CAIRO Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church moved a step closer to picking a new pope on Monday when the shortlist was whittled down to three in a process the Christian minority hopes will deliver a leader to guide them safely through the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
The previous incumbent, Pope Shenouda III, led the church for four decades until his death in March at the age of 88. His successor will assume the post in a fast-changing Egypt where long oppressed Islamists are now in power - a major shift that is a source of alarm for the minority Christian community.
A shortlist of five candidates was reduced to three by an election on Monday in which 2,256 voted out of 2,417 people picked by the church to have the right to vote.
Which of the three emerges as the 118th pope will be decided on November 4 when a blindfolded child picks one of the remaining candidates.
The three who will go forward to the draw 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.
Picked by the church, the voters in Monday's election 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.
"We are all so worried about the situation in Egypt now and the rise of Islamists to power, but the church has always been harassed," said Magdy Helmi, a 53-year old voting as a representative of a provincial branch of the Coptic Church. "The church became an expert in surviving bad times," he added.
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 country of 83 million people.
Monday's voting took place at a cathedral complex in Cairo's Abbasiya district. Bearded priests in black robes queued up to post their ballot papers into transparent boxes. The result was expected late on Monday.
"I hope that whoever wins will have the patience and wisdom of Pope Shenouda as times are tough on both Christians and Muslims - on all Egyptians," said Sameh Nazeh, a 39-year old Copt who was waiting for his wife - one of the voters - to cast her ballot.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Jon Hemming)