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Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Muslims Care for the Heart of a Monk

A spiritual man, Fr. Mercurious knows the only guarantee is from the hand of God. At the same time, his surgery to prevent a heart attack was in the hands of Muslims.

A few weeks ago the forty year old monk in the Monastery of St. Makarious in Wadi Natrun had open heart surgery. Suffering from high cholesterol, his doctor advised this course of action at the earliest date possible.

With genetic propensity from his father, and narrow arteries from his mother, the simple diet of a monk was not enough to guarantee health.

Fr. Mercurious did not intend it to be so originally, though this had nothing to do with religious preference. Like many Egyptians, he inquired first if he could travel to the US or UK for surgery. When embassy procedures did not go anywhere, his doctor recommended a specialist hospital in 6 October City, a new development outside of Cairo.

The surgery went well. Muslim Egyptian doctors grafted veins from his arms and legs to bypass his arteries, which were blocked at 95%. They even gave him special deference due to his clerical disposition.

It is not a remarkable thing, really. Well trained doctors demonstrate their skills on a human being. Unfortunately, it is often not the sort of story heard about Egypt.

Fr. Mercurious related his operation in the context of the changing religious climate of Egypt. While admitting his isolation from the world, he keeps up with events through visitors to the monastery and their tales of political and social developments.

Before entering the monastery after university studies, Fr. Mercurious stated he had only the best of relations with all Muslims he knew. Yet in the past several years he had the impression that the number of ‘extremists’ was increasing.

Is this a function of real change in the character of Muslims, or of real change in the perceptions of his Christian visitors? Surely the two must be somewhat related.

Dr. Mohamed el-Menissy is a Muslim doctor who volunteered at the field hospital in Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church near Tahrir Square during clashes in November. In asking him about his experience – not his faith – he insisted over and over again that Muslims and Christians love each other in Egypt. He was near desperate to get this message across to the West. He even gave me the phone number of his Christian doctor colleague so as to confirm their friendship.

Of course Dr. Menissy is telling the truth of his experience, but does such single-mindedness betray a deeper reality frantically denied? Is he hoping the world to be right, if only by insisting it is?

Perhaps it is as simple as rightful offense at media – both Western and Arab – which focuses on problems to such degree it obscures reality, perhaps even to the extent of transforming it. Speaking to media, perhaps Dr. Menissy wanted to transform it back.

What purpose does this story serve, then? In highlighting a non-news event of a Muslim doctor operating successfully on a Coptic monk, do I help stem the tide of negative reporting? Or do I play into the narrative of distinction between Muslim and Christian?

Fortunately, I carry no such burden. I tell the story of the monk because he is my friend and it is interesting. I tell the story of Dr. Menissy because it fits in this context and honors his desire. Both show a slice of life that is worthy to be known more widely.

As for what these stories say about Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt: They say the truth. It is not the whole truth, but it is an essential truth.

The next time a church burns, it is important to acknowledge this as the truth also. One story balances another.

Such complexity marks our own lives – we chafe at being reduced, simplified, or misunderstood. Let us grant the same grace to Egypt.

After all, as these stories show, she shows much grace to her own.

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Personal

Reflecting on the Papal Shrines

My daughter, not a pope

Five people were killed yesterday at St. Bishoy Monastery, crushed to death visiting the shrine of Pope Shenouda. I was nearly there, along with my three year old daughter.

It was meant to be part two of my visits to the shrines of the most recent popes. The second leg was not planned with the first; a day before Pope Shenouda’s death I was with Coptic Orthodox friends on a trip to St. Mina Monastery near Alexandria, to visit the shrine of Pope Kyrillos (Cyril VI).

These same friends then organized a trip the first weekend after Pope Shenouda’s burial, but postponed it out of fear of the expected massive crowds. Instead we set off on the second weekend, but ran into similar trouble.

Feeling semi-guilty for disappearing for the second time over three weekends, I volunteered to take my daughter with me. I had done so earlier with the oldest child, and we had an enjoyable outing. Of course, the country wasn’t exploding at the time.

To avoid the early morning rush my organizing friend decided to first stop at the nearby Baramous Monastery for breakfast. This monastery celebrates two Roman Christian brothers born into a wealthy family who left all and went to live in the desert. As per her custom, my daughter enjoyed playing in the dirt after mass, and then we enjoyed our shared meal of fried bean sandwiches, French fry sandwiches, and lentil dip.

Making a monastery of her own
With friends from our group

It was then we sat and waited, and waited. Monastery trips with Copts are usually festive times of visiting ancient sites, buying lots of religious trinkets, and taking blessing from the monks while seeking their intercession. On this occasion, understandably more somber due to the pope’s death, there was simply a discontented confusion.

Our organizer was incessantly on the phone with someone from St. Bishoy Monastery where we were headed. As the minutes ticked by he received more and more encouragement to stay away. At first it was simply too crowded. Eventually we learned they had closed off the area. Finally he was informed that several pilgrims had been killed.

Even so, it was difficult to convince our group not to continue on. The whole point of this trip was to visit the pope’s final resting place, and for many this meant securing a great blessing. The organizer sought to convince them God would reward them according to their intention, and that even Pope Shenouda himself would be displeased if we continued. Should we contribute to the chaos and disruption of his sanctuary, simply for our personal blessing?

Eventually we left to seek blessing from another nearby monastery, St. Makarios. This 4th Century saint lived celibate with his wife (who was forced upon him by his family) until her death, when he was finally free to devote himself to God. He was the first monk to settle in the Wadi Natrun desert, where four historical monasteries now continue.

The line of buses, after half an hour of waiting to get in

It turns out, however, nearly every other would-be St. Bishoy Monastery visitor had the same idea. We sat in our bus for an hour simply waiting to be processed at the gate. After eventually getting inside, we joined the dispirited crowds milling about the premises for about half an hour, until the monks reclaimed their silence and had everyone leave. From here we had our final meal together, and began the trek back home.

Though disappointed to not see the pope’s burial grounds – the whole reason for the trip – I was pleased to go to St. Makarious where I had resided three days in a monk’s cell and had a few friends. But even this hope failed, as one elderly monk told me there was no way he was leaving his quarters to wade through the masses who would surround him looking for blessing. Then I learned a younger monk I knew also could not greet me, as he was recovering from open heart surgery.

The day was not supposed to be like this, and I am glad I had my daughter with me to pass the time and enjoy her company. She was blissfully unaware of everything but the dirt, happily making her own mini-monasteries wherever she could.

It was supposed to me more like part one of the papal shrine tour, only amplified in both numbers and grief. Two weeks earlier I was among a similar crowd of pilgrims, brought to St. Mina’s Monastery the weekend after the celebration of Pope Kyrillos’ death. St. Mina was a Roman Christian soldier who left the army to practice monasticism, and was later martyred. Pope Kyrillos adopted him as his patron saint.

The grounds were packed, the crowds were in revelry.

Here are some photos of his shrine:

And here is the scene around his tomb:

A Coptic priest seeking the pope's intercession
Ordinary Copts, taking blessing from his tomb

Finally, here is a crowd gathered around his ‘hymn of praise’, chanting his virtues and extolling his life. Click here to watch a video of this scene.

It is difficult to know what to make of such devotion. To provide snide evidence of the backwardness of Coptic spirituality, consider this picture:

At the Baramous Monastery this garden scene has water flowing continually from the ceramic pitcher. Without exploring further, I assumed it was a simple hydraulic function common in many suburban fountains. The assumption of several passers-by, overhearing their conversation, was that this was a miracle of the monastery.

Yet to provide sympathetic evidence of the suffering depths of Coptic spirituality, consider these pictures:

Translation: The martyr Mina Wagdy Fakhry
Our group leader, in contemplation
Translation: The martyr Peter Sami
Translation: Verse from Ps. 65:4; the martyr Sabri Fawzi Wissa
Translation: The righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Mt. 13:43)

St. Mina’s Monastery hosts also the remains of Christians killed on New Year’s Eve 2010, when a bomb exploded outside the Two Saints Church in Alexandria. I have written earlier about the shrine dedicated to these martyrs inside the church, but I had never seen such a memorial previously.

