CAIRO — A council of Egypt's Coptic Christians is voting Monday in a process that will elect a new spiritual leader for the ancient church as the community struggles to assert its identity and role amid a rising tide of Islamism that has left many Copts fearful for their future.
The succession follows the March death of the charismatic Pope Shenouda III at the age of 88 and after 40 years as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The congregation represents the majority of Egypt's Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country's 83 million people.
About 2,400 clergymen, community leaders and Egyptian Coptic notables are choosing from among five candidates — three monks and two bishops. Their vote, widely covered by the media, at the main Coptic cathedral in Cairo will short-list three candidates on Monday. The final selection of the new pope will take place in a ceremony Sunday.
Egypt's Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the state and the country's Muslim majority. Clashes with Muslims over religious rituals, land disputes or Muslim-Christian love affairs have occasionally erupted.
But with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising last year and Shenouda's passing in March, the community has become increasingly vocal about its rights and emboldened to act beyond the church's hold to demand better representation in politics and freedom of worship and expression.
This became more prominent in the wake of rising powers of Islamist groups long repressed under Mubarak, and after a series of violent attacks against churches and Christians, including by the security forces, and a crackdown on freedom of expression.
The election of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi heightened fears among the Copts and other minorities that their rights would be curtailed, and that they might become targets of extremist Muslim attacks. The process of writing the country's constitution, dominated by Islamist groups who are seeking to increase the role of Islam in legislation, has increased those fears.
Bishop Basanti, a member of the Coptic church's Holy Synod, said the new pope will work with the church's local layman council, known as el-Maglis el-Melly, to address the community's demands and reach out to the country's leadership.
"The new pope will be a preacher of peace," Basanti told pan-Arab Al-Jazeera television in Egypt. His priorities "will be to demand the rights of the Copts, the rights of all those killed" in violence, as well as freedom of worship.
Morsi has promised to be inclusive in decision-making and reach out to Christians, but Basanti said the new president has yet to back up the words with steps that would reassure the Copts.
Many among the Coptic community are demanding a change to the church's internal laws to allow for more representation in the running of the church's affairs, and less of a political role for the religious leadership.