While Americans prepare to elect their next president on Tuesday, Egyptian Christians are leaving this Sunday's choice for their highest leader up to a higher power: God.
On November 4, one of three final candidates will succeed Pope Shenouda III, the beloved "pope of the Bible" who died in March, as the 118th patriarch of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church. But in contrast to the "group consensus" method used to select Roman Catholic popes, the casting of lots will determine whether Bishop Raphael of Cairo, Bishop Tawadros of Beheira, or Father Raphael Ava Mina, a monk from the Monastery of St. Mina near Alexandria, becomes the next spiritual leader of Egypyt's 8 million Orthodox Christians.
"It is easier to find biblical support for choosing by consensus than by lot," said Atef al-Gindy, president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo. "But I have observed the sincerity and genuine desire of Orthodox leaders to conduct a process that is clean and according to the will of God, seeking his guidance."
The result has been an election campaign celebrated by Coptic Christians, more than 90 percent of whom are Orthodox. Their church traces its descent from the preaching of St. Mark, the Gospel writer.
A selection committee of 18 members—divided equally between laity and clergy—whittled the potential candidates from 17 down to five. Then more than 2,400 electors, also comprised of both laity and clergy, voted Monday for their choice of up to three candidates to advance to the final stage. The final choice is surrendered to God via holy lot, allowing a blindfolded child to select the winning candidate Sunday in an altar lottery at St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo.
Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Watani, says many Copts frowned at a few of the original 17 candidates. Yet "everyone breathed a sigh of relief" when the final candidates were announced, he said.
"Of the final three, there is no real preference between them," Sidhom said. "But it makes no sense to have a preference anyway, because we believe the choice will now come from God's will."
If votes did count, Bishop Raphael would be the winner. Raphael, who became well known as bishop of the church's Cairo district, obtained the largest number of votes from electors. Bishop Tawadros came in second.
Hani Labib, managing director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation, said Bishop Tawadros' selection to the final round was due to his discipleship under Bishop Pachomious, the acting patriarch during the ongoing contentious political transition in Egypt.
As for Father Mina, Labib explained the third finalist is appreciated as a disciple of Pope Cyril VI, who is often contrasted by Copts as a man of prayer versus his successor Pope Shenouda, who was a man of politics.
"Many people wanted a pope from the monasteries because [a monk] is unassociated with church politics and primarily concerned with prayer and the monastic life," said Labib.
Sidhom says all three chosen candidates represent a shift away from the leadership style of Shenouda.
"No more will the church be expected to represent the Copts politically," he said. "The papal candidates clearly understood and expressed that, in the current situation, Copts must get out of the church and speak for themselves. They must integrate into the political arena and defend their rights."