In the United States one can often see a small cross erected on the side of the road where a loved one was killed in a traffic accident. There are memorials for those killed in war, during 9-11, or in other national tragedies. Yet America, best I know, has no religious martyrs.

Egypt, on the other hand, is full of them. The Coptic calendar dates from 284 AD, when Diocletian became Roman emperor and ushered in the bloodiest period of Christian persecution.

Popes Kryillos and Shenouda died natural deaths, but they provided historical leadership for the church of martyrs. Celebrated saints have interceded through miracles for countless Copts through the centuries. Pope Kyrillos has done the same, and now Pope Shenouda is poised as well.

Perhaps the cynic points out: Could he not then have prevented the deaths of three Copts in Cairo, and five at the monastery – all who were there out of love for him?

As I mentioned, it is difficult to know what to make of such devotion.

For those who share in Christian faith, these are your brothers and sisters. As much as they stand to benefit from Western experience in hydraulics, we stand to benefit from Coptic experience in spiritual immanence.

As Pope Shenouda has placed on the lips of every Egyptian Christian: God is present.

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In Memoriam: Dr. Ahmed al-Sayih, Azhar Scholar

Fully deserving of his many titles, the glorious scholar and professor, Dr. Ahmad Abd al-Rahim al-Sayih passed away on July 7, 2011, fully engaged in life at the age of 74. Dr. al-Sayih died while filming an interview for the revolutionary-born al-Tahrir Television channel, speaking about his lifelong efforts in international popular diplomacy, to display a peaceful image of Islam and Egypt wherever he went. The world will miss him, his sharp mind, and his openness to people of all faiths.

Dr. al-Sayih was born in 1937 in Ezbet al-Sayih, a community roughly thirty kilometers from Nag Hamadi in the governorate of Qena, in Upper Egypt. Late in his life Nag Hamadi witnessed the horrific killing of six Christians and a Muslim police guard on Coptic Christmas Eve in 2010, an infamous incident which raised questions about Muslim-Christian relations. Dr. al-Sayih’s interaction with Christians, however, was completely different. He was a member of the noble Qulaiyat branch of the Arab tribe, and grew up with warm, friendly relations with the five or six Christian families of Ezbet al-Sayih. As he matured in his studies these Christians proudly recognized him as ‘our’ sheikh. Following the murders he helped organize an interfaith delegation from the Moral Rearmament Association to visit the families of those killed, explore the cultural environment of the crime, and discuss ways to overcome the national tragedy.

The journey Dr. al-Sayih pursued, however, did not begin as it ended, with real exposure to and open embrace of the Copts of Egypt. Though never an extremist, he pursued his studies with Muslim particularity, coming to master Islamic doctrine and philosophy after leaving his village and enrolling in the Azhar University. After several years he engaged in a professor exchange program, teaching five years in the Faculty of Sharia Law at the University of Qatar. Here his scholarly insight took the attention of the prestigious Umm al-Qurra University in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, but contractual regulations with the Azhar required him to first complete his doctorate while teaching at the Cairo-based institution. After obtaining his PhD in Islamic doctrine and philosophy in 1986 from the Azhar, serving as dean in the Faculty of Da’wa (the Islamic Missionary Call), he accepted the post in Mecca, where he taught for nine years.

After many years of exposure to religious thought in the Gulf, however, Dr. al-Sayih began to grow increasingly uncomfortable with its extremist Islamic trends, especially Wahhabism. Wahhabism is an austere interpretation of Islam, seeking imitation of the manner of life as lived by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Unfortunately, it often results in a reactionary attitude to modern life, as well as rejection of other viewpoints and commonality with other religions. With growing awareness of the danger Wahhabism proved to authentic Islam, Dr. al-Sayih dedicated his life to exposing its errors.

