In a spooky, dare I say, godly coincidence, two of the world's important religions obtained new leaders in the past fortnight. What makes the coincidence seem so like divine providence is that both leaders started their vocational life not fired by the sacred but as industrialists.

The Coptic Church is now led by Pope Tawadros (Theodore) II, who ran a pharmaceutical factory until he saw the light. Former oil industry executive Justin Welby, meanwhile, was selected to be enthroned in March as the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Anglican Communion.

Both had late onset religious conversions

The Coptic Church, a small, ancient and complex church, has about 14 million members in the Egypt. Emerging from the remnants of the Roman Empire, the Copts are a form of Oriental Orthodoxy, although there are smaller evangelical and Catholic varieties. They make up about 15 per cent of the Egyptian population, but have been under attack since the 1960s.

In a quaint tradition, the candidates for pope are shortlisted and an anointed child pulls a name out of a hat on the basis that the child is guided by God.

But God doesn't appear to care too much about the Copts. Human Rights Watch has observed increasing sectarian violence, with killings, fire bombings and forced abduction/conversions. This is the dangerous world that Pope Theodore II has entered.

What does the world do about such groups that are under relentless attack?

I have a very soft spot for the Copts. Their striking costumes, sublime architecture, venerable history and antediluvian rituals makes it a "proper" religion.

When I visited the purported site of the crucifixion on Calvary in Jerusalem, now enshrouded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Copts were, and remain, part of the management committee that run the place. They were welcoming and did not seem to care a jot that we had never heard of the Coptic Church before.

So I look at the terrifying uncertainty facing the Egyptian Copts with foreboding.

What does Pope Theodore II do? Of course, I and others of a secular disposition would cheerfully jump ship. I would embrace Islam quicker than you could say Muhammad. The anecdotal evidence, however, seems to be that a faith under attack inspires stronger belief within the bosom of the oppressed.

American Copts appear to have been involved in the satirical video, Innocence of Muslims, that caused global rioting. This has attracted the death sentence in absentia in Cairo.

The most awful answer to religious or ethnic wars is to contemplate mass migration. The Greeks and Turks swapped 2 million people after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22.

Mass immigration has been used to solve some global problems arising from clashes of faith. In 1947, the creation of Pakistan led to the immigration of millions of Muslims to the new state and a two-way traffic in Hindus and Sikhs out of there. Mass migration is an appalling admission of a failure of tolerance.

The Coptic tradition seems very bound up with its home in Egypt. Its pope is also explicitly the Patriarch of Alexandria on the Mediterranean, so population exchange is unthinkable. The world has hitherto been unable to secure life for the Copts in Egypt.

The Arab Spring, despite promising so much, has apparently made things more uncertain. There are hopes harboured within some in the government for the imposition of Sharia law. As an atheist, I do feel companionship with the Copts as secularists have been oppressed as well. Pope Theodore faces some nasty and unstable times.

For our second religious appointee, the soon to be enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury, life will be less traumatic but still tricky.

Like British Prime Minister David Cameron, Welby is Eton and Oxbridge educated; it's reassuring to know that nothing much changes in the Tory and Anglican worlds. Those born to rule seem to do so.

But modern Anglicanism is now vastly different from the cloistered halls of Eton and Oxbridge. It is heterogenous, with many different strains from Evangelical Anglicans in NSW, Anglo-Catholic reactionaries, Christian Humanists, reforming Episcopalians in the States and tourist-driven choral centres in the extraordinary English cathedrals. It is a broad, colourful and divided church of about 80 millions souls.

Archbishop Welby will have quite a task.

Its major growth centre is Africa, where Christianity is in a bloody struggle for control with Islam. Why do these two stories sound so familiar? Pommy Anglicans and Egyptian Copts could not be more distinct, but they are both enmeshed in blood-spattered stoushes with Islam.

The second-largest Anglican communion in the world is the Nigerian one, with about 19 million adherents. The Muslim Boko Haram group has slaughtered Anglicans in northern Nigeria.

But the main issue for the future archbishop may not be a fight with Islam but the fight within. African martyrs for the denomination give steel to the spine of a faith growing listless in the West. The battle-hardened synods of Africa tend to a muscular fundamentalism. The Africans largely oppose some gentle reform ideas, such as in the US where Episcopalian Anglicans embrace the inclusion of gays and women vicars.

This is a stuttering reform movement because, like Catholicism, institutional rules militate against change. A two-thirds majority is needed for change, so the reactionary tail in the House of Laity can wag the dog. Thus last week, notwithstanding that a large majority of the English synod supported the unexceptional idea that women be permitted to serve as bishops, the notion was defeated by a few conservative parishioners.

Schism is threatened because the growth areas resist change on issues to do with homosexuality and women priests, and reformers in the West become impatient for change. The Nigerian primate, Archbishop Nicholas Okoh, rails against the inclusion of women and gays. This fight between Africa and the rest is a game-changer. It was too much for Archbishop Rowan Williams, who retires from the field defeated, with the seeds of schism well sown. His successor could reap the bitter harvest.

What is your view?

  • What advice would you offer Patriarch Theodore II and Archbishop Welby?
  • Should the godless care about the fate of the Copts, or do we say their tussle with Islam is just another example of the irrationality of belief?
  • Should the godless advocate population exchange if the Copt situation deteriorates in the aftermath of the Arab Spring?
  • What about Justin Welby? How will he stop Anglican schism?
  • How do you manage a lumbering global organisation that is divided and incapable of change?