The term patriarch is a composition of the Greek pater meaning father and archon meaning leader, chief, or ruler. It has mainly taken on specific ecclesiastical meanings. The patriarch is the head of the entire Coptic Church. Throughout its long history, the church of maintained the apostolic succession in an uninterrupted chain. Thus the Coptic patriarch is considered to be the successor of St. Mark the Evangelist. Shenouda III is the 117th Pope of and Patriarch of all Egypt, the Pentapolis, Nubia, the Sudan, Libya, and Ethiopia on the apostolic throne of St. Mark.

The majority of the Coptic had been chosen from among the monks, especially those of Wadi al-Natrun. A number of laymen were consecrated as patriarchs. Several methods were used in electing the Coptic patriarchs. The most common traditions are as follows: election by general consensus of bishops, presbyters, and lay leaders, election by the presbyters of Alexandria, and the apostolic practice of casting the lot. Some were nominated by their predecessors and others by means of a vision, or a dream of a devout Copt. After the of , governmental intervention has influenced the election of a few patriarchs.

Both Cyril VI and the present patriarch Shenouda III have been chosen by means of casting an altar lot among final nominees. See also PATRIARCH’S CONSECRATION; PATRIARCHAL RESIDENCES; POPE; STRUCTURE OF THE COPTIC CHURCH; HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS.