My daughter Emma is soon to be five years old – getting old enough to enjoy the occasional Daddy – daughter date. The idea came up when I was invited by friends at the Coptic Bible Institute I attend to go to the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel in the Fayyoum region of Egypt. This post will be mostly pictures from our adventure.
Many Copts enjoy taking weekend trips to the dozens of monasteries scattered throughout Egypt, mostly in desert regions. Besides being a fun getaway, they honor their Christian heritage, taking blessing from the ascetic monks and ancient relics. I have joined them on quite a few trips so far, and wrote once about the ‘miracle stories’ that abound in their faith.
It is fun to take the whole family along, but as our youngest is no longer an infant but not yet a toddler, packing three daughters along can be cumbersome. Fayyoum is only an hour and a half away, but as they often like to squeeze several monasteries into a trip, it is common to leave early in the morning, have breakfast and lunch on site, and not return until late in the evening. Coptic children often come along, but we have found we have different priorities in terms of naps and bedtimes.
So, given that this was mostly a fun trip, we thought perhaps Emma could come along too. She missed mommy at points along the way, doesn’t like the attention given to her as a four year old American sideshow in an ocean of Egyptian-ness, but had a good time all the same. Nothing a little monastery ice cream can’t fix.
I wrote about Abd al-Masih al-Manahari previously, click here for an account of his life and the process of transforming an ordinary pious man into a saint.
This is the conclusion to this report, dealing with coverage of the issue by other media sources. For Part One, which outlines the story in its broad strokes, please click here. For Part Two, which covers contextual information, please click here.
At Arab West Report, we have had the benefit of time in order to research this issue and gather and compare multiple sources. This is done in commitment to nonpartisanship and objectivity, and the reader is invited to judge our analysis for any bias. Many news agencies, however, must rely on their immediate sources and produce reports as quickly as possible. Other agencies are organized in defense of worldwide Christian interests, often legitimately so, but can display a bias in their reporting that misconstrues the issues for their readership. In light of this and the above descriptions, this report will conclude in critique of two recent articles produced on this topic. Issuing organizations are the Assyrian International News Agency and Compass Direct.
The Assyrian International News Agency
Under the headline ‘EgyptianArmed Forces Fire At Christian Monasteries, 19 Injured’, the AINA uses language which does not accurately reflect events as they transpired. The opening sentence reads, ‘Egyptian armed force stormed the 5th century old St. Bishoy monastery,’ but the word ‘stormed’ paints a picture of a violent incursion into guarded territory. Rather, as video depicts, the military gathered at the point of the newly constructed wall, which was on government territory, not monastery land, and then proceeded no further.
Monk Fr. Ava Bishoy is then quoted, ‘When we tried to address them, the army fired live bullets, wounding Father Feltaows in the leg and Father Barnabas in the abdomen,’ but here the action is presented as immediately sequential, whereas several rounds were fired into the air before anyone was wounded. Then another monk, Fr. Hemanot Ava Bishoy is quoted, ‘The army was shocked to see the monks standing there praying ‘Lord have mercy’ without running away. This is what really upset them. As the soldiers were demolishing the gate and the fence they were chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Victory, Victory’.’ Yet other testimony denies these chants take place, and they cannot be heard on the monastery recorded YouTube video. While this may represent the word of one man against another, or simply conflicting but not necessarily contradicting statements, the tenor of the article in highlighting the Islamic ‘Allahu Akbar’ cry goes beyond the events in question.
Later in the article AINA references the statement of the military. ‘The Egyptian Armed Forces issued a statement on their Facebook page denying that any attack took place on St. Bishoy Monastery.’ Yet the word ‘denying’ paints a picture that the statement is untrue. Yet as described above, the military used force to demolish a newly constructed wall, and took no action against the monastery itself. Then Fr. Hedra Ava Bishoy is highlighted in the collection of bullet casing, with which the number of wounded, used ‘to prove otherwise’ against the military denial.
The Compass Direct article begins with the headline ‘Monk, Workers Shot in Monastery Attack in Egypt’, and the opening sentence reads, ‘One monk and six church workers were shot and wounded last week when the Egyptian Army attacked a Coptic Orthodox monastery.’ Yet as above, the word ‘attacked’ is an inaccurate description, as the army never attacked the monastery. The paragraph goes on to report, ‘After a brief argument with monks and workers outside the monastery wall, soldiers opened fire on the crowd, sending them running for cover.’ Yet again, the opening of fire was directed initially into the air. While several did run for cover, others stood safely a short distance away. No mention is made that the crowd acted as a human shield.
Later in the article the context of the demonstrations, withdrawal of police forces, and escaping of prisoners is highlighted, but then a wrong context is established in providing reasons for the wall construction. The article states the monastery ‘had come under increasing attacks from raiders and criminals set free from prisons’. This, however, was described above as criminals who benefited from (albeit uninvited) monastery hospitality, which later morphed into the rumors of ‘thousands’ of criminals raiding the grounds.
Further, the interaction between the army and the monastery is described, along with the deadline issued to remove the wall. ‘The army later claimed the monastery had not acquired the proper permits’, but here the word ‘claimed’ is deceptive, since it implies the claim is not true. Yet the wall at the very least was partially on government property, and no permits had been issued for the wall to be built, let alone the land to be obtained. No one argues otherwise.
The article continues, ‘The army denied conducting the attack, despite a video widely circulated on the Internet in which Egyptian soldiers can be seen firing AK-47 assault rifles.’ Again, ‘denied’ needs to be highlighted, and if ‘attack’ is used it must be written the army attacked the wall, not the monastery. Furthermore, ‘despite’ in reference to video proof suggests to readership that the military has been caught red handed in its denial. The video, however, shows quite the opposite; military action was limited to the demolition of the wall, and had nothing to do with the monastery itself.
