The monastic community at Wadi al-Rayan in Fayoum, 150km southwest Cairo has throughout the recent weeks been embroiled in internal conflict as well as disputes with the Church and the State. These disputes escalated to the point where the Church declared the monastic community a mere gathering of men who claim to be monks but, in case of a number of them, whose vows are not recognised by the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Church issued an official statement explaining in detail the predicament of what is commonly termed the ‘monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite’ at Wadi al-Rayan.
The latest episodes in the internal conflict among the so-called monks has been a scuffle which erupted on the evening of Sunday 15 March and escalated into a fight with knives that led to two monks being moved to hospital suffering various injuries. A few days later, 12 monks fled the monastic community; some went to other monasteries and others headed to their family homes.
Splits the monastery in two?
The story goes back to last September when the Ministry of Transportation announced plans to build a new road to link the oases in the Western Desert to the Upper Egypt highway. The new road would cross the natural park of Wadi al-Rayan in Fayoum and the monastery of St Macarius, known as al-Deir al-Manhout, the Carved Monastery. The monks claimed the road would effectively divide the monastery in half, and vociferously called upon top State officials to intervene to preserve the monastery.
The man who spoke on behalf of the monks and who goes by the name of Daoud al-Rayani insisted that there were alternative routes which the road could follow; he said the monastery provided the relevant authorities with proposals of two alternative routes that are shorter and could be less costly.
The projected road passes through the national park of Wadi al-Rayan which includes within its boundary the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wadi al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales). The Wadi al-Hitan is famous for the hundreds of fossils of the earliest forms of whales.
Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Khaled Fahmy denied the monks’ allegations that the road would split the monastery in half and fragment it after it had been a single unit enclosed within a wall. “These claims are a gross exaggeration,” he said. “The monastery will not be touched; the churches, the sanctuaries, cells and guest house will remain intact. The road will cross the agricultural land adjacent to the monastery. This land belongs to the State not to the monastery, in accordance with an agreement signed between the State and the Coptic Church in 2012.”
Dr Fahmy told Watani that the decision to build a new road in Wadi al-Rayan natural park had no sectarian undertones.
“The ministry is rather worried about the environmental damage that the new road might cause,” Mr Fahmy said. “Unfortunately, though, the natural park is already highly damaged. The human activity that has been illegally ongoing in the absence of law enforcement following the Arab Spring in 2011 has taken its toll on the park. Crops that are originally cultivated in Upper Egypt and which should never have been planted in Wadi al-Rayan have caused much damage to the fragile ecosystem. Much