A murder, a monastery, a crisis

EGY180904BM001CAIRO – The 15 million-strong Coptic Orthodox community in Egypt is reeling from the recent murder of the abbot of St. Macarius Monastery, a 4th Century center of meditation and scholarship 60 miles northwest of Cairo.

The victim, Bishop Anba Epiphanius, 64, was the point man in efforts by Pope Tawadros II to reconcile the Coptic Church with the Vatican and explore steps toward mutual recognition including baptism rituals, pilgrimage sites and even the liturgical calendar.

On July 29, Bishop Epiphanius died from a blow to the head with a sharp object.

Investigators obtained a confession from 34-year-old monk Wael Saad after another member of the order, Remon Ramsy, 33 attempted suicide by slitting his wrists and throwing himself from the highest building in the monastery.

Both now face trial on Sept. 23 for killing Epiphanius.

Epiphanius was elected as abbot of the St. Macarius Monastery in 2013, a turbulent year which saw hundreds of thousands of Egyptians hold protests against President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

That same year, the military then headed by field marshal Abel Fatah el Sisi, Egypt’s current president, ousted Morsi.

Most Egyptian Christians felt that Morsi and his followers held them responsible for an uptick in violence against their churches and clergy. Those attacks intensified when militant Islamists went underground after Morsi’s overthrow.

Last year saw a litany of attacks on Christians, including the fatal stabbing of a priest in October, the killing of 28 pilgrims travelling to a monastery near the city of Minya in May, the Palm Sunday bombings at two churches in Alexandria and Tanta that killed 43 people in April. The murders of seven Christians in El Arish by the Islamic State’s Sinai-based Egyptian affiliate in February resulted in the mass exodus of hundreds of Christians from the northern part of the peninsula.

These jihadist groups’ attacks on Copts and other Christians led the Vatican to approach Tawadros II with renewed gestures of solidarity, culminating in Pope Francis’ 2017 visit to Cairo. Today Egypt’s Catholic community is estimated at up to 200,000, while Copts are estimated at about 10-15 percent of Egypt's nearly 100 million people.

During that visit, the Egyptian church said it would not require re-baptism for Catholics taking a Coptic Orthodox spouse and opened discussions of accepting Dec. 25 as Christmas instead of using the Gregorian calendar to determine church holidays.

But traditionalists criticized Tawadros and Epiphanius, a theologian respected for his Arabic translations of early Christian sources written in ancient Greek and the pre-Islamic Coptic language, for the change.

“We have a very rich theological and spiritual heritage,” said Sami Mikhail, a 22-year-old pharmacy student at Ain Shams University in Cairo. “Our own style of chanting derived from the ancient Egyptians. The Coptic calendar and language should be kept so we don’t dissolve in the western church.”

Bishop Serapion, the Metropolitan of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii said the opposition to mutual baptism recognition is more a matter of where you are than what you believe.

“Bishops in Upper Egypt who find local Catholic churches making proselytizing efforts among the Orthodox in the countryside tend to have a different view of this issue than those of us outside,” said Serapion who traveled to Rome with Tawadros at his first meeting with Francis in 2013.

“It’s vital that Tawadros seeks unity, but the proselytizing issue is holding us back when it comes to mutual recognition of sacraments and the [liturgical] calendar,” said Serapion, himself a native of Assiut in Upper Egypt who was ordained at the Al-Sourian monastery around 10 miles southwest of St. Macarius.

In court filings submitted Sept. 3, Cairo’s public prosecutor alleged the monks murdered Epiphanius due to” ideological and financial disagreements.”

“According to the monks, there were conflicts with the abbot,” said lawyer Amir Nossif, who resigned as Saad’s lawyer after the police confession. “The devil controlled the monk, and it’s impossible for me to participate in the killing of Bishop Epiphanius.”

Saad has been stripped of his monastic name of Isaiah. But church authorities have yet to banish his alleged accomplice Ramsy, known as Faltaous, from holy orders.

“Bishop Epiphanius posed a threat to the traditionalists after he used manuscripts from St. Macarius Monastery to prove that the Egyptian Church did not re-baptize Catholics until the 19th century,” said Bassem Al-Janoubie, a 41-year-old graphic designer in Cairo and a liberal Coptic activist.

Re-baptism refers to the practice of using water to initiate one into a church community even if they have been baptized in another denomination. It usually reflects significant theological differences between congregations.

Four months before the murder, hard line monks and other traditionalists began to criticize Epiphanius after the abbot told a Cairo conference on Middle East Christianity that the re-baptism requirement was a relic of competition between the Roman and Egyptian Orthodox churches which only started when European Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1800’s.

Italian and French Catholic missions made their first serious foray into Egypt in the 19th Century when they built schools and offered modern medical care at Franciscan and Jesuit institutions.

Many Copts reject the concept of unity, sentiments expressed online on the Facebook page of the “Association of Faith Protectors" who have emerged in opposition to Tawadros’ reforms.

“The so-called protectors began to establish online militias to attack, harass and accuse the Pope and his allies of heresy,” said Ayman Erian, a 41-year-old Cairo based Coptic researcher for the Development Studies Institute at Sussex University in England.

Improper use of social media was one of the reasons church officials said they moved to discipline Saad before Epiphanius’s murder in late July. He but was not suspended from the orders, however, after group of monks peers signed a petition opposing his removal.

In the immediate aftermath of the murder, Pope Tawadros ordered monks to deactivate all social media accounts.

“These behaviors that are not true to monastic life.” said Tawadros, who also imposed a yearlong suspension on taking in new monks.

Meanwhile, Copts are mourning the loss of an important theologian.

“They are against the pope and fear the project of unity with other churches,” said Erian, the Coptic Cairo researcher “But I say that there is no one in our Holy Synod to compare to Epiphanius in terms of knowledge and piousness. His passing is a great loss to the Church.”

Photo: September 4, 2018 - Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great, Wadi El Natrun, 60 miles northwest of Cairo, El Beheira Governorate, Egypt. The Belfry Lighthouse to the left holds up to 100 cubic meters of water that is consumed daily by the
Credit: Courtesy of Fr. Bertie of Saint Macarius Monastery

Story/photo published date: 09/07/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.
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