Further on the article describes the incident at the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian. ‘The army claimed the wall was built on land set aside for a nature preserve.’ Again, the word ‘claimed’ places the army statement on trial with the burden of proof upon them. Yet it is a given fact that this monastery was illegally constructed on land belonging to the National Park Authority. Casting doubt upon this gives the reader the wrong impression.
It is difficult in journalism to produce reports that are timely, comprehensive, and contextual. The above examples may reflect work that aimed to be fast, relied on sources which were misinformed or biased, and did not have access to background information which would cast doubt upon the main line of the story. Journalism, however, often suffers from a temptation to sensationalism, and the word choice implied in the above examples suggests this story – an important news item in its own right – was transformed into a sectarian incident through the pen of the authors. It may also suggest bias or deliberate distortion, but this can only be known in the heart of the writer. The possibility, however, deserves to be raised. At the very least, what may have been a rush to judgment in the bustle of meeting deadlines must be reevaluated in light of further information, such as is brought out in this report.
This text began with the assertion that all parties were at fault, though the actions of all were understandable. It is reasonable that the monasteries would fear following the withdrawal of police forces. It is reasonable they would build additional walls for their protection. Yet, is it reasonable they would fail to abide by military directives to demolish their temporarily necessary structures? May they have been concerned also that having built a wall, they might later lay claim to the land? Were the monks and monastery workers provocative in making a human shield, placing the army in a very difficult position?
From the other side, it is reasonable that the military would seek to demolish illegally constructed walls on government territory. It is reasonable they would fire into the air to disperse a crowd gathered to prevent the execution of their orders. Yet, is it reasonable that live ammunition be used at all, some of which would strike unarmed civilians? Might some of the soldiers been caught up in the struggle, and acted with impropriety? Could some have born a particular grudge against ‘Christians’, even without an extremist agenda? Certainly this side deserves condemnation and rebuke for any casualties suffered at all. The military is used to being obeyed, and is inexperienced at government, politics, and public relations. Yet, if only due to their difficult position of running a country, restraint would have been the better policy.
Therefore, this report counsels all to exercise patience in discovering facts, humility in asserting unknown intentions, and charity in dealing with an oppositional party. Egypt faces a very tense situation in which security is lax, the stakes are high, and the future unknown. These types of incidents at the monasteries are likely to be repeated often in the coming days, in which misunderstandings or conflicting agendas could threaten to lead to deep conflict and venomous accusations. This statement is independent of any sectarian emphasis, though along religious lines the consequences can be even more severe. Where facts point to injustice, condemnation must be issued. Yet a more important value in these days is mercy, especially where confusion reigns and reality is disputed. Some will seek to take advantage of this situation for their personal benefit. Yet the majority must treat each other with kindness, sympathy, understanding, and a desire for the greater good. Otherwise, the gains won during the Egyptian revolution may descend into petty partisanship. Egypt is widely acknowledged as a highly religious society; may the grace and virtue of each religion prevail, especially in the inevitable disputes to come.
Note: This report was written through information gained by Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab West Report, and Hani Labib, managing director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation. At the website of AWR the report is listed accurately as having been co-authored with Hulsman.
For Part One, which outlines the story in its broad strokes, please click here.
The details of the stories above, not all of which have been confirmed, raise the following questions:
Why were the monks in these monasteries in such fear while they lived in relative isolation?
Was this fear justified?
Might the monks have been attempting a land grab, no matter their level of fear?
Was the army response fitting with its traditional conduct?
While other questions may be posed and deserve attention as well, information is available to provide perspective on these issues. The following section will address the general threat recently issued by al-Qaeda against the Monastery of St. Bishoy, the security situation in the desert following the withdrawal of police, previous efforts by monasteries to create ‘facts on the ground’ in order to expand their lands or erect buildings, and the subsequent response of the army.
Al-Qaeda and the Monasteries
In the fall of 2010, following an attack on a church in Baghdad, al-Qaeda issued a warning to the Copts of Egypt. This community in particular was threatened due to the understanding that the church was holding Coptic women converts to Islam against their will within the desert monasteries. Specifically, Wafa Costantine and Camilia Shehata were wives of priests who, in the case of Costantine, took initial steps to convert, and in the case of Shehata, allegedly appeared in photographs wearing a hijab. Following church intervention these were turned over by the state to ecclesiastic authorities, and have not been seen publically since. Wide protests were held by Muslims in Egypt, and though no one outside the church knows their whereabouts, it was believed they were being held in one of monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun.
Though Egypt rallied around the church in its condemnation of the al-Qaeda threat, on New Year’s Eve there was a horrific bombing at a church in Alexandria in which twenty-three people died. Such a brazen attack was not fitting with the usual troubles that surface during internal sectarian tensions, and though many elements of the bombing remain unclear, the Egyptian authorities fingered a Gaza-based al-Qaeda offshoot as the culprit. Again, Egyptian Christians and Muslims demonstrated their solidarity in response, but the fulfillment of the earlier warning put the Copts on alert.
Then, on January 14 there was an incident at the Monastery of the Syrian. The personal vehicle of Bishop Mattias, head of the monastery, exploded in the garage after having been parked for an hour. Damages were limited to the car and the immediate area, no one was hurt, and the monastery chose to downplay what happened. Media coverage was minor, and the report was that the car exploded due to a leakage of gas.
