The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church held its fourth annual seminar, focusing on Coptic identity and heritage. The vision, spirituality and wealth of knowledge that dominated the four-day event should work as a beacon torch to be handed…
The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church had been used to holding two meetings a year to discuss Church policies and affairs and take the relevant decisions. Pope Tawadros II, however, decided to maintain the annual meeting traditionally held on Pentecost day, but that the second annual meeting would be a seminar that would focus on issues with which the Church was concerned. This seminar is held in November at the Monastery of Anba Bishoi in Wadi al-Natroun in the Western Desert, and coincides with the anniversary of the enthronement of Pope Tawadros on 18 November 2012. Anba Bishoi’s houses papal headquarters as well as the well-equipped Logos conference centre.
From 14 to 17 November 2016, the Logos Centre at Anba Bishoi’s hosted the fourth edition of the Holy Synod seminar, held under the title “The Coptic identity”. It focused on topics of Coptic architecture, Church heritage, archaeological awareness, Coptic literature, Coptic art, Coptic teaching, and the Egyptian Coptic identity. ‘Coptic’ has its origin in the Greek language and is literal for ‘Egyptian’, but has come to denote Egyptian Christians in specific since Islam became the majority religion in Egypt. Participating in the seminar were 110 Coptic Orthodox metropolitans and bishops from inside and outside Egypt.
Palm for every parish
Pope Tawadros II opened the seminar with a talk on “The Coptic Church, a history of glory”. He began with the verse in Isaiah 19: 19, which says: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border”. The Pope said that Egypt was a unique land. “As a homeland for its people, Egypt is indivisible; Egyptians have the earth as a mother and the Nile as a father. The land has embraced events that enriched world history.
“The Egyptian Church,” he said, “is one of the oldest in the world. It is built on the prophesies of Isaiah, the visit of the Holy Family, and the introduction of Christianity by St Mark in the first century. All this makes us very proud of our Coptic Church which became a staunch guardian of faith, and introduced monasticism to the world.”
The Pope stressed that the Coptic identity is part and parcel of the Egyptian identity. This brought up the issue of globalisation and the Diaspora Copts. “Our Church has now expanded into Jerusalem, Sudan, Kuwait, Canada, US, Australia, UK, and all Europe,” he said. “Migration fuses the national identity into that of the host nation; gradually the latter takes over the former, meaning that it is a challenge to retain national traits. We thus find ourselves attempting to maintain a difficult balance between shutting out all outside influence to retain our identity, and opening up absolutely and losing our identity in the process.
“For every parish outside Egypt we have planted a palm here at the Logos centre. We also invite our churches in the Diaspora to plant trees in their name here to maintain a physical tie with Egypt.”
Extension to the martyrs and saints
The Pope spoke about recent developments in Egypt that pertained to Copts and their Church. “We now have a law for the building and restoration of churches, the first national law in 160 years. The Armed Forces have kept their promise and restored the churches which the Muslim Brothers ruined in August 2013. Presidents Adly Mansour and Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi visit us on Christmas to offer their good wishes to the Coptic people. Copts are now active participants and players in political life. Foreign presidents and officials who visit Egypt insist on visiting us at St Mark’s, an indication of the weight Copts carry on the national scene. There is an increasing interest by the State in reviving the spots on the route of the Holy Family in Egypt as tourist destinations—our Church celebrates the Feast of the Coming of Christ to Egypt on 1 June every year.”
More important, Pope Tawadros said, is the vibrant, living faith of the Coptic people, which is an extension to that of the martyrs and saints. “When Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn, visited Egypt last October, he said: ‘In Egypt, I saw faith’. He visited the families of the Copts who had been beheaded by Daesh in Libya in 2015; ‘I want to kiss their feet,’ he said.”
The Church’s work is based on creating a distinguished Christian person. We care for education as in Sunday School and visiting the needy. “Men and women are equal, ” he said, “on our visit to foreign countries as in the case of Russia in 2014 and Ethiopia in 2015, our delegation included the abbesses of convents in Egypt. We encourage Copts to integrate well in the community and to shoulder their social and public responsibility. We also do that through establishing schools and hospitals.”
