Egypt's Coptic Christians chose three finalists Monday for a new leader to succeed Pope Shenuda III, who died in March leaving behind a community anxious about its status under an Islamist-led government.
Nearly 2,500 eligible voters made up of Coptic public officials, MPs, journalists, local councillors voted throughout the day in Cairo's St Mark's Cathedral, seat of the Coptic papacy, to choose from among five candidates.
Shenuda III, a careful, pragmatic leader, died at a critical time for the increasingly beleaguered minority which faced a surge in sectarian attacks after an uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak in early 2011.
The next patriarch will be the main contact of the community with Egypt's new Islamist president.
The Coptic pope serves as the spiritual leader of the country's Christians, who make up between six and 10 percent of Egypt's 83-million population.
"We always elect our pope in a critical time in the country's history. The last two popes were elected at the start of two Egyptian presidents' rule," said Shaker Talaat, a volunteer helping organise the vote.
Five candidates -- two bishops and three monks -- vied to become the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa in the Holy See of St Mark the Apostle.
On Monday, the three top vote-getters were announced by the church.
They are Bishop Rafael, 54, a medical doctor and current assistant bishop for central Cairo; Bishop Tawadros of the Nile Delta province of Beheira, 60; Father Rafael Ava Mina, the oldest of the five candidates at 70.
Their names will now be written on separate pieces of paper and placed in a box on the altar of St Mark's Cathedral.
On Sunday, a child will be blindfolded and asked to choose one piece of paper. The person selected will be enthroned in a ceremony on November 18.
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"We hope that God will give us a man who is attentive to our problems, and conscious of our unity," said Father Kirollos as he voted earlier.
Another priest, Boktor Nassim, hoped that the next pope will be like his predecessor Shenuda who had "special relations with all groups, including the (Islamist) Muslim Brotherhood."
The two candidates who did not make it through were Father Seraphim al-Suriani, 53, and Father Pachomious al-Suriani, 49.
Copts around the world were asked to fast for three days before the voting, and a second period of fasting will begin on October 31, said Bishop Paul, spokesman for the selection committee.
One cleric who did not make the five-strong shortlist was hardline Bishop Bishoy, who came under fire over comments he made about the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and his exclusion suggests the church tried to keep controversial figures out of the race.
The new pope will take office amid increased fears over the minority's fate after the country's 2011 uprising.
The subsequent rise of Islamists, and the election of Egypt's first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, have sparked fears of further persecution at home despite Morsi's repeated promises to be a president "for all Egyptians".
In the latest incident, five Copts were injured on Sunday in clashes with Muslims at a church in a village south of Cairo, security sources said.
The violence broke out when Muslim villagers attempted to block access to the church as the Coptic faithful arrived from throughout the area to attend Sunday mass.
Bishop Morcos, chairman of the church's influential media committee, has told the state-owned weekly Al-Ahram: "We reject the notion of a religious state that would prevent us from exercising our freedom as Copts.
"The state should be ruled by law and not religion."