The German Coptic engineer, however, investigated matters and ran a computer simulation of the event. He noted that the fuel necessary to run the car was different than published reports, and that an idle car would lack the necessary spark for combustion. Furthermore, even if it were to occur, it would cause an implosion, yet the pictures which reveal the damage clearly indicated to him evidence of a bomb.
Was this the work of al-Qaeda, or related to the suspected presence of captive converts to Islam? No one knows. Even if the engineer is mistaken, it represented another reminder of the general threat under which the monasteries existed. Certainly, after the withdrawal of police forces from the country in general and the monastery in particular, great fear on the part of the monks is understandable.
The Security Situation
While fear is justified, did it need to be amplified to the point of erecting new walls for security? More directly, had monasteries come under attack by criminal or sectarian elements in the days following the withdrawal of police? Evidence is inconclusive because it is incomplete. Yet there are reports which discourage the reader from over-generalizing the state of chaos imagined in the absence of police forces.
Most looting took place in the major cities, as would be expected. Some of it, however, expanded to the desert regions in search of antiquities. The German Coptic engineer reports that on February 28 the Pharaonic pyramids of Sakkara were raided by men with machine guns. Certainly this is indicative of instability that would worry any Egyptian anywhere.
Yet the general atmosphere between Muslims and Christians was highly positive even in the absence of security. Leaders from both communities celebrated that during the demonstration period and afterwards, the churches of Egypt – left unguarded – remained safe. It is true that during the period of lawlessness some took advantage of blood feuds across religious lines. One Christian family was slaughtered a year after a Christian man was discovered in illicit relations with a Muslim woman. Yet this type of violence affected the Egyptian population as a whole, and was not directed against the Christian community at large.
In fact, evidence at the St. Macarius Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun, not far from St. Bishoy, indicates quite the opposite. Following the outbreak from the prison of Wadi al-Natrun, 31 escapees scaled the walls of the monastery, and requested food and drink. This was given freely, as the monastery offers all visitors, and then they were asked to leave, and they complied. There was no violence, no compulsion, and though the intrusion and trespassing were surly worrisome to the monks, the incident revealed only an example of hospitality, even to criminals.
Fr. Ruiess related the incident after receiving the news by telephone in the presence of Cornelis Hulsman on January 31. Fr. Ruiess resides at the Monastery of St. Anthony along the Red Sea coast, not far from the previously described Monastery of St. Paul. Hulsman was staying at this monastery while traveling with a group of European Christians, including four clergy, before the demonstrations began, and continued the tour in Upper Egypt despite the lack of security suffered in the country. The events at St. Macarius being known in St. Anthony indicate they were known also at St. Paul, for Hulsman relates that there were frequent contacts in these days between the neighboring monasteries. Hulsman stayed at both sites from January 30 – February 2, and describes that until this time there were no attacks on either monastery, or elsewhere in Upper Egypt, as confirmed by the numerous priests and laypeople with whom he conversed.
Later that day, the story of the escapees at St. Macarius was confirmed by Fr. Basilius, earlier described, a monk resident at the monastery, through a phone call by Hulsman. He also refuted rumors going around, passed on to Hulsman by expatriate Copts in Europe, that thousands of escaped prisoners had attacked the monastery. There is no evidence of any monastery in all of Egypt which suffered damage during the period of general instability.
Were these three monasteries in question, then, justified in building new walls to protect themselves from lawlessness? This question must be left open for now, especially since the answer lies only in the heart of those involved. While fear was understandable, and precaution is always wise, and al-Qaeda related threats were in the air, general reporting about the danger faced appears to have been exaggerated. Perhaps the monasteries were justified in building the walls; were they then justified in resisting demolition?
Creating Facts on the Ground
In general, the Egyptian government suffers from an inability to extend the rule of law throughout its vast territory, much of which is desert. This is specifically seen in the area of land registration. As the population explodes upon limited arable land, citizens accede to the temptation to simply secure territory through traditional means, claiming land and building upon it even though their ownership would officially be in question, and without the necessary permits. Often unable to prevent such action, and appreciating the benefit of developed desert territories, the government frequently overlooks the means of acquisition and accepts the building / development as ‘facts on the ground’ which demonstrate ownership.
In general, Egyptian Christians suffer from an inequitable policy governing the building of churches. New construction has to be approved at least at the level of the governor, and the process of obtaining permits can be long with no certainty of approval. As a consequence, many Christians have resorted to a strategy of circumventing the law by building their church structure as quickly as possible, banking on the fact that the government would not risk local and international outrage should they destroy a place of worship. Again, ‘facts on the ground’ can establish reality, as Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma has related. Interestingly, this strategy is employed equally by Muslims and Christians, though Christians are usually in greater recourse since permits for mosques face fewer restrictions.
The Christian strategy of creating facts on the ground has been documented by Arab West Report. A comprehensive survey of church building details many such examples, and the case of the Abu Fana Monastery in Upper Egypt demonstrates how some monks also may seek the expansion of their grounds. This next section, however, will focus on two examples: first, the Monastery of St. Anthony, described above, and second, the Patmos Monastery, established by Bishop Butrus.
The Monastery of St. Anthony is situated in barren, desert, mountainous land near the Red Sea coast. It is an environment suitable for ascetic monasticism far from the bustle of life. Likely in effort to preserve their sanctuary, in 2003 the monks built a wall encompassing much desert land owned by the government. This expanse was suitable neither for agricultural development nor for personal meditation, as it lay under the desert sun, lacking the historically favored caves of Coptic hermits.