The Pope’s words ended with a call to preserve the Coptic identity in its local and global dimensions, as well as in its engrained spirituality.
The days following witnessed morning and evening lectures. Bishop of Menoufiya, Anba Benyamin, talked about Church heritage which, he said, drew from sources of the Holy Bible and the teachings of the Apostles and Church fathers, as well as spiritual theology, comparative creeds, and heritage.
Dr Atef Naguib gave a lecture on archaeological awareness. He explained about antiquities, and expounded on the manner in which Copts regarded and preserved the heritage left them by their forefathers. He talked about the Coptic Museum, founded in 1908 by Markus Simaika, and how it expressed and documented the Egyptian Christian identity as an indispensible component of the Egyptian character and nation. In this age of globalisation and opening to the outside world, Dr Naguib said, heritage is the surest way to guard and retain our identity. He stressed the importance of societies and associations that work to spread heritage awareness through publishing books, holding seminars, and promoting church teaching.
Coptic language and literature and how they pertain to the Coptic identity constituted the topic tackled by Father Basilius Sobhy, deputy to the head of the Clerical College in Cairo. He talked of the role of the Coptic Church in preserving the Coptic language and in translating the Bible into Coptic, as well as the decline of the language throughout the centuries that followed the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. He defined Coptic literature according to its chronological and qualitative features throughout the centuries before and after the Arab conquest.
Dr Gamal Lamei tackled the topic of Coptic art and crafts that cover a wide range of products including painting, glass, pottery, metalwork, woodwork, mosaic, textiles, and others. He complained that modern times and mechanised industry have all but rendered handmade arts and crafts extinct, and envisioned the establishment of a cultural centre to revive them. Dr Lamei said that such a centre would encourage the manufacture of handmade products to serve as daily-life commodities. He gave as an example the rugs and ceramic products produced by the peasants of Harraniya centre in Giza, which was established by Ramses Wissa Wassef in the 1950s; the tablecloths, napkins, and shawls produced in Akhmim; the household wooden products of Hegaza; as well as others. The centre, he said, would help market such products inside and outside Egypt.
Anba Thomas, Bishop of al-Qoussiya, talked of the Coptic Egyptian identity. He said that religion, theology, rituals and rites, Church tradition, spiritual heritage, literary and folk heritage, culture and norms all contribute to define the features of that identity.
The final lecture was given by Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod, and focused on the features of Coptic Orthodox Church teaching. He said that traditional teaching is now faced with the challenges of modern technology and communication, modern-day variables that have broken away from age-old constants such as respect for the old, and the spread of the Church outside Egypt and consequent presence of entire younger congregations that do not speak Arabic. “The challenge is to address modern-day variables and needs, and at the same time preserve our time honoured identity. It is not impossible,” he said, “other Churches such as the Armenian, Indian, and Russian Churches have done it.”
Anba Raphail talked of the ongoing theological dialogue and attempts at unity among the Churches in the world. He said this means we should know ourselves first. The Coptic Church, he said, constituted since the first AD centuries a beacon of wisdom that drew from the knowledge of the famous School of Alexandria scholars, the staunch faith of the martyrs, the glorious monastic tradition, and the spontaneous faith rooted in the soul of the people of Egypt. Today, he said, our teaching is based on that accumulated wisdom and, primarily, the Bible and the person of Christ the Lord, Godly manifestations, Liturgical teachings and the Patristics, the Creed, the Eucharist, the Cross and the Resurrection.
The final day of the seminar, the eve of the fourth anniversary of the enthronement of Pope Tawadros, a Mass of Thanksgiving was held at the Church of the Transfiguration in the Logos Centre. The Pope presided and delivered the sermon in which he talked of pastoral service the two poles of which, he said, were the pastor and the congregation. They all learn from one another, he said. The pastor should learn in a spirit of humbleness, and should also teach in the same spirit, so there will always be a future generation ready to take over. “We stand before the Lord and draw on His power at the altar as we pray in Holy Mass and say: ‘From generation unto generation…’.” Amen.
23 November 2016