Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A New Holy Family Site and the Development of Coptic Tradition

Gebl al-Tayr
Gebl al-Tayr, overlooking the Nile River

From my new article at Arab West Report:

The Holy Family came to Egypt, says the Biblical text. But it is silent on what they did once there. Coptic Orthodox tradition has filled in the details… And now they have one detail more.

The article describes our visit to Gebl al-Tayr, or Mountain of the Bird, which is a Holy Family site recognized by Coptic tradition. The article explores some of this history, which includes an alleged reference to Empress Helena, mother of Constantine.

If some of these details strike the reader as legendary, it must also be remarked that the existence of many Holy Family sites is mentioned in the writings of antiquity. As Egypt became majority Christian prior to the arrival of Islam, these became locations of renown. This does not provide historical confirmation of the Holy Family itinerary, but it does testify to very early narratives upon which ancient churches were naturally constructed.

But other sites are much less certain. Coptic tradition designates the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, who presided from 384-412 AD, as source for many locations, which he was believed to have received in a vision from the Virgin Mary. Without impugning the character of clergy or church historians, it is not difficult to imagine the benefit – spiritual or commercial – that a diocese would draw from connection to the ancient tradition. In any case, in Be Thou There, Dr. Stephen Davis chronicles the numerical increase of Holy Family Sites from the fourth century onward.

The article then describes a modern example of this phenomena, in the duelings Asyut monasteries at Deir al-Muharraq and Durunka. But then it returns to Gebal al-Tayr:

Gebl al-Tayr Stairs
The 166 step ascent from the river below

Though this location is part of the ancient Holy Family tradition, on this visit Hulsman noticed an oddity. Approximately 500 meters down the road from the Church of the Holy Virgin, now semi-accessible from above for modern transportation, is excavation work at another part of the mountain.

A Muslim policeman-turned-impromptu-tour guide proudly described it as a recent discovery, understood to be the lodging of the Holy Family upon their return from Upper Egypt. Work had been underway for the last year, he said. Hulsman, a frequent visitor to the area, had neither heard nor seen of this before.

After a simple stairwell decline of around ten meters from the mountain plateau there is a gradual descent into the mouth of what opens into a long, narrow cave. Inside has the beginnings of a rudimentary altar along with icons and candles, and already there is the graffiti of visiting pilgrims. Outside a new church building has been established.

Hulsman remarked that the identification of a cave with the Holy Family fits within longstanding Coptic themes. Being so close to the ancient church, it would be natural for ecclesiastic authorities to imagine Jesus taking refuge there, as tradition indicates he did in caves throughout Egypt.

Walking back to the main site, a local priest standing with villagers stated the discovery was made around five years ago, and that Bishop Paphnotius of Samalut had done the investigations and research to ascertain its antiquity.

Gebl al-Tayr Cave
The new cave, recently discovered and renovated
Gebl al-Tayr Graffiti
Inside there is now an altar, icons, and modern graffiti
The article next moves to describe the modern miracle tradition at the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi, itself a Holy Family site where a Bible is said to have floated down the river and rested at its Nile descent.
It also introduces the character of Dr. Otto Meinardus, a theologian-scholar who once told Hulsman a fascinating anecdote directly related to the topic:

Perhaps in the end it does not matter to local believers. In personal discussions, Hulsman said, Meinardus would use the term ‘pious fraud’ to describe the legendary in Coptic history. In his writings he was more careful to avoid offending church hierarchy, but imagined the process like this.

Somewhere at some time a bishop’s sermon employed an illustration drawn from history, creatively illustrating a Biblical moral. Once popularized, it lodged into local consciousness and became commemorated.

But beyond imagining, Meinardus was also a one-time practitioner. He was the first to narrate the story of St. Bishoy carrying Jesus disguised as an elderly pilgrim up a mountain, only afterwards to enjoy his epiphany.

The story first appeared in his 1961 book, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert,  published in Egypt with AUC Press. All texts and icons of this event post-date his book, Hulsman said, and can be seen across Egypt including at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. According to Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma, the story was not known to the monks of Egypt until they read it in Meinardus’ book, wrote Paul Perry in Jesus in Egypt.

Perry also quotes Meinardus, saying, “That’s how tradition is, Once a story leaves someone’s mouth, it spreads like wildfire.” Though not recorded in the book he told Perry and Hulsman, “Many stories are based on dreams. Why should I not also have dreams?”

The article concludes with a story from Hulsman’s own history, how a heroic uncle morphed in memory into a family saint. Tying all the themes together, it ends with a necessary reflection:

Therefore, let the reader consider the real-time development of tradition in Jabl al-Tayr. For half a century later in Asyut, the church recognizes officially the Monastery of Muharraq as a Holy Family site, while Durunka remains disputed. Even so the latter continues to attract the faithful and is an ever-expanding site of pilgrimage. But more is at stake than simple religious commerce. Only a few verses earlier in the same chapter celebrated in Maadi, Isaiah prophesies there will one day be an altar to the Lord in the middle of Egypt. Asyut roughly qualifies, and only 70 kilometers separate the two sites. Where is the epicenter of God’s promised blessing?

Perhaps to God the details are not important. But to man, the interactions of God in human history are worthy of record. And now in Egypt, there is one more.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.


Ostrich Eggs and Coptic Easter

On Easter in much of the Christian world, believers celebrate Jesus’ resurrection by painting chicken eggs in various colors. The tradition is old and has been extensively secularized, enjoyed now without a necessary reference to faith.

In Egypt it is the same; one day after Easter is Shem al-Naseem, an ancient Pharaonic holiday enjoyed by both Muslims and Christians. Both enjoy painting eggs and other traditions that are not as common in the West, such as eating near-raw, salty fish. It is good not everything translates across cultures.

But imagine the artistry – or, envisioning children, the mess – if an ostrich egg was used instead. A bigger canvas invites more elaborate design, as seen in this egg hung from a church in the Monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi Natroun.

Bishoy Ostrich Egg

St. Bishoy is the one pictured, washing the feet of Jesus according to one of the Coptic traditions. It is hung today in front of the altar as a reminder of God. This is common in many Coptic churches and meshes with other Egyptian traditions carried over into the Christian era.

Four ostrich eggs hung from the church in St. Makarios Monastery in Wadi Natroun.
Four ostrich eggs hung from the church in St. Makarios Monastery in Wadi Natroun.

In ancient Egyptian mythology the ostrich had an association with Amenti, the jackal-headed goddess of the dead. The egg in many cultures symbolizes easily the emergence of life from death, and the Coptic church took it as a pointer toward resurrection. Additionally the ostrich was believed to hatch her eggs through intense staring and concentration, a fitting description of the spiritual life and the attitude of worship recommended at mass.

So if you paint your eggs this Easter, wherever you are, cherish your own traditions, marvel at others, and remember how much we share without even knowing it.

The opening picture and much research for this post are received with thanks to Viveka Anderton.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Military Activity at Egyptian Monasteries – Part Three

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.

Media Critique

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 ‘Egyptian Armed 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.

Compass Direct

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.


Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Military Activity at Egyptian Monasteries – Part Two

Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Egypt
Image via Wikipedia

For Part One, which outlines the story in its broad strokes, please click here.

Contextual Information

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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] Interestingly, this strategy is employed equally by Muslims and Christians,[4] though Christians are usually in greater recourse since permits for mosques face fewer restrictions.

Documented Examples

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,[5] and the case of the Abu Fana Monastery in Upper Egypt demonstrates how some monks also may seek the expansion of their grounds.[6] This next section, however, will focus on two examples: first, the Monastery of St. Anthony,[7] described above, and second, the Patmos Monastery, established by Bishop Butrus.[8]

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.[9] 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.

Army Conduct

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.[10]

Two, reflective of the above, Christians have been slow to embrace the revolution. The diplomat believed that in all only three bishops[11] 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.[12] 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[13] 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.

[1] For further reading on the general atmosphere and the crime described, see AWR 2011, week 5, article 6.

[2] 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.

[9] References for the information which follows can be found in AWR 1999, week 7, article 15, AWR 2005, week 23, article 43, and AWR 2005, week 21, article 47.

[11] 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.

[12] 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.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Military Activity at Egyptian Monasteries: Aggression or Necessary Action?

Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Egypt
Image via Wikipedia

On January 29, following four days of massive popular demonstrations[1] and the withdrawal of police personnel throughout the country, the military has been deployed on Egyptian soil, keeping the peace and maintaining neutrality during the political crisis. On February 11, following the resignation of President Mubarak, the military command assumed authority to govern the country through a transitional period of political reform toward democratic rule. The conduct of the military has been widely praised in Egypt, and from their initial deployment the demonstrators chanted ‘the people and the army are one hand!’ Politics and governance, however, do not come naturally to the military, and within the past few weeks their conduct, including that in regard to Christians, has come under question.

Beginning on February 23 the military undertook a series of operations to demolish recently constructed walls at three Coptic Orthodox monasteries in three separate locations. This action resulted in a number of Christian injuries and widespread outcry in the Coptic community, both in Egypt and abroad. As with many events that concern religious affairs in Egypt, the accounts are diverse and context is necessary to properly understand what has taken place.

This report will describe the incidents at the monasteries, explore the background events which shed light on the actions of the principles, and critique the reporting of certain agencies which brought the events to public knowledge. It will rely on firsthand testimony of eyewitnesses, details as reported in the press, YouTube footage of the operation, the understanding of expatriate Copts,[2] and previous reporting of Arab West Report. It will seek to demonstrate that fault is shared among all parties, but that each faced substantial difficulties which help make their conduct understandable, though not excusable. Final judgment on motivations, however, is not possible outside the inner workings of each person’s heart.

The Unfolding of Events

The three monasteries in question are St. Bishoy in Wadi al-Natrun, 120 km northwest of Cairo, St. Macarius the Alexandrian in Wadi al-Rayyan near Fayyum, 100 km southwest of Cairo, and St. Paul along the mountainous coast of the Red Sea. Events are best documented for the Monastery of St. Bishoy, and as such, this account will serve as a template for the understanding the three incidents as a whole. Each incident is unique, however, and known details will be integrated into this text.

The General Story

Following the withdrawal of police forces throughout Egypt, a period of lawlessness ensued with widespread rioting and the empting of several state prisons. Accounts differ as to whether prisoners took advantage of the situation and escaped, criminal, Islamist, or Bedouin elements attacked and freed prisoners among their constituency, or government-aligned forces allowed the evacuation of the prisons in order to spread chaos in society and develop antipathy toward the demonstrators. In any event, the violence that followed spread fear throughout the country, including the distant and generally isolated monasteries in question.

In what could be understood as a natural reaction to this fear, the monasteries began to build security walls in defense. Yet these monasteries already have walls around their territories, though not protective of all their lands. Additionally, these new walls were not built on monastery land, but on state land owned by the government.[3] This prompted the military to act, issuing an ultimatum for the walls to be demolished. When the monasteries failed to adhere to the directive, the military conducted the operation itself.

Monks and Coptic Egyptian workers, however, did not stand idly by. Their resistance and protest, though passive, was met by the use of ammunition. The army discharged several rounds into the air, seeking to clear the area in order to begin demolition. Rounds were both of the live and rubber bullet variety, and some struck the Christians in question, causing injury. Eventually military control was established, and bulldozers dismantled the walls.

The YouTube Footage

The account above has been written with an attempt to sanitize the information, so as to provide general facts without controversial commentary. Of course, such presentation itself may lead to controversy, as supporters of either the military or the monasteries may protest at the failure to judge misconduct on either side. Though this will be dealt with later in the text, pro-Coptic reporting and sentiment may be seen through links provided in the footnote below.[4]

These videos were filmed at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. Though some editing is obvious, and necessary, the following YouTube links offer a window to witness the events as they unfolded. Each will be accompanied by a running commentary in the text.

Video One

The video begins with a monk standing between a soldier and a monastery worker in an effort to prevent the soldier from hitting the worker. The reason for his anger is not clear. Five armored personnel carriers are seen with armed soldiers as well as a group of soldiers discussing with a group of Christians, including the monk described above. Meanwhile an officer is seen giving the armored cars instructions to move into position. At 1:16 shooting starts. It appears that officers had given Christians instructions to leave the area which they probably refused to do. The situation becomes chaotic. A number of Christians start running away while others remain. At 2:20 one sees the building material and the newly constructed gate. A man comes from the gate to the cameraman, carrying a wounded young man, apparently hit by a bullet. At 2:28 a civilian sits on the ground as two soldiers with batons stand beside him. A few seconds later, one of the soldiers beats him with his baton. At 3:00 a tank is seen demolishing a wall. At 3:20 a soldier (or officer?) with a gun, sitting on top of a tank, gives instructions to soldiers on the ground.  Shooting has been continuous since it started. At 4:20 the military armored car runs into the metal gate. Copts realize that the gate will be destroyed and start chanting ‘Kyrie Eleison’, translated ‘Lord have mercy’. For a moment there is no shooting, but there is no indication this was because of the chanting. At 4:50 two armored vehicles hit the two concrete pillars of the gate. The chanting stops. At 4:58 a shout is heard, probably a soldier or officer, saying ‘Tahya Masr’, translated ‘Long live Egypt!’ At 5:26 soldiers are seen damaging the nameplate of the monastery, and later the chanting of Kyrie Eleison is heard again. The film shows vehicles and soldiers near the destroyed objects but the soldiers do not progress forward. It seems their task of destroying walls and the gate was accomplished. At 6:40 a soldier is seen cutting at a tree. The producer of the film narrates that the army even cuts trees, but this does not appear to be a fair comment.  If one watches carefully the solder is cutting barbed wire which had been nailed to this tree. At 7:07 the sign with the name of the monastery is shown, riddled with bullet holes. A priest shows empty bullet casings, a clear proof that the army had been shooting. Other priests show additional empty bullet casings and say these must be collected as proof. At 7:40 there is depicted a young man who points to a wound in his belly. At the conclusion the army moves out.

Video Two

This video opens with a red Toyota, the shooting of guns, and at a distance of perhaps a hundred meters a view of the wall and gate built near a line of trees. During the shooting a priest walks calmly across the street, apparently unafraid of the shooting as it was not directed towards him or the cameraman. At 0:28 two civilians, one apparently wounded, come running from the wall that is being destroyed. A military armored car moves toward the wall. At 0:48 a young man throws stones at the soldiers but he is much too far away to hit anyone. At 1:06 a man comes from the gate to the cameraman, carrying a wounded monastery worker, apparently hit by a bullet. Shooting continues to be heard until 1:23, with images of young civilian men, some throwing stones. At 1:28 while the wall is being torn down an older monk approaches the young men and instructs them to leave. The language he uses indicates he did not want them to be there. They do not leave, but instead argue with the priest. Shots are heard sporadically, but gunfire is no longer constant as it was earlier. Soldiers on foot destroy to wall with ease, revealing it to have been built rapidly and with poor quality. At 2:03 a young man, probably wounded, walks towards the camera crying as soldiers destroy the wall. At 2:30 a young monk is videoed filming the soldiers. At 2:55 there is more stone throwing from a distance. At 3:21 gunshots are heard again, perhaps because some young men had come too close to the soldiers. No one, however, runs from the location of gunfire. At 4:00 and afterwards a military vehicle destroys a wall close to the gate, as some watch on, others throw stones, but no one is running away. At 7:20 a car is heard honking, drives in the direction of the gate, and receives a bleeding young man carried by others. At 8:20 the door of the gate is forced open by soldiers, and a few seconds later much shooting is heard. The film ends with a quotation from the Gospel, in which Jesus tells his followers, ‘In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.’


This footage accompanied several reports which decried the conduct of the army. Some of these reports will be analyzed more closely later in the text. Certainly the incident involved violence, which has not been characteristic of military behavior since they assumed responsibility for the country. Why then did it occur now? How should this be interpreted? These questions will be addressed as the text continues, but for now, a few observations are necessary:

  • The wall destroyed was a recent construction, and the scope of military action did not move beyond its demolition, certainly not to the monastery proper, which is never in view.
  • While gunfire was frequent, it appears to be localized at the point of demolition. From here young men are seen to be running, while elsewhere they stand around undisturbed.
  • Some people were certainly injured in the altercation, and at least one person was beaten.
  • Monks appeared to be working to prevent clashes between soldiers and workers.