Shortly thereafter the governor of the area sent bulldozers to demolish the wall, as it was built illegally on state property. The monks prepared for this with cameras and videos, and circulated the operation internationally among Coptic communities abroad. Though the governor was angry, the ensuing controversy led to negotiations in which the monastery purchased the land from the government.
The Patmos Monastery is located near the Cairo-Suez road, and was established on land Bishop Butrus bought through family members for the stated purpose of agricultural development. The monastery he created in actuality, however, was located adjacent to an army camp. In December 1996 the army issued a warning, and then returned to destroy the walls and building which were constructed without permit. The bishop complained that the military could have pursued legal action against the project, so that the matter be settled in court. Legal procedures in Egypt, however, are long and complicated, and certainly the military represents its own culture of dealing with problems. Like many Egyptians, they are more likely to resort to force to achieve their objectives, even, and perhaps especially, when they believe themselves to be in the right.
Bishop Butrus’ response cemented Coptic strategy oft-repeated, pursued in imitation by the monks of St. Anthony. He sought international media attention. In the ensuing controversy he won not only the right to establish the monastery, but also compensation to rebuild the demolished structures. Furthermore, the media attention helped with fundraising in order to further develop the monastery. Though disputes continued through the years with the military, each time the monastery was able to assert its claims.
To return to the three monasteries whose walls were demolished in recent days, it would be improper to accuse their monks of attempting a land grab by creating facts on the ground. At the same time, context suggests that this has been a strategy used by Coptic monasteries in the past, and pause should be given before insisting the walls were built solely for defense of the community during times of fear.
Would monks be troublemakers? Perhaps this is not the right word. Monks are often single-minded and independent, dedicated to the pursuit of God as they understand this. Like many Egyptians, many maintain a mistrust of government, even as they withdraw from the world. Further context, however, demonstrates that of the three monasteries of this report, one may deserve the reputation of being a troublemaker. At the least, its independent and uncompromising spirit may be noted.
Fr. Alisha and the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian
The Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian is located in Wadi al-Rayyan near Fayyum, and was established by Fr. Alisha in 1998. He chose the location in devotion to his spiritual hero, Matta al-Miskeen, who resided with his disciples in the area in the 1950s and 60s, before being ordered to rebuild the then-decaying Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun. Today, the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun is a thriving community with over 100 monks in residence. One such monk, Fr. Basilius described above, relates its opposition to the efforts of Fr. Alisha. There is no relation between the two communities; indeed, the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian is not recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
One reason for the opposition of the Wadi al-Natrun monastery is that they wish to preserve the cave dwellings inhabited by their spiritual father Matta al-Miskeen in their original state. Yet the spiritual son of Fr. Alisha, Amir Milad, stated, ‘I suspect that he does not want to work under the authority of either the Monastery of Macarius or Pope Shenouda. He does not want to be told how the monks should live, what rules to follow.’ The new monastic community now boasts 15 monks, all consecrated without proper authorization by Fr. Alisha. He has developed relations with Copts in Germany, and through donations has invested over US$ 10 million in making suitable cells in the local caves, and in construction of a massive church building.
One further contextual piece of information is necessary, this one more relevant than all that has preceded it. In the 1950s Fr. Matta al-Miskeen lived in the wilderness, troubling no one, building nothing. Fr. Alisha is in the same wilderness, but today that land is designated as part of the National Park Authority. Every building constructed has been done without permit, and he has additionally employed several Christian workers originally from the city of Minia in Upper Egypt. The monastery is an expanding community, without license from the church, at odds with the government park service on which it has established itself illegally.
Since 1998 Fr. Alisha has been able to create facts on the ground without violent opposition from the authorities. On this occasion, however, the army proceeded to demolish the newly constructed wall. Again, it is impossible to know the monastery’s intention, and the accusation of a land grab cannot be substantiated over and against the desire for protection in times of instability. At the very least, however, given the history of the monastery, the question does deserve to be raised.
It was mentioned above that the army pattern of issuing a warning and then returning to accomplish its task fits within its modus operandi. As such, the method in which it demolished the walls recently constructed by the three monasteries does not suggest any form of anti-Christian behavior. Even so, did their manner reflect anti-Christian sentiment, in particular with the violence and force employed to achieve their ends? Additionally, if the monasteries had requested official protection, why did the military not station at least a soldier or two in front of the gate?
This question was posed by Cornelis Hulsman to a diplomat in the Egyptian Embassy in The Hague. The diplomat asked that his name not be used in any official report, but even so, he provided little information. Basically, he referred to the statement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, referenced above. This worked in line with the tenor of that statement itself: Provide no clarification. The army is not used to governance or politics; therefore, it says as little as possible.
At the same time the diplomat surmised a few reasons why there could be at least slight tension between the army and the church. One, unlike with the government, there has been no dialogue between the two parties. Whereas President Mubarak and Pope Shenouda maintained a relationship and channels of communication, the army has remained silent, as it has with many. Furthermore, it was not until after the incidents at the three monasteries that the church in its three Christian denominations issued on February 25 declaring loyalty to the current military rulers, while promoting the ideal of a civil state.
Two, reflective of the above, Christians have been slow to embrace the revolution. The diplomat believed that in all only three bishops visited Tahrir Square, while many Muslim imams were present throughout the demonstrations. Though Christians participated as individuals in the uprising, which never revealed a religious character, church leadership was clear in counseling its community not to get involved.
