Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Battle of the bishops

Electing a successor to Pope Shenouda III is proving a contentious business, reports Michael Adel

Click to view caption
From top: Tawdros; Rafael; Baphnotius; Bishoi; Yoanas

Following the death of Pope Shenouda III in March tensions that had long been hidden from view bubbled to the fore.

It was an open secret that disagreements between bishops were rife within the Coptic Orthodox Church, though conflict was generally confined behind closed doors. Ahead of elections for a successor to Shenouda, however, the divisions are out in the open, a topic of conversation both in churches and in the homes of ordinary Copts. By the end of this month, when senior sources in the Church tell Al-Ahram Weekly the final list of candidates will be announced, divisions will have crystallised, and the battle-lines drawn ahead of the papal election, scheduled for 24 November, to give candidates time to respond to contestations against them during a secret session with the nomination committee headed by Interim Pope Bishop Bakhomious (Pachomius).

Meanwhile, several monks will also be eliminated because of several criteria and reasons in their disadvantage.

Debate within the Coptic community is already focussed on whether diocesan bishops should occupy the papal throne. In Alexandria, a group of 156 priests, led by Father Roweis Morcos, undersecretary of the Alexandria bishopric, issued a statement rejecting the nomination of diocesan bishops to both the Bishopric of Alexandria and the patriarchy "even if the 1957 papal election canons allow this".

The Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Britain, led by Bishop Seraphim, met to discuss choosing the new archbishop of Alexandria. It came out in support of the Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Los Angeles and Hawaii, which had already stated there is no need to nominate bishops or transfer a bishop from his diocese to become the Bishop of Alexandria, or the archbishop on the throne of St Mark the Apostle.

The battle of the bishops began five years ago when each camp attempted to dominate decision-making within the Church. It became public knowledge after a dispute between Bishop Yoanas and Bishop Armia (Jeremiah), both secretaries to Pope Shenouda at the time, which split the congregation into two camps, each vying for Pope Shenouda's support.

Manyt Copts refused to admit there were divisions, discounting the stories that emerged as rumours. But as the pope's health deteriorated the rifts between bishops inside and outside Egypt grew ever more obvious.

Sources within the papacy told the Weekly that before his death Pope Shenouda attempted to resolve the differences between bishop but his efforts were in vain. The pope did not want to censure any of the key players in the conflict because he did not want to stir emotions or media interest in the affairs of the Church.

Any one of several prominent figures in the Coptic Church could become the next pope, including a number of monks, representatives of the "men of the desert". Indeed, among the monastic communities there are many who are convinced one of their own will be elected. Despite statements from Church officials insisting they are not interested in titles the fierce competition among senior figures to win the top job is palpable. This is nothing new: there was intense rivalry between Pope Shenouda, Father Matta (Mathew) the Humble, Bishop Gregarious and Bishop Samuel before the last papal election.

Factionalism and politicking among the Church hierarchy has led some to conclude that electing a monk from one of the desert monasteries may be no bad thing.

Coptic youth groups have criticised what they describe as "the battle of the bishops" over the succession though the acting pope, Bishop Bakhomious, has repeatedly denied the existence of any rifts.

Despite the acting pope's reassurances that the conflicts are no more than "differences in opinion" four camps appear to be fighting over the papal seat.

Bishop Bishoi, Bishop Armia, and Bishop Abram of Fayoum lead one, Pope Shenouda's secretary Bishop Yoanas, Bishop Wissa of Balyana and Kosheh, Bishop Morcos of Shobra Al-Kheima, Bishop Gibril of Beni Sweif and Bishop Biman of Nakada and Qos another.

A third group centres on Bishop Baphnotius of Samalot, a reformist, who is supported by several bishops, while the fourth involves a loose association with desert monks.

Seven bishops and 10 monks are currently battling to be included on the shortlist for election to the papal seat. The most prominent candidate among the bishops is Bishop Yoanas, who secured 20 sponsors. His strongest opponent is Bishop Bishoi, the secretary of the Holy Synod, who has won 11 sponsors. Other candidates are Bishop Baphnotius of Samalot, Bishop Rafael of Central Cairo, Bishop Boutros and Bishop Tawdros of Giza.

Among the leading monastic candidates are Father Shenouda from Bishop Bishoi's Monastery; Father Daniel from Al-Siryan Monastery; Father Rafael from St Marina Monastery; Father Bakhomious and Father Maximus.

The acting pope eliminated himself as a candidate although he received 50 sponsors. Bishop Moussa confused many candidates and bishops after he refused to nominate himself then agreed to run, only to change his mind again on the last day of nominations.

The Nominations Committee at the Holy Synod is expected to find it difficult paring down the nominees to seven.

A statement by Los Angeles diocese clergy has denounced the practice of electing metropolitans and diocesan bishops.

"After fervent prayer, research and discussion, we came to the following resolutions: The Patriarch is the Archbishop of Alexandria“ê¶ [and] traditions and cannons of the Holy Church forbid the selection of the Patriarch from among the metropolitans and diocesan bishops."

If such a view prevails then Bishop Yoanas's main rival, Bishop Bishoi of Damietta and Kafr Al-Sheikh, will be disqualified.

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