Copts meet to elect new pope

More than 2,400 clergy and community leaders gathered in Cairo, Egypt on Monday for the first time in nearly forty years to elect a new Coptic pope.

Pope Shenouda III, who died at the age of 88 earlier this year, had been an important part of the lives of the 8 million-plus Christians who live in Egypt, and who have faced many hardships and violence from the majority Muslim population in the past number of years.

With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in government, Coptics say a new pope is needed to bring some stability and sense of authority for Christians worried about the future.

"The new pope will be a preacher of peace," said Bishop Basanti, a member of the Coptic church's Holy Synod. 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, Fox News reports.

The final vote on a new pope will not take place until a ceremony on Sunday, but Monday's vote is also important because it will narrow down the field to only three candidates. Currently, three monks and two bishops are still in the running.

Ahram Online published a short profile on each of the five candidates, laying out their religious backgrounds and qualifications for the job. An update has confirmed that more than 90 per cent of the 2,406 projected voters have already cast their votes, and the three finalists are likely to be Bishop Rafael, Father Rafael Ava Mina and Father Pachomios El-Syrian.

Bishop Pachomios, the interim pope, said: "The high voter turnout shows that Copts love their church."

Whoever is elected as the 118th pope this Sunday will have an important task of assuring Christians that they will be protected by the church.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, has been accused of seeking to implement Sharia law in the country, raising fears among Copts that their religious rights could be compromised, and they might once again be targeted by radical Islamists.

Some have said that for all his faults, former president Hosni Mubarak did not seek to infringe on the religious liberties of minorities, and while Morsi has promised that he will try to reach out to Christians, church leaders like Basanti have said that he has not yet shown signs of making good on that promise.