Three, there has been general discontent in society concerning the conduct of the church vis-à-vis the state. In 2010 there was a court ruling compelling the church to allow remarriage to its divorcees. After the pope publically made clear he would not abide by the decision, the government intervened and shelved the issue after the church paid a hefty fine of 100,000 LE (approximately US$ 18,000). In addition, the manner in which Copts have build churches and gained land in the monasteries, described above, has also caused friction in society. Like many others, perhaps the military also disapproves of this conduct, and made it clear it would not tolerate the practice of placing ‘facts on the ground’.
If this is true, has the military been dismantling other ‘facts’ which were quickly created following the breakdown of security? If not, it would appear to be an action directed solely against these Christian efforts. Multiple sources in the Egyptian press, however, describe the elimination of over 2800 encroachments against state owned land or other instances of illegal activity during the period of insecurity.
What then about the level of violence employed? The use of violence should be condemned in any and all circumstances against unarmed civilians. It should also be condemned here. Yet it does not appear that the objective of the army was to use violence; their objective was the simple demolition of the wall. It was only when they met resistance did the conflict occur.
It is unlikely the military was prepared to have to deal with a human shield. To dismiss the blockade they fired shots in the air, fired shots above the level of the head, and apparently, in a very limited proportion in comparison to the rounds fired, some shots struck civilian bodies. Was disproportionate force employed? Likely. Might there have been other ways to end the standoff? Perhaps. Is the military used to negotiations? No. In all, they appear to have sought only the accomplishment of their objective. Had they wished bloodshed, it would have been simple to produce multiple casualties. The military is understood to be a largely secular organization, very resistant to infiltration by extreme Islamist elements. While this possibility cannot be ruled out on the part of a few individual participants, the decisions to move against the three monasteries would have been made and coordinated at a higher level than ‘infiltration’ could have obtained. As for the account of binding the monks at the Monastery of St. Paul, and leaving them after the operation was completed, independent verification would be needed to establish this claim above and beyond the level of rumor.
 On February 3, Dr. Otmar Oehring of Missio forwarded to Hulsman a copy of an email sent by a German Copt to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, in which it was reported that thousands of freed prisoners had attacked the monastery. Hulsman again called Fr. Basilius who denied this account, and was very displeased since he found this exaggeration to be dangerous, for it upsets people and makes things worse. Hulsman then wrote the Coptic author of the email who responded in an email on February 5, “The alarm started as one active person of the Coptic community in Germany called me last Monday/Tuesday [January 31 / February 1] and told me about that in detail (severity and that the number is thousands!). Tuesday this important person called me once again and confirmed this case from another independent person from Egypt, which has very close contact to the monastery.” The email, however, made also clear that the source had not come from the Monastery of St. Macarius itself.
 Though the diplomat stated ‘bishops’, it is likely that the religious figures were priests. Muslims often confuse bishops and priests in media articles, which is understandable as both wear long black robes and are differentiated only by headgear. It would be extremely unlikely, however, that a bishop would travel alone; generally they are accompanied by a number of priests, which would have been noted by the diplomat.
 A recent email, circulated among Muslims and was obtained from a Muslim friend of AWR in December 2010, describes the great expanse of land owned by monasteries throughout Egypt, revealing Muslim frustration with Christian complaints about discrimination. To list only one example from this email, the Monastery of St. Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun occupies 11.34 km2 of land, whereas by comparison Vatican City rests upon 0.44 km2 and the mosque of the Azhar only 0.012 km2. This monastery is only one of dozens of such monastic landholdings, many with majestic churches and numerous buildings, factories, and agricultural facilities. The email provides photos of these majestic churches. The authors of this report respond to this: To be clear, most monastic land has been obtained legally, and these figures have not been independently verified. Nonetheless, the figures help temper the notion of the impossibility for Christians to maintain religious presence in Egypt. The tone of the email also reveals that Muslim frustration with Christian complaints in lieu of these figures can border on the violent. The email was forwarded with an introduction which reads: ‘This report reveals great danger, and we ask God to make those responsible for the protection of our country aware of these strongholds and the widespread power of the church these last thirty years. This fang-toothed power is both domestic and foreign, and its followers resemble the Zionist gangs of Palestine.’ Certainly this introduction represents the opinion of its author only, but that it circulates in Egypt reveals the latent tensions which exist between certain Muslims and Christians.
At Wednesday noontime I traveled to Shubra, Cairo to meet Fr. Basilius in the offices of the St. Mark’s Bookstore. While our meeting was ostensibly to discuss the arrangements for my stay in the Makarius Monastery, we discussed extensively the role of monasticism in the church, with an eye toward the issues of the Abu Fana Monastery, which has fallen into sectarian conflict. The following is a summary of our conversation.
Before our meeting I had written a long list of questions for Fr. Basilius concerning the details of my stay in his monastery. How long should I stay? What should I bring? Where would I sleep? What should I wear? What time are prayers? These and many other concerns filled my practical head, but I had a few other questions as well about the monastery and things I had heard about it. Nevertheless, our conversation turned instead to introductions, which led quickly into substantial discussions about monasticism and its role in society and the church.
I briefly described my role in the Center for Arab West Understanding as a continuation of the work done by Cornelis Hulsman in unearthing the real, often non-religious origins of sectarian conflict, but seeking in our new project to move beyond reporting into proactive contributions to the reconciliation effort, in areas, for example, such as Abu Fana. Fr. Basilius spoke warmly of Mr. Hulsman and mentioned instances of their prior cooperation. He then asked me what I thought of the Abu Fana situation. I replied that I was new to this country and preferred to hear from him what he thought, but that I was able to state the findings of Mr. Hulsman, of which he was aware. Fr. Basilius was reluctant to say much, but the nature of our conversation signaled an implicit understanding that the role of the monks in Abu Fana was negative.
