Bishop of hearts, rest in peace
With 68 years of service as Metropolitan of Assiut, Anba Mikhail who passed away last Sunday at 93 was the longest serving bishop in the Coptic Church. Not only his congregation, but the wide majority of Copts—and a good many Muslims in Egypt—honour him in deep love and veneration. Credited for outstanding humility and exceptional wisdom, he was widely believed to possess a remarkable spiritual stature and clairvoyance; people held him in loving reverence and awe.
“Jesus knows, Jesus knows”
Anba Mikhail was always accessible, close to his congregation. Hordes would rush to him at times of trouble and hang on his every word, looking for reassurance and some message that the Heavens will not let them down. And reassure them he did: “Jesus knows, Jesus knows,” he was often heard to say “all your suffering, troubles, and needs. He answers in His way at His right time. Throw your cares upon Him and seek first the Kingdom of Heaven…and all your needs will be answered.” The words might seem commonplace for a Christian cleric, but the strength and authority with which they were uttered assured people these were no ‘mere’ words.
Assiutis—and many outside Assiut, for that matter—can never forget how they sought words of wisdom from Anba Mikhail during the hard times Egypt underwent in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Despite his frail 90-year-old frame, Anba Mikhail radiated strength as he insisted there would be light at the end of the tunnel. As 2013 set in, he insisted it would be the “Year of the Lord”. Egyptians circulated his words with a vengeance; they could only wonder at the meaning but their hearts found peace at the thought that the Lord was so close. Come June and July that year, Egypt accomplished the near unheard-of feat of overthrowing the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime after a bare one year in office and the elimination of all democratic practice.
Copts, however, paid a hefty price for that; the Islamists took revenge on them nationwide by burning and looting some 100 churches and Coptic community centres, schools and even an orphanage, and an appalling 1000 homes, property and businesses in one day, 14 August 2013. Anba Mikhail: “Lord, we pray for peace”.
68 years as bishop
Anba Mikhail was born on 4 July 1921 to a simple Coptic family in the village of Rahmaniya in Nag Hammadi, Qena some 600km south of Cairo. He took orders in February 1939 in St Macarius Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun in the Western Desert as the monk Matthias al-Maqari, and was ordained priest in November 1939. In 1946, he was seated as Metropolitan of Assiut under the name Mikhail, and was at the same time assigned abbot of St Macarius Monastery, a post in which he served till 2009 when he resigned.
Assiut, which lies some 350km south of Cairo, is the capital city of Upper Egypt. The young Metropolitan was confronted with severe opposition by the elite, authoritarian, mostly land-owner aristocracy of Assiut. But the tide turned in his favour as he began his service; he deservedly earned the respect, love, and veneration of the very families who had at the outset of his seating refused to receive him in their homes.
His long service in Assiut bore abundant fruit as he worked untiringly to care for the congregation in the towns and villages of his parish. Among his most visible works has been the conservation and development of the convent of the Holy Virgin in the Western Mountain of Assiut, also known as Dronka. The convent is situated at the site of the cave in which the Holy Family is said to have resided during its Biblical flight into Egypt when Jesus was born. The site receives some 2.5 million pilgrims every August during the Fast of the Holy Virgin.
During Anba Mikhail’s service as Metropolitan, there occurred a series of manifestations of the Holy Virgin in 2000 and 2001 in the church of Mar-Morqos in Assiut, and again in 2006 in the church of the Archangel Michael.
Pope Tawadros presides over funeral
Anba Mikhail passed away at the Hospital of the Archangel Michael in Assiut. The Metropolitan had been suffering of bladder cancer during the last few years, but his condition took a downturn last March and he was moved to Germany for treatment. He did not improve, however, and asked to go back home to Assiut where he was bed bound ever since. The past two weeks he succumbed to Pneumonia.
Copts gave Anba Mikhail a moving farewell. To the tolling of the bells of the Archangel Michael’s thousands gathered at the church and spilled over into the courtyard and side streets to pay their last respects. Their only chant: “Lord, have mercy”.
The funeral service was held at the Archangel Michael’s at noon on Monday, presided over by Pope Tawadros II. “Anba Mikhail was the voice of the righteousness,” the Pope said. “We all learned from him. As we grieve at his departure, the voice of our Lord bids us ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest’.” The Pope recalled his meeting with Anba Mikhail who visited him once he was enthroned in November 2012. “He talked to me a lot about love; he gave me advice and promised his prayers and blessings. Indeed, I feel his blessing to me every day,” the Pope said. “His passing away after a life of loving service is no affliction; it is an occasion we should mark with joy.”
Laid to rest
Bishop-General Anba Yu’annis, whom the Pope appointed assistant to Anba Mikhail last September and has served in this capacity ever since, thanked all those who were present. He thanked Assiut governor General Ibrahim Hammad; the metropolitans and bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod; the Coptic Catholic Bishop of Assiut Anba Kyrillos William; the head of the Evangelical Church in Assiut Rev. Baqi Sadaqa; and Rev. Sameh Maurice, pastor of the Evangelical church of Qasr al-Dubara in Cairo.
“The passing away of Anba Mikhail is a huge loss that leaves us with heavy hearts,” Anba Yu’annis said.
The crowds outside the church followed the solemn ceremony on giant screens set up especially for the occasion. Many had converged on Assiut from various places in Egypt to bid the beloved bishop a last farewell.
The Pope had arrived at Assiut late on Sunday, and presided over a Requiem Mass early Monday, before the funeral service. After the service, he headed the mourners to the burial ceremony at the Convent of the Holy Virgin in the Western Mountain of Assiut. In a tomb prepared for him there, according to his will, the body of Anba Mikhail was finally laid to rest.
Anba Mikhail was always a friend and staunch supporter of Watani. We have an invaluable collection of sermons and words given by him on various occasions, and are proud to have a sketch of him which he signed especially for us. As we bid him farewell, we offer our condolences to all those who loved and will surely miss him. The comfort of his prayers and blessings will forever remain with us and sustain us through the good and hard times as well.
Reported by, Victor Salama, Basma William, Nader Shukry, Michael Victor, Mariam Rifaat
26 November 2014