This zeal resulted in a scholarly output of over 150 books and hundreds of articles written for Arabic journals around the world. Some of these books were co-authored by such luminaries as Dr. Ahmed Shawqy al-Fangary, Dr. Abdel Fatah Asaker, Dr. Rifaat Sidi Ahmed, Dr. Mohammed al-Halafawy and Sheikh Nasr Ramadan Abdel Hamid. His boldness in critiquing Wahhabism led also to the finding that much of what is attributed to Islam today is actually based on pious misunderstandings from poorly transmitted hadith, the stories recorded of Muhammad’s words and deeds. Never one to shy from controversy, Dr. al-Sayih was committed to discovering and teaching the truth as it revealed itself, finding in this the path to God.

Though he never committed himself to an actual spiritual guide or designated path, Dr. al-Sayih found sympathy with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Over the course of his life, he attended over fifty international Sufi conferences, promoting an open and tolerant picture of Islam. This was more than a simple intellectual position. Dr. al-Sayih visited Makarious Monastery in Wadi Natroun, Egypt, and prayed over the grave of John the Baptist and the Prophet Elisha. He esteemed the monks there to be the truest of Sufis, who represent the best of Islam.

Furthermore, Dr. al-Sayih’s openness towards Copts facilitated his frequent collaboration with Arab West Report. Together they found commonality in the belief that Islam is not to blame for the often true difficulties Copts face in Egypt, but rather the ill interpretation of Islam which exasperates social tensions, giving ordinary community problems a religious face. This phenomena is often made worse when these tensions are manipulated by politics or religion. Dr. al-Sayih’s contribution toward promoting Coptic understanding in Egypt resulted in his commendation by no less an organization than Copts United, an American based group highlighting Christian difficulties in Egypt. Following the death of the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid Tantawi, Copts United nominated him for succession.

Dr. Ahmad al-Sayih leaves behind a wife, three sons, and five daughters. He was buried in his village of Ezbet al-Sayih, and on July 12 received a commemorative farewell in Al Rashdan Mosque in Nasr City, near his home in Cairo. He was a man of both great mind and great heart, and will be missed by all who knew him. May Egypt produce similar scholars, who are able to follow in his footsteps.

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Personal

Returning Before the Arrival

Back in November of 2009 I stayed for three days at a Coptic Orthodox monastery in the desert of Wadi Natrun off the road between Cairo and Alexandria. I wrote at text shortly thereafter reflecting on my visit, and hoped to publish it, both here and at Arab West Report, shortly thereafter. I even anticipated doing so in this post. A preview post on the value of monasticism was also published.

Unfortunately, the monk who welcomed me in my stay found flaws in my presentation, and did not want the text made public before correction. Often in life, one thing leads to another, and delays happen. In December we needed to finish our peacemaking project before the calendar year expired. In January and February we finalized the report writing. In the Spring I began participating in shared management of our organization. The result, however, was this text – requiring substantial revision but lacking an urgent deadline – getting pushed to the backburner.

Then came word that some of my friends from the Coptic Bible Institute were organizing a trip to the monastery, and I quickly signed up. Though I had phoned my friends the monks there several time on occasion of Christian holidays, speaking of my revised text to come, a coming visit was finally able to push me into action. The text has now arrived in the inbox of the monastery, and I hope to be able to discuss it tomorrow with my host.

This may wind up being another false pronouncement, but for those of you who have been following our blog since November (and who may have been intrigued enough to let this thought settle into the recesses of your memory), I hope that publication of my reflections may be near at hand. My stay had a great impact on me, and I hope my thoughts may open up to you a largely invisible world. Monks, after all, stay in the desert for a reason. They prefer isolation and obscurity.

At the risk of undue exposure, part of which may be influencing the holdup of the text, I hope you can gain an appreciation of the faith and practice of the community of roughly 100 men. Their testimony is human, but it is inspiring all the same. Perhaps you can read it soon.