CAIRO Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church held a sumptuous service on Sunday to choose its new pope who Christians hope will help them navigate an Islamist-dominated political landscape and protect what is the Middle East's biggest Christian community.
In a ritual steeped in tradition and filled with prayer, chants and incense at Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo, the names of three candidates chosen in a vote were placed in a wax sealed glass bowl. A child will later pull one name out at random.
Copts believe this long-established process will ensure that worldly influences do not determine the successor to Pope Shenouda III, who led the church for four decades until he died in March aged 88.
Many Christians in Egypt, who make up about a tenth of the population of 83 million, are worried by political gains made by Islamists since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. They have long complained of discrimination in Muslim-majority Egypt.
"We pray that our Lord chooses a good shepherd," interim Pope Bakhomious, who has temporarily held the post since Shenouda's death, said in his gold-embroidered white robes after placing the names in the bowl and sealing it with hot red wax.
"We are all witnesses before the Lord," he told the congregation in the packed cathedral in the centre of Cairo, where priests swung censers that wafted incense into the air.
The three candidates are: Bishop Rafael, a 54-year old who qualified as a doctor before entering the priesthood; Bishop Tawdros, a 60-year old who qualified as a pharmacist before entering the priesthood, and Father Rafael Afamena, a 70-year old monk who studied law before entering the priesthood.
Voters whittled the candidates down to three from a field which included leading members of the church, public figures and a handful of representatives of the Ethiopian Church, which has historic links to the church in Egypt.
That ballot was held last week.
Echoing the worries of many of Egypt's Copts, shopkeeper Michael George said before the service: "Christians fear the Islamists' rule especially because their presence is encouraging radicals to act freely."
Since Mubarak was ousted, there have been several attacks on churches by radical Islamists. Those incidents have fuelled longstanding complaints that Christians are sidelined in the workplace and in law.
Rules that make it harder to obtain official permission to build a church rather than a mosque have added to those fears.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the mainstream Islamist movement that propelled President Mohamed Mursi to power, has sworn to guard the rights of Christians in the overwhelmingly majority Sunni Muslim nation.
(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Osborn)