By Yasmine Saleh and Abdel Rahman Youssef
CAIRO (Reuters) - Picking a new pope for Egypt's Orthodox church could take months, officials said on Sunday, allowing debate to gather pace among Christians over the political role the next leader should have as Islamists rise to power.
Pope Shenouda, who died on March 17, led the Coptic Orthodox church for four decades. He acted as the main political advocate for the nation's Christians, who make up about a tenth of Egypt's 80 million people, while Hosni Mubarak was in charge.
Since Mubarak's ousting last year, Christians have become increasingly worried after an upsurge in attacks on churches, which they blame on hardline Islamists, although experts say more local disputes are often also behind them.
Shenouda's death, aged 88, has added to those anxieties and left Christians wondering how to make their voices heard when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have swept seats in parliament and are likely to have control over writing a new constitution.
The pope's post, temporarily filled by Biship Bakhomious, however, will not be filled swiftly.
"The door for nominations (for the pope) opens on April 27 and will stay open for about 20 days," said Bishop Morcos, spokesman for the Church's governing Holy Council, adding details of the selection and timeframe would be announced soon.
Peter al-Naggar, a church lawyer, said the process could take "several months." Shenouda was appointed about six months after his predecessor.
As the potential successors emerge, the question for many Christians is whether the Church's new leader should seek to remain the main voice for the community or should encourage Christians to engage more actively in politics outside the Church's umbrella to secure rights they have long demanded.
Christians want Egypt's laws changed to make it as easy to build a church as a mosque and have long complained about discrimination in the workplace.
ON THE SIDELINES
"The next pope has to have a political role to protect us (Copts) and our freedoms and secure our rights. We need a strong and wise leader to stand up for us in the period ahead with Islamists in power," Ivon Mosaed, a 52-year-old teacher.
She was speaking after attending Shenouda's funeral in a Cairo cathedral last week. Other mourners echoed her views.
The Church did not tell Christians to stay out of politics, but the stifling environment under Mubarak meant many left the pope to be their spokesman. Since then, most have stayed on the sidelines, preferring to keep a low profile as Islamists have emerged as a potent political force.
Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic community weekly Al Watani, said Christians should change their approach and follow their predecessors who in the early part of the 20th century were prominent figures in the era when parliament was active before army officers toppled the king in 1952.
"Christians have to engage in political parties away from the church. Christians are only 10 percent of the population. The only way for them to have their voices heard is through a healthy political engagement with moderate Muslims," he said.
Sidhom said he praised Shenouda's focus on containing sectarian tension but said the church would do better to stay above the political fray.
But even some Muslims say that is unlikely to happen.
"It is impossible to keep the church away from politics because we could not keep mosques out of it ... We are in the heart of a religious process not a political one," said Negad al-Borai, a Muslim lawyer and well-known rights activist.
Debate about candidates for the new pope has already begun although no formal process of selection has started.
Three names are most commonly discussed. One of them is Bishop Bishoy, 69, an engineer graduate and senior member in the Holy Council. Bishoy heads the church of the Nile Delta towns of Damietta and Kafr El-Sheikh.
Though well-known and popular among Christians, he could fuel sectarian tensions if appointed because of comments he made in 2010 questioning the authenticity of some Koranic verses. Shenouda said the remarks were "inappropriate" and apologized.
The other two most commonly cited candidates are Bishop Yoanas, 51, who has a degree in medicine and who was Shenouda's personal secretary, and Bishop Moussa, 73, popular for his youth work and for building ties between Muslims and Christians.
According to church rules, any candidate must be over 40 and must be nominated by at least six senior priests in a period no longer than two months after the death of the pope.
The boards of the church's city councils then vote on the candidates, picking three. The final choice is made when a young child picks a name out of a box. Some Christian experts have called for the system to be changed so a vote will decide.
(Editing by Edmund Blair)