Last week, the door was closed for voter registration of the some 2600-member electoral body that will elect the 118th patriarch for the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Church sources say that the final voter lists are expected to be announced within the week, after which contestations against any of the nominees for the papacy will be accepted for the duration of two weeks.
Voting for the new patriarch is expected to take place next October. Diaspora Copts will vote in the Egyptian embassies in their respective countries.
Watani talks to Anba Pachomeus
Anba Pachomeus, Archbishop of Beheira and Pentapolis, holds the position of acting patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church at a time that is very critical for the Church and for Egypt. He has been charged with the responsibility of serving the Church in this capacity in the wake of the death of Pope Shenouda III last March.
Pope Shenouda was a charismatic figure famous for his exceptional wisdom and for the affection in which he held the Coptic Church and congregation, an affection that was warmly reciprocated. Once he passed away, the Copts grieved for him with a heartache that came out of a genuine feeling of having been orphaned.
The second most senior
Anba Pachomeus is the second most senior bishop in the Coptic Church. Tradition has it that the most senior bishop should act as locum tenens, acting patriarch, to manage the Church and its affairs until a new patriarch is elected. The most senior bishop, however, is Anba Mikhail of Assiut who declined the post on grounds of his ailing health.
Anba Pachomeus has proved to be the comforting, soothing figure the Copts needed so much during their deep grief but, more importantly, he has displayed wisdom and strength that almost rival that of the late pope. His presence has had the miraculous effect of reassuring Copts that the Church is in good hands and possesses the figures that can handle its future, especially throughout the political turmoil and uncertain times that Egypt is undergoing.
Anba Pachomeus spoke to Watani about the current situation in Egypt and about the process of choosing a new pope. As nominations have poured in for names to shoulder the responsibility of the new patriarch, Anba Pachomeus has been adamant in declining the nomination himself. He insists that he sees his role as that of guiding the Church during these turbulent times until he can hand it over to a new patriarch elected by the people and divinely selected.
The by-laws for the election of a patriarch for the Coptic Church were issued in 1957, and stipulate that a select electoral body of Coptic laity and clergy should elect three names from among a short list of nominees for the post. These three names are placed on the altar during Holy Mass and a draw is held. The name that comes out will be that of the new pope.
Changing the by-laws
Watani spoke to Anba Pachomeus about the expectations of the Coptic community as regards the 1957 by-laws, which are widely seen to be no longer adequate for the present time and much in need of changes and updates. Anba Pachomeus approached the interview in true Christian self-denial, insisting he was the one who needed a lesson.
“I would like to know the pulse of the Egyptian street,” he said, “how the congregation sees matters.”
He said that indeed the 1957 by-laws did include items that were not suitable today. It is common knowledge that the standards through which the electoral body is chosen need to be amended, since the congregation has grown in number and has spread over the entire world, which was not the case back in 1957. Relations with the Ethiopian Church have changed, so items that relate to Ethiopia need amendment.
“We had to choose between two options,” Anba Pachomeus said. “Whether to elect a new patriarch according to the 1957 by-laws and try to get around the deficiencies, or to leave the papal seat vacant until the by-laws can be amended. Considering the current political turbulence in Egypt, this process may have been unduly prolonged. We opted for the first alternative.”
Anba Pachomeus noted, however, that the Holy Synod had decided to agree with the new pope that he would pledge to work to start changes to the 1957 by-laws within a year from his accession.
Some in the Coptic congregation have expressed fears that the papal elections committee, which is charged with short-listing the 17 nominees for the papacy down to
seven or five from among whom the electorate may elect three, may decline to exclude the senior bishop nominees from the list.
“I assure you the committee will favour no one unfairly, young or old, monk or bishop,” Anba Pachomeus said firmly. “They will just obey their Christian conscience before God.”
Asked if suspended bishops will have the right to vote, Anba Pachomeus replied that he had recently taken a decision to look into the cases of the bishops suspended by the Holy Synod under Pope Shenouda III. Among them are Anba Amonius of Luxor, Anba Takla of Dishna, Anba Matthias of Mahalla, and Anba Danial of Sydney. In reply to the question, he said that they had every right to vote, since they are still members of the Holy Synod. Only non-Egyptian bishops do not have that right, he said.
Recent events have been uppermost in the minds of Copts. So can the election of a new pope be influenced by Egypt’s new president? Anba Pachomeus stressed that the election was a purely Church affair and had nothing to do with anything else.
Mood of rebellion
“How about inevitable comparison between the new pope with the charismatic Pope Shenouda?” Watani asked.
“Any comparison with Pope Shenouda will depend on the new leadership and the response by the congregation,” Anba Pachomeus said. “The new pastor should work with love for everyone. We pray for a new pastor filled with the Holy Spirit to continue along the path of Pope Shenouda.”
“With the current mood of rebellion in Egypt, is it possible in your opinion that young Copts would revolt against the new patriarch if he takes decisions they disapprove of?” Watani asked.
“That is not what the Church is about,” Anba Pachomeus replied. “Relations within the Church community are more comparable to family relations where differences are settled with understanding, dialogue and love. Children rebel against a father only when all channels of dialogue are blocked. This cannot be the case in Church where differences are discussed and settled in agreement between pastors and congregation.”
Decision on divorce
“But there is a problem with Copts who demand more lenient measures for divorce, and who demand a return to the now-defunct 1938 Coptic family by-laws? Watani asked. “Have you met representatives of this group? And is there any chance that the new pope might reinstate the 1938 bylaws?”
“My door is open to everyone,” Anba Pachomeus said. “But no one has come to see me about that problem. All I received was a memorandum directed to the Coptic Orthodox Clerical Council which handles problems of divorce or marriage annulment.
“The new pope has no right to go back on the annulment decision, since this was a decision by the Holy Synod, not by the previous pope. The new pope has to refer it to the Holy Synod.
“All decisions taken by Pope Shenouda III are still in force. This applies also to his decision that Copts should not go to Jerusalem for pilgrimage unless and until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is peacefully resolved. No papal decisions may be revoked except by the new pope.”
Should Copts leave?
Watani asked Anba Pachomeus what he thought of the prevalent notion that, under Islamist rule, Copts would be better off leaving Egypt and attempting to emigrate to some other country where they would be safer.
“I totally disagree with that,” Anba Pachomeus said. “Egypt is our homeland; it is beautiful and peaceful despite everything. Egypt is the only country that was visited by Jesus Christ; it has been always a place of prosperity. Egypt has a rich spiritual heritage; it is the land of saints and martyrs. We should not leave it under any condition.”
22 July 2012