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Rights group criticizes new pope election statute

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights  (EIPR) criticized the adoption of new bylaws for the election of the pope of Alexandria and the patriarch of the Holy See of St. Mark by presidential decree, saying it discriminates between Coptic citizens.

On Monday, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi adopted a new statute, effectively canceling the one enforced since 1957. According to the new bylaws, an interim pope of the Holy See of St. Mark will be chosen following a meeting between the Holy Synod, the General Congregation Council, the Alexandria Congregation Council and the Coptic Orthodox Endowments Body’s Board of Directors. The voting will be done in a secret ballot and the elected interim pope must receive three quarters of the votes.

The pope will ultimately be elected according to guidelines set by a committee selected by the interim pope. The interim pope selects10 percent of the Holy Synod – comprised of Archbishops and Bishops, former or current members of the Congregation Council and former or current members of Coptic Orthodox Endowments Body, the interim pope is also on the committee. Ultimately the pope is chosen by lottery – whereby names of the three candidates with the most votes is written on pieces of paper and placed in a box, and a blindfolded child draws one of the names, picking the new Pope.

The statute, EIPR said, is the same one adopted by the Holy Synod in February 2014, in an extraordinary session headed by Pope Tawadros II, “in closed, non-transparent consultations based on a narrow interpretation of Article 3 of the revised 2012 constitution.”

In a statement Tuesday, EIPR said the statute was issued in the absence of parliament, ridding Copts the chance to take part in preparing it or express their views on it, which is an “extension to the church’s monopoly” over issuing the statute in a non-transparent environment.  

The rights group argued that the bylaws conflict with the constitution, explaining that Church leaders sent a draft to former president Adly Mansour last May and that the presidency had sent it back requesting some of the clauses to be amended since they contradict the constitution.

The statute adopted by Sisi however did not include the amendments, EIPR said.

EIPR had issued a report on the statute titled “The Democracy of the Clergy,” saying it is based on a narrow interpretation of Article 3 of the 2012 constitution, which affirms the right of non-Muslims to choose their own spiritual leaders.

“The synod interpreted this provision as giving the church the exclusive right to draft the rules governing this selection process,” EIPR said.

EIPR said the statute discriminates between Coptic citizens, through limiting the base of potential nominees while at the same time opening the door for members of the Holy Synod, as well as making distinctions within the voter base based on social standards, and allowing religious figures to interfere in choosing the voter base.

EIPR also said the statute does not guarantee female and youth representation.

Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms at EIPR, told Mada Masr that while the new statute widened the voter base compared to 1957 statute, it still discriminates among Copts and violates the constitution.

He explained that the 1957 statute was issued under specific political circumstances and has been long criticized for narrowing the voter base and making distinctions among voters.

He lamented that the new statute lacked participation from many of Egypt’s Copts and did not constitute a basis for wider discussion. Ibrahim also criticized the lot system.

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