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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A New Pope

No, not the one in Rome, he's still there, this is the Coptic Church, and I must say I like their way of electing a new Pontif, it has more of the sense of the Holy Spirit guiding things than the Roman way. The 2,400 leaders of the Coptic Church have met and selected the leading candidates. Their list was reduced to three names which where then placed in a crystal chalice on the altar in the cathedral in Cairo. A boy, chosen by ballot, was then blindfolded, led to the chalice and draws a slip of paper. That draw, done in the last few days, means Bishop Tawadros becomes the 118th Pope of the Coptic Church, spiritual leader of all the Copts in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere across North Africa and elsewhere.

He succeeds Pope Shenouda III who died in March this year. Contrary to popular media fed belief, the Christians in the Middle East represent a substantially larger proportion of the population than most realise. While they are mainly Greek, Armenian or Coptic Orthodox, there is a rich mix of Assyrian Catholic, Marian, Anglican, Roman Catholic and even Presbyterian followers across the ME. Only in Israel are Christinas reasonably free to practice their faith, everywhere else they are subject to restrictions, threats and coercion to convert to Islam. Anyone converting from Islam faces an automatic death threat in most Islamic lands.

The new Coptic Pope faces some difficult challenges. Christians are increasingly subjected to harrassment, attack, accusations of 'defaming Islam' (which carries a death penalty) and restrictions on employment, worship, preaching, teaching and even training of priests. I Turkey, always presented as the most 'progressive' Middle Eastern country, the Christian Orthodox Church faces a major problem. The only theological school there was shut down in the 1930s, but the law now requires that only a priest trained in Turkey may become Patriarch of Constantinople. Neat way to prevent the church from finding a replacement when the present one dies!

In Egypt and the other countries of the "Arab Spring," Muslim fundamentalist regimes have replaced those that tended toward a more tolerant approach to religion - and attacks on Christians and restrictions are increasingly being seen. It is a 'crime' to 'defame religion' in Egypt, yet it is only ever enforced when the religion 'defamed' is Islam - Mullahs have a field day defaming everyone else with impunity.

The Coptic Church saw a revival under the British 'Protectorate' of the late 19th Century. They were allowed to re-establish the ancient university in Alexandria and to restore the 'lost' library there. Obviously they couldn't restore everything, but they had, until recently, managed to rebuild a lot of the 'lost' texts. The scholarship grew from a basic small core to over 800 in the early 20th Century. All of this the new Pope will have to deal with - in an environment where his congregations are liable to attack, the faith he represents is under attack as never before, both in his homeland and in the "West."

We can only pray that he will be supported in his leadership by the Holy Spirit.

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