“Has anyone tried to communicate with them about their position?” I asked. Fr. Basilius was unaware of any efforts, but stated that he doubted anyone was able. The monks are entrenched in their position and in general were supported by their leadership. What benefit could be gained from words by an outsider? The situation was beyond redemption in any case, for the surrounding population, including government officials, had developed a hatred for the monks in their intransigent attitudes. “But if a message was to be delivered, what would it be?”
Fr. Basilius paused for what seemed a long time, and I was not sure he was going to answer. I had asked variations on the two questions above a few times already, revealing perhaps a strange urgency. He had been engaging, kind, but perhaps not inappropriately vague. When he did answer, it was in recollection of a story, “We have dealt with a similar issue ourselves.”
President Anwar Sadat decided in the late 1970s to grant Makarius Monastery over one thousand acres of land. He had noticed the commendable job the monks had done in reclaiming desert land for agriculture, and, as the country was experiencing phenomenal population growth the government realized such projects were extremely necessary, so he tripled their workload. The abbot at the time, Fr. Matta al-Miskeen (Matthew the Poor) was honored at the gift but wondered, we can barely keep up with our three hundred acres, what can we do with so much? There was much internal debate and reluctance to receive this gift, but in the end, they accepted their charge, and began working the land.
The process of registration of the land in the name of the monastery, however, did not go smoothly, despite even a later presidential rebuke of his ministers. They faced endless delays in getting the proper paperwork, but pressed on anyway with their cultivation. During their efforts to navigate Egyptian bureaucracy, President Sadat was assassinated. In the next meeting with government officials Fr. Matta was told that the monks had no claim to the land, as the promise from President Sadat was only oral, and not in writing. Discouraged but accepting, Fr. Matta returned to the monastery, and informed his fellow monks of the decision.
As time passed the monks returned to their own fields, but a little later there came word of a general presidential initiative. This one was meant to encourage all university graduates to find land in reward for their studies, as many were entering a work force devoid of substantial openings. As the monastery was populated by dozens of monks with university degrees, each one applied for the position, and not long thereafter the monastery had recovered, now officially, all the land originally promised. These lands were in the names of the monks, not the church, but that mattered little since the monks had forsworn all worldly possessions. The monks had been promised wealth, but showed no excitement; they had been ill-treated, but put up no protest. Finally, after accepting patiently the will of God, God had restored to them their previous honor.
Fr. Basilius gave no direct answer to my question about Abu Fana, but said succinctly, “Perhaps the monks at Abu Fana have not been able to have a teacher as wise as Fr. Matta al-Miskeen.”
I shifted course after this story with a personal inquiry. I communicated that I was a Christian, raised in a Protestant tradition, and surely he was aware of our critique of monasticism. “Yes,” he replied quickly, “you think we are lazy and do nothing but pray all day.” He smiled as he said this.
I countered, however. While some may think so, this was not the impression I had growing up. Monks were imagined to be among those who love God most fervently, and are dedicated in their prayers, and, in places, in their work. Their fault, it is claimed, is that perhaps they love God too much. They can be seen as selfish in their spirituality, for they are so enraptured in his love that they neglect relationships with the rest of the world. They hole themselves away with others of like mind, and experience neither the hardships of communion with ordinary people nor the necessity of service to those around them. They live only to God, and therefore in a sense, only to themselves.
I assured Fr. Basilius that this was a perspective I have inherited, but it was absent of the attitude which often accompanies it. I have a healthy respect for Orthodoxy in general, and am confident that they have an answer for such accusations. Having never heard the reply, however, I asked him to respond. I told him it was my purpose to better understand and appreciate monasticism in general, but with an eye toward Abu Fana in particular. The monks there are bent on the acquisition of land surrounding the recently rediscovered ancient monastery. Though there have been regrettable actions on both sides, the monks have shown little regard for their neighbors. Yet if the nature of monasticism is internal in focus, walled around a community closed to the outside, how can these monks receive a message of reconciliation with their neighbors?
Fr. Basilis began by commenting on Protestantism, stating, “Your living of the Gospel is based entirely on preaching.” I interrupted, stung by his choice of pronoun, for this is a critique I share of our denomination. “Not entirely,” I offered, and perhaps he recognized the legitimacy of my qualification. It should be mentioned that as he continued he gave no indication of ill will. If he was offended by the repetition of Protestant critique, he did not show it. Instead, his manner was warm and friendly, yet intent on edification.
Protestants will criticize us, he explained, because we isolate ourselves and do not preach. Meanwhile, they express their service to God in their positions in business, education, and a host of other occupations, but in reality, neither do they preach. Even in the Protestant services one can see the emphasis on preaching – there is a lengthy sermon, a few hymns, and a couple prayers. We in the Orthodox Church have a different understanding of Gospel responsibilities. We do preach, but the sermon is only a smaller part of our mass. Most of our time spent in worship is dedicated to prayer.
As monks, this is our dedicated heritage. We do not occupy positions in society which take time away from prayer. We have forsaken family, wealth, fame, and reputation to dedicate ourselves to the kingdom of God. Our prayers support the work of the church in all other areas, including preaching. Furthermore, since we have no children to support we can offer all the proceeds from this monastery as gifts to the poor. We have a calling, as others in the church have a calling. Ours, however, is for prayer, both to God in praise, and for others, in supplication.