Other Information Unique to Each Monastery

The Monastery of St. Bishoy

Information provided on the Monastery of St. Bishoy is primarily gained from Fr. Timon al-Suriyani,[5] a monk in residence. It is supplemented by reports from Fr. Basilius,[6] a monk from the nearby Monastery of St. Macarius, also located in Wadi al-Natrun. Hani Labib, managing director of the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translations, provided further investigations. The text also relies on public statements issued by the monastery[7] and the armed forces,[8] putting forth their version of events.

According to the monastery statement, the wall in question was constructed following the withdrawal of police, and after an official request to the military for protection. When the military responded, ‘Protect yourselves!’ the monastery proceeded to build the wall on land previously sought for purchase from the state. This construction proceeded within sight and hearing of local military personnel.

When the army arrived to demolish the wall, monks and workers ‘emerged to see what was happening to their monastery’. They were met by seven armored vehicles, military police vehicles, and at least 150 soldiers who fired ‘an enormous quantity of ammunition, live, blanks, and rubber, and two RPG projectiles used for military training’. This resulted in one monk being injured, and four workers sustaining ‘penetrative injuries, including shots and gashes’. Among these four ‘one had his spleen removed and another his right kidney, which had three shots in it’. Two monks and three workers were arrested, following an incident in which ‘the monks were treated with the utmost violence, insults, and bad language’.

The monastery statement also makes it clear it believes this action to be untypical ‘of the mannerisms of the valiant armed forces responsible for protecting the nation’, and therefore appeals

to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is responsible for the safety of all Egyptians, to investigate this insulting crime that does not fit with the honor of the Egyptian military, which we trust to the utmost and support completely. The monastery asks the honorable council to speedily release the monks and other persons still detained with them.

These were set free after a few days.

Fr. Timon adds a few more details to the narrative. The new walls (plural) were constructed on two sides of the monastery, ½ km out from the existing walls. The first week of February the army came to investigate, and they returned a week later to request the walls be torn down, since, they said, the police would soon return to provide protection. The monastery did not comply. Then, on February 19 at 10am, the army returned and began demolishing walls without negotiation. They followed this up on February 23,[9] the day in question, with seven armored vehicles and at least 50 soldiers. After about 90 minutes the walls and gate were leveled, and seven monks and workers were injured in the altercation.

According to some reports, the soldiers were said to have shouted ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and ‘Victory!’ as they fired their rounds and destroyed the wall. They quoted Fr. Hemanot Ava Bishoy, who stated, ‘The army was shocked to see the monks standing there praying, ‘Lord have mercy’ without running away. This is what really upset them.’ Fr. Timon[10] refutes this accusation, having seen no shock from soldiers at the monks’ prayer, nor heard any utter such cries. He also adds details to the accounts of the injured. The two youths critically injured (one was a worker, and the other a monastery visitor) while they rushed to the walls following the ringing of the church bells by the monks. One monk was running (not stated why), and then fell and broke his leg. Another monk received a superficial wound from a rubber bullet, and two others were detained in the hospital due to a herniated disc condition and high blood pressure.

Fr. Basilius adds the confirmation that the wall was built upon state land, but also a significant detail: The monks and workers made a human shield in defense of the wall. The activities of the monastery were later described as ‘unwise’ by Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Following the outcry, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces put out an official statement in which they declared they undertook no aggression against the monastery and that their action was limited to the demolition of ‘a number of walls that were built on the road and on state-owned land without legal justification’. Furthermore they stated they had ‘absolutely no intention to demolish the monastery, out of our belief in the freedom and sanctity of Egyptians’ places of worship’.

Final investigations by Hani Labib revealed that though the monastery stated it has previously sought to purchase the land in question, some sources say since as long ago as 1992, there is no documentation to prove this claim. He also discovered that the public prosecutor, Abd al-Majid Mahmud, transferred the case to the military judiciary.

The Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian

Information gained from the military operation against the newly constructed wall at the Monastery of St. Macarius the Alexandrian is taken primarily from the report of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA). In a first article they related the incident at St. Bishoy, and referenced that the army had also visited St. Macarius the Alexandrian, in reference to their wall. This was built due to the attacks of thugs and Bedouins following the withdrawal of police forces, resulting in the injury of six monks. At that time the monastery was given the 48 hour ultimatum to demolish their wall. In a second article they describe the incident itself, when the army returned, demolished the wall, but in addition destroyed a room of the actual monastery and confiscated building materials.[11] During the operation one monk was shot and ten suffered injury while beaten by batons.

While we were not able to obtain other sources to verify, supplement, or contradict this account, there is highly relevant contextual background information which will be described later.

The Monastery of St. Paul

Information provided about the Monastery of St. Paul is gained from reporting by the agencies whose links have been noted above, but also from a German Coptic engineer[12] (who prefers not to be mentioned by name) who relates the news story as received from Free Christian Radio. Contextual background information was received by a visit to the monastery by Cornelis Hulsman on January 30, before the military operation, and will be described later.

Following the withdrawal of police forces, a catering car on its way to the monastery was stopped by escaped prisoners. While one person was killed, the second was able to escape and make his way into the monastery. Upon receiving news, the monks responded to this threat by constructing a wall and posting at the gate two or three monks with cell phones.

According to the engineer’s testimony, recalling the radio report, the army arrived later and stayed one week at the guesthouse of the monastery. The general himself stayed in the residence of the bishop. While undertaking the demolition of the wall, the army then bound the hands of the monks on guard, make them to lie face down, and then left them in this position while they left. One of these monks had been ill, and did not survive the ordeal.

Thereafter, the engineer was able to speak directly with Fr. Ya‘qūb, a monk from the Monastery of St. Paul, who was visiting Germany. The monk confirmed the story as the engineer recalled from the radio report, except for the detail of the monk dying. He also related that after demolishing the wall, the army recognized the legitimacy for the monastery to have a control gate, which they then allowed to be built in the same location.[13]

We were not able to obtain other sources to verify, supplement, or contradict this account.

note: Part Two to this report, describing contextual information to these incidents, will be posted next.

[1] Demonstrations began on Police Day, January 25, continued the next two days, and then greatly increased in number on Friday, January 28, as Egyptians exited their mosques, proceeded toward Tahrir Square and centers of town in many other Egyptian cities.

[2] As will be seen within the report, expatriate Copts often find their Egypt-based colleagues to downplay the severity of sectarian events. Conversely, many domestic Copts believe that their colleagues in the West exaggerate their claims. This report recognizes the legitimacy of their diverse opinions, but will weight most strongly the sources which are closer to the events in question, and therefore, within Egypt. This draft text has been seen by Dr. Mourad Lotfih in Germany. He his comments have proved valuable but where they conflicted with local Coptic witnesses we favored the opinions of local sources.

[3] Some suggest that the new walls were built partially on monastery land and partially on state land. While possible, no sources close to the event have been found in our investigation to substantiate this claim.

[5] His testimony is published in AWR 2011, week 8, article 17.

[6] His testimony was obtained through email correspondence with Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of AWR, February 28, 2011. Hulsman and Fr. Basilius are long time personal friends. As a consequence Fr. Basilius has been willing to comment on issues for AWR, and he has always proven to be very reliable.

[9] The timeline of military visits does not match their pattern of issuing an ultimatum and then returning to accomplish the job in one setting. While there is no necessary reason to doubt the accuracy of the dates provided by Fr. Timon, we were unable to reach him again to confirm these details.

[10] Information gained through phone call of Hani Labib with Fr. Timon, February 23, 2011.

[11] The actual monastery is built on the location where Father Matta al-Miskeen stayed with his first followers in the 1950s. Father Alisha started building here in the second half of the 1990s.

[12] Testimony gained through telephone calls and email correspondence with Cornelis Hulsman.

[13] According to email correspondence with Cornelis Hulsman, March 8, 2011.


Miracle Stories

Can you notice what is ‘wrong’ with this picture?

egypt oct09 130 

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.

egypt oct09 146

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.

egypt oct09 138

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.

egypt oct09 137

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…

egypt oct09 153