Anba Raphael, Bishop-General of Cairo Downtown Churches, is in Melbourne, Australia, on a visit that began Friday 7 December and runs till Sunday 16 December. Anba Raphael has been delegated by Pope Tawadros II to Melbourne, assigned with looking into matters and reporting back to him on conditions in the diocese following the surprise resignation of its Bishop, Anba Suriel, last November.
Pope Tawadros had told the media in Cairo that the Coptic Church has set a time frame during which the Melbourne predicament should be resolved. There would be efforts, he said, to persuade Anba Suriel to go back on his resignation. In case such efforts bear no fruit, he said, the Church should choose from among its bishops a spiritual supervisor to oversee the affairs and services of the Melbourne diocese.
Meeting clergy and congregation
Anba Raphail started his visit by celebrating Holy Mass at the church of St Bishoy. He celebrated more than once the all-night-long Kiahk Praise that concludes with early morning Mass at other churches, and has been busy meeting Coptic Orthodox clergy and congregation in Melbourne churches. At the outset, he assured them that he has met Anba Suriel who is fine and in good health, and that he would pass all their queries or remarks to the Pope back in Cairo. He already met the congregations of the churches of St Mark and St George, and has met the clergy council of Melbourne Monday 10 December at the church of St Athanasius.
Anba Raphael is meeting congregations at the churches of Archangel Michael, St Paul, St Athanasius, St Mary, and St Mina and St Marina, every evening till next Saturday 15 December. A meeting will be held with the Coptic youth of Melbourne at the church of St John the Evangelist on Wednesday.
The Coptic community in Melbourne, in fact the Coptic Orthodox community at large, was severely shocked on Monday 5 November at news of the resignation of Bishop of Melbourne, Anba Suriel.
The Bishop posted his resignation online, “in public, for all to see”, citing his history and remarkable work throughout 28 years of loving service in Melbourne, but saying that recent years were marred by “divisions and hate-filled actions”.
Anba Suriel asked the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod to “prayerfully elect another” in his place. He nominated the current Vicar, Father Girgis al-Antony as the best candidate to “shepherd the flock” after him. Anba Suriel concluded his resignation by citing his wish to spend the rest of his days in desert-life solitude, stressing that his decision to resign is final, has long been considered, and will not change.
The resignation prompted a massive, agonised response from the Melbourne congregation. The majority found it hard to grasp and demanded of Anba Suriel to go back on his decision. The clergy of Melbourne and the Australian Coptic movement both issued statements expressing deep sadness at the Bishop’s resignation, and calling on him to stay on. The Coptic movement asked the Church leadership not to accept the resignation, in view of the immense work Anba Suriel had achieved for the Church.
Agony and pressure
The bishops of Australia responded to the surprise resignation of Anba Suriel, with a statement posted on 5 November on the Facebook page of Anba Daniel, Bishop and Abbot of St Shenouda Monastery in Sydney. Anba Daniel spoke for himself and on behalf of Anba Danieel, Bishop of Sydney, who was then overseas.
The statement addressed Anba Suriel in warm, sympathetic words, expressing shock at his resignation and saying the bishops had had no idea of his suffering or the pressure he was under. They said they were concerned for his well-being, peace, and health, and were praying for him.
The statement advised the congregation to pray and fast, for only through prayer and fasting could such issues be resolved, it said.
A week following Anba Suriel’s resignation, the Coptic clergy of Melbourne issued a statement informing the congregation that Pope Tawadros II had appointed a committee of Melbourne priests to liaise with him in running the affairs of the diocese. The statement cited the names of the eight priests who are members of the committee, and reassured the congregation that all services and activities would run as usual “in the spirit of oneness and love”. It urged to avoid rumours and speculation, and stressed that the clergy were committed to honesty and transparency.
Worth noting is that Anba Suriel closed is Facebook page a few days after he resigned. He posted a good bye message saying there was no longer a need for the page, and that he would be shutting it down by the end of the day. He thanked those who had sent him “warm messages full of love”, and also those who sent negative messages. Saturday 8 December, however, Anba Suriel was back on Facebook with a message titled “Are they servants of Christ?” which focused on 2 Corinthians 22 – 28:
“Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.”
Anba Suriel was consecrated and seated as Bishop of Melbourne in 1990 at the hands of Pope Shenouda III. The parish was then 10-churches and 12-priests large; today it includes 26 churches shepherded by 41 priests. Bishop Suriel
established Coptic schools, the world’s first Coptic accredited theological college, a hospital and a home for the elderly, to say nothing of the numerous churches and monasteries, as well as Eporo Tower in the heart of Melbourne, which acts as a Coptic cultural centre and campus for St Athanasius College.
10 December 2018