boy reached in and withdrew a box containing Pope Shenouda’s name, and the third since 1957, when the church’s governing body, the Holy Synod, passed a decree outlining the papal succession process. The decree was ratified by the parliament and president of Egypt, where Copts make up 10 percent of the country’s population of 85 million.
Metropolitan Bakhomious, the senior member of the church’s Holy Synod, is serving as interim Papal in-lieu, or caretaker patriarch, as the election process gets set to start on Wednesday, the end of a 40-day mourning period. An 18-member committee will then begin taking nominations from Copts around the world.
The second step will be a global ballot of designated clergy and lay leaders, with the top three vote-getters having their names entered in the Holy Altar Lottery.
Many local Copts knew Pope Shenouda personally, having visited him often during his extended trips to the Cleveland Clinic for kidney treatment and other medical procedures, the most recent visit being in mid-January.
He was a man whose spirituality, leadership skills, intelligence, wit, and charisma made him almost larger than life, according to Father John and Dr. Gohara.
“When he was enthroned pope in 1971, there were only four churches in the states here. Now there are more than 120 churches,” Dr. Gohara said. “He was very humble, very witty, [had a] great sense of humor, and was very firm when it comes to decision-making and taking decisive actions.”
Pope Shenouda visited Toledo 10 years ago to consecrate the newly built St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Monclova Township, which now serves about 50 families. Admission to the consecration service, held Aug. 31, 2002, was by invitation-only because the small, domed church holds a maximum of 235 people.
Pope Shenouda, born Nazeer Gayed, was a graduate of Cairo University and a veteran of the Egyptian army. He entered the seminary after his military discharge and became a monk in 1954, living in a desert cave that he carved out for himself until 1962, when his predecessor, the late Pope Cyril VI, called him to be consecrated as a bishop.
Dr. Gohara, 70, a retired chest surgeon and native of Egypt who teaches at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio Hospital, said Pope Shenouda did not name or favor anyone as a successor, insisting instead that the Holy Altar Lottery be followed. The selection process is designed to lessen the potential for political pressure or machinations, Coptic leaders say.
The Copts’ “holy lottery” differs from the better-known pope-selection process of the Roman Catholic Church.
The world’s biggest religious group with 1.2 billion members, Roman Catholics elect a pope by vote of a conclave of cardinals who meet behind closed doors in the Sistine Chapel.
The two-thirds vote requirement for the Catholic pope was established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, who returned to Vatican tradition by changing the absolute-majority requirement set by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1996.
For the Coptic Orthodox Church, which traces its roots to St. Mark the Apostle, the 118th successor to St. Mark must meet four specific criteria: He must be Egyptian, be over 40 years old, have spent at least 15 years as a monk, and practice a life of celibacy.
Nominations are taken from around the world, and the nine Holy Synod bishops and nine laypersons in the election committee can each nominate up to two candidates. Once the papal candidates are set, balloting by the 2,400 voting delegates determine the top three vote-getters, whose names are submitted in the Holy Altar Lottery.
“Not every Copt can vote,” said Dr. Gohara. “They don’t want someone who does not know a thing about the church to choose the person who’s going to run the church. They want people who are dedicated, people who know what’s going on and have participated in the church.”
This will be the first time that representatives from the United States will vote for a Coptic pope, with the North American church having grown significantly under Pope Shenouda’s reign. There are about 1 million Coptic Christians in the United States, according to Father Ragheb, and each of the five dioceses in the North American Archdiocese will have 12 voting delegates.
The nominee whose name is chosen by the blindfolded boy will become Coptic Pope No. 118, holding the official title of Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy See of St. Mark the Apostle. The Holy Synod will then forward the new pope’s name to the Egyptian president for his endorsement.
Dr. Gohara said Pope Shenouda was not only a great spiritual leader, teacher, and poet, but also a “calming influence” during a critical time in Egypt’s history, including last year’s Arab Spring uprising and persecution by some Muslims. He said young Egyptian Christians grew up under the pope’s leadership and respected his position and authority.
“He used to say, ‘Our final judge, God, will take care of things.’ That is how he used to defuse things,” Dr. Gohara said. “His talents and traits fit the time. We needed a wise, cool man who loves everybody, loves his country, and cares about his country. For the church to replace him, they will have to find a very good man, a very wise man.”
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.