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Was Coptic Reform Reason for Orthodox Bishop’s Murder?

By Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet

Pope Francis is pictured with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II in Cairo April 28. The pope was making a two-day visit to Egypt. (Photo: Catholic News Service/Paul Haring)

On Saturday, Aug. 10, ex-monk Isaiah al-Maqary confessed that he killed Bishop Epiphanius, abbot of St. Macarius Monastery, in Egypt, in collaboration with Faltaous al-Maqkary, a monk who tried to commit suicide last week in the monastery. Isaiah al-Maqary had been recently expelled from the same monastery. Bishop Epiphanius died Sunday, July 29.

The Public Prosecution office in Alexandria ordered Isaiah to be held in detention while Faltaous is currently receiving treatment under detention in a public hospital.

A few days after the crime, the Monasticism Committee of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church issued  a list of 12 decisions, including a stop to taking in new monks into monasteries nationwide for a year and banning monks from media appearances, communicating through social networking accounts and attending events outside the monastery.

What is controversial in the case is not that the victim was a prominent bishop and monk known for his good reputation and rich knowledge, but that the monastery (St. Macarius Monastery in Wadi El Natrun, Beheira Governorate, about 92 km northwest of Cairo) has long been a witness to a struggle between two streams within the Coptic Orthodox Church. For decades, the conflict inside the Coptic Orthodox Church has concentrated between two camps: the reformist camp influenced by Protestant ideas and the more conservative priests.

Origins of Reform Movement

The monastery of St. Macarius is home to the thoughts of the Father Matta Al-Miskin, who followed a reformist approach distinct from the mainstream Orthodox canon.  He believed that spiritual work is the main and only role of the Church and he called for openness to other churches.  These thoughts were the subject of a great dispute between Father Matta and Pope Shenouda III, the former patriarch who died in 2012 and who had prevented selling the books of Father Matta.  But that did not eliminate his legacy which survives among his devotees.

The story originates in the middle of the 20th century, when a new group of young people began to revive the spiritual role of the Church. Among them was Joseph Iskander (Father Matta before ordination) and Nazeer Gayed (who became Pope Shenouda III). A good relationship developed between the two men as Gayed followed Father Matta in Wadi Al Rayyan.

When Shenouda became Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 1971, he had a tense relationship with Egypt’s President Anwar Al Sadat who put Shenouda under house arrest to curb his vigorous advocacy for Coptic rights. Father Matta intervened to ease the conflict between the Pope and the President but that irked Pope Shenouda.

In the 1970s, Pope Shenouda and Father Matta Ali had more disputes.  Whenever Father Matta published a book, the pope responded with another book. Finally  the books of Father Matta were banned from trading for many years before a reconciliation between the two men in early 2000s.

Father Matta represented the voice of reform and enlightenment inside the Church, drawing on the study of Fathers of the early Church’s writings. He knew the Greek language and translated directly from the writings and founded the ressourcement (return to the sources) movement. Father Matta gained disciples who followed his approach.

After Father Matta died in 2006, Pope Shenouda visited St. Macarius Monastery in 2009 and restored it under the authority of the Coptic Church.  Prior to this, it had been independent. Between 2009 and 2012, he appointed about 70 monks who took a conservative approach, including the two monks “Isaiah,” who was stripped of his priesthood, and “Faltaous,” who tried to commit suicide.

At a time when the priests of the Coptic Church closed the door to any attempts to rapprochement with other churches, Father Matta saw that theological differences did not negate the fact that everyone believed in Christ. He was the first to share the opinions of Saints of non-Coptic churches, such as St. Gregory the Great, St. John Damascene and St. Seraphim Sarovsky, thus opening a new window to other churches.

Bishop Epiphanius was a disciple of Father Matta. Pope Tawadros used to send him to represent the church to many theological and doctrinal conferences abroad, 20 conferences in last five years. He also represented the Coptic Church at events and dialogues with other Christian bodies. Anba Epiphanius was known for academic studies. He was member of the Technical Committee for the Restoration of Heritage at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Moreover, he was a member of the synodal committee that previewed the Common Declaration signed by Popes Francis and Tawadros in Cairo on April 28, 2017.

Ramez Rizkalla, a student St. Gregory Nazianzen Institute for Eastern Christian Studies in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, wrote that Bishop Epiphanius excelled in producing unique research papers on various topics pertaining to Coptology, liturgics, and monasticism, to the point that he received invitations to speak at academic conferences in Egypt and abroad. The episcopal ordination of Anba Epiphanius was perceived as a healing in the supposed rift between the Church’s hierarchy and the spiritual children of Father Matta. The new bishop was regarded as a so-called reformer, who would continue in the ressourcement movement started by Father Matta.

Attempts at Unity

While Pope Tawardos has taken a reform line, the old guard (the followers of Pope Shenouda) resist his reformist moves. The most striking example was in April 2017 when Pope Francis visited Egypt.  He concluded an agreement with Pope Tawadros concerning the baptism stating that “In order to please the heart of the Lord Jesus, as well as that of our sons and daughters in the faith, (Popes Francis and Tawadros) mutually declare that…with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other.”

Conservatives denounced Pope Tawadros’ move, and a number of bishops, including Bishop Ibrahim of Fayoum and Bishop Anba Agathon of Maghagha rejected the agreement. Consequently, the church retreated and said that it wasn’t a final agreement but a step to unify the churches on baptism.

A group of leading clergymen, calling themselves “Faith Protectors,” used to attack any step taken by the pope on reform. Samuel Tadros, a Coptic senior fellow at Hudson Institute, wrote on Twitter last week that “Pope Tawadros, who came with a vision of openness to the church changed the situation dramatically by opening the doors to Father Matta’s followers. He ordained Bishop Epiphanius and many others, and appointed Father Matta’s followers to teaching positions.” Also, he pointed that “Pope Tawadros’ views on ecumenicism, willingness to cancel rebaptism of Catholics, change dates of Christmas and Easter, and other steps angered the old guard.”

In another tweet, Tadros, who was a student of Pope Shenouda in the Theological Seminary in the early 2000s, said, “The old guard went nuts. For them, this was pure heresy. Utilizing social media, they launched groups like Defenders of the Faith to attack their opponents such as Bishop Epiphanius, Bishop Angelous and Father Seraphim El Baramousy.”

2 thoughts on “Was Coptic Reform Reason for Orthodox Bishop’s Murder?

  1. With all due respect, I am not sure you’ve understood those two “streams”. Actually, it had absolutely nothing to do with “Protestantism”. Matthew the Poor was influenced by the Eastern Orthodox theology of theosis which for that matter has become mainstream amongst Roman Catholics as well.