I thanked Fr. Basilius for these words, and acknowledged their Biblical nature. I assured him I would be pleased to convey such thoughts to my fellow Protestants. Yet what of Abu Fana, how can this message be communicated to its monks? “This is difficult,” he replied. “They will not receive this message from you,” he smiled, “a Protestant. And we in this monastery are not accepted by many in the church.” “But what of those among you who are called to preach? Who could deliver such a vision? The messenger is not as important as the message. Besides, it is the work of God to change hearts, not of man. It is men, though, that must communicate the message. But what should the message be? ”
Fr. Basilius gave pause again. This time he answered. Though brief, it encompassed all. “The first priority of Christianity, and the second, and the third, is love. Perhaps the monks of Abu Fana have neglected this.”
Time was escaping us. Though I could have spent the rest of the afternoon with him, he had details to attend to for which he had come to Cairo, neglecting his monastery. The exigencies of my upcoming stay required a bit of mundane conversation, after which we departed. The value of the encounter, however, will last, and is the best place at which to end this account. May God grant peace to the people and area of Abu Fana; may his love be communicated to all.
Happy Thanksgiving to our American friends, and Happy Eid to our Muslim ones. On Wednesday we celebrated Thanksgiving with some American friends here, which was a little weird, since we really don’t interact with foreigners much, outside of my office, which is multicultural anyway. It may also have been that though I felt ok enough to go, I wasn’t in the best of spirits as I was coming down with a touch of the flu. It hit hard that evening, and most of actual Thanksgiving I was in bed or resting.
I haven’t been keeping up with swine flu news in America, but it is a bit of a scare over here. I have no fear that I am infected with that strain, but the paranoia is so strong in the middle of my worst fits I thought I should go and get tested, only if to assure fearful friends that they can be free to have a conversation with me.
Is this rumor circulating in America? I have heard here from multiple sources that the swine flu vaccine is being distributed by the US government around the world in order to bring about population control. Since the rest of the world won’t stop having babies, the US first created the swine flu virus to wipe out great swaths of world population, and then is marketing the vaccine which in actuality will be a contraceptive. The company producing the vaccine is the same one which manufactures the government’s chemical weapons stash, or, has been brought up on charges for fraud and malpractice. The rumors all stem from certain emails which are making the rounds in Egypt, and presumably elsewhere. Has anyone seen these in the States?
In any case, since I am still taking it easy today we are unlikely to have any valuable updates on the Eid, whereas otherwise we would be sure to visit our friends and experience their holiday with them. Maybe it is for the best; if I was well then surely I would have here a video allowing you to witness the sheep slaughter, skinning, and skewering with us.
For those who don’t know, Eid al-Adha means holiday of the sacrifice, and celebrates the obedience of Abraham in sacrificing his son, universally believed to be Ishmael, though the text is ambiguous, before God spared him in the end and substituted an animal in his stead. It is the chief ritual of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and of the two mandated Muslim holidays, it is alternately called ‘The Major Holiday’, in comparison to the end of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was revealed, known as Eid al-Fitr, which means the holiday of fastbreaking, or alternately, ‘The Minor Holiday’.
Several posts going backwards mention that I spent some time in a local monastery last week. I can state briefly that it went very well and was an enjoyable experience. I have not yet written about it, however, since my reflections will also be published in our newsletter, Arab West Report, which has not yet been finalized due to the holidays. There will be two reports in time. The first will be a summary of my conversation with one of the elderly monks of the monastery when he came to Cairo on business. I met him in order to introduce myself and seek permission to stay, and a very interesting discussion followed. The second will be the formal report of my time there, which I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.
One reason my boss encouraged me to keep a blog in the first place was to help promote knowledge of our newsletter, so while both of these reports will be published there, I will be sure to provide the link needed to read them. Whereas reading the full text of our reports and translated articles usually requires a paid subscription of something like $50 to $100 per year for individuals, I will make certain, with his permission, that anything I link you to, whether or not I am the author, is free of charge.
Of course, you are invited to look around. Simply by looking at our weekly issue you can browse the news we are covering for the past seven days, though you may not be able to gain too much just from the titles and short summaries. The ‘hot news’, however, can be accessed for free, and is located in the lower central section of the home page. These are updated regularly, though not quite daily. Free subscriptions of the weekly summary collection are also available; you can search for it online or contact me and I can sign you up.
This is sounding more and more like an advertisement, which is not my intention. Yet while you can generally follow along with most of our life here via the blog, the newsletter can give greater insight into religious Egypt in general, and our broader work of which I have only a part. As with all things, you are warmly invited to learn along with us. That you keep up with us at any level, however, is received as a gift.
Our daughter Emma noticed right away. The picture is a clear inversion of the Gospel story in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Emma asked, “Why is that man washing Jesus’ feet?” and the question is valid. Presented in such a manner the lesson is clear: We are to be servants of Jesus. This is a good message, of course, but it disturbs the radicalism of the Gospel in which Jesus established the basis of leadership to be service to all, especially the lowly.
Had Emma been born in the Orthodox Church, however, she would not have noticed a dissonance. The picture represents Saint Bishoy, who was renowned for his hospitality, and this picture represents the pinnacle establishment of his holiness. One day a visitor came to him, lowly in presentation, dirty from the travel. As was his custom, St. Bishoy stooped down to wash his feet. Only in the assumption of this command of his Lord to repeat his holy practice was the visitor then revealed to be none other than Jesus himself. This manifestation demonstrated God’s favor upon St. Bishoy, and the story was recorded for all history, here preserved in a stunning icon.
Though any Egyptian Christian child would have recognized this story immediately, I am unable to differentiate St. X from St. Y, or to know how it came to be that St. George killed a dragon. The icon above is from St. George’s Monastery in Khataba, Egypt, about a two hour drive northwest from Cairo. In conjunction with a class I am taking in a Coptic Bible Institute, a story I will have to relate later, I went with my family on a day trip to visit this and a sister monastery only about fifteen minutes further on. It was a wonderful view into Coptic spirituality, which is very monastic in its formation, and we heard many stories about the various saints which populate the Coptic imagination. In each monastery the relics of such-and-such saint were preserved, and prayers were offered at each in commemoration of their life.
I am no longer as disturbed as I once was by the idea of praying to saints. This formulation, however, ‘praying to saints’ may simply be a Protestant slur to blacken the concept; surely we should pray only to God. On the other hand, it may represent the actual practice of many traditional Christians who perhaps feel that they are not worthy to approach God directly, or that a particular saint may more readily grant them favor. But as a concept: If I will not hesitate to ask my living brother to pray for the healing of my sick daughter, why should I hesitate to ask my departed brother now living in heaven? We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses watching with interest our terrestrial drama. Can their requests to God not also be marshaled on our behalf?
As I discussed these matters with my classmates—professional employees, university students, businessmen, all committed to God and his service in their church and country—each one was keen to convince me of the legitimacy of these practices. They have heard the critique of rational Western Protestantism, both from within and without Egyptian borders. They would link each practice to either the Bible or early church tradition, and I wish my Arabic was strong enough to fully understand their arguments. As I learn more, I will relate their tales, but inasmuch as these were my first lessons it was hard to grasp all their nuances. The fervency of their justifications, however, was noticed, as they sought to demonstrate they were not backwards, occultist Christians, anticipating an oft-heard criticism before I might voice it. They worship God alone; they pray to God alone. God, however, has left marks of his favor on certain of his saints.
St. Bishoy, for example, had his dead body preserved for centuries after his death as it had been the day he died, soft and supple. This story was repeated for other saints in other locales. This miraculous preservation of the corpse is a signal from God that such a person was particularly holy. In fact, St. Bishoy’s body only decayed in rebuke of a later Pope who departed from God’s favor.
We in the West have heard stories such as this, but largely assign them to the genre of pious legend. Certainly St. X and St. Y were holy people who lived God-pleasing lives. Yet after their death in preservation of their legacy the simple, pre-scientific peoples around them developed all sorts of miracle stories to idolize them. Perhaps this was innocent, perhaps it was sinister—a place of pilgrimage is generally also a place of commerce—but over the centuries the stories remained part and parcel of the saint’s history. Given that the Muslims of Egypt and elsewhere also have their celebrated miracle-working saints, it is easy for us today to dismiss these tales of ancient European and Mediterranean Christianity.
Yet the testimony of these professional, modern-educated lovers of God makes it harder to dismiss. If they were only preservers of ancient tradition, however, they could be excused for following in the credulity of their ancestors. The testimony, though, does not remain in the past.
One of my classmates spoke of the city of Damietta, on the northeastern shoreline of the Nile Delta. In that city is preserved the soft, supple body of a deceased saint from two centuries ago. The body is enclosed in glass casing, allowing the miracle to be witnessed by all. She invited us to join her family some day in the future to take a trip together to see it.
Furthermore, she spoke of her own village in southern Egypt, which was served by a noble, but uncelebrated priest. One day the priest died of natural causes and was buried in ordinary fashion. Unknown outside of the village he was simply replaced by another priest, and life continued as usual.
One day there was some reconstruction taking place in the village, and the local sewer line was disturbed. The pipes cracked and burst forth, spewing into the cemetery where the priest and many others were buried. It made quite a mess, and necessitated the transfer of the cemetery to another location. At this time, however, in unearthing the grave of the priest, buried traditionally without a coffin, his corpse emerged unchanged from the day of his internment. Soft and supple his body remained. Though not esteemed by man, God gave witness of his favor.
This story resembles the others told in history, but comes with a contemporary witness: My classmate testified she saw this take place with her own eyes.
Perhaps a journalist would probe deeper. Perhaps a sociologist would identify group hysteria. Perhaps we in the West are so terrified of these stories that we immediately seek for alternate explanation. What is the cause for our terror? Stories like this threaten our unconsciously adopted worldview of scientific rationalism. This worldview can make room for sporadic divine interventions, but generally only if there is a clear and logical purpose behind it. Stories such as these, however, make no sense to us. What purpose does God have in the rather morbid preservation of a corpse?
As I will learn the longer we live here, many Orthodox traditions have a sense of the mystical. I have begun getting introductory lessons in transubstantiation, for example. Yet no matter where we draw the line, the mystical cannot be separated from Christianity. At its core is the promise: Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is not my point to either justify or refute the miracle stories that are believed by so many. A faithful record of them, however, is necessary, for the Orthodox in Egypt are brethren in Christ, members of his body. This itself is mystery, a miracle story to be cherished.
Postscript: I am posting this reflection one day before traveling without my family to another monastery, St. Makarius, where I will reside for the next three days. One of the places of conflict I am researching is the Abu Fana monastery, in which monks are prominently involved. It was recommended to me that in due time I stay with the monks there in order to better understand the local realities. That monastery, however, due to the conflict surrounding it, has become a much politicized place, and as such is not the best introduction into monastic life. In preparation for this experience, then, I should first have a taste of a functional monastery, and St. Makarius is by reputation one of the most reputable, though most controversial, in all Egypt. This, though, is a story for another time, hopefully shortly after I return. Your prayers are requested; may they mix with the incense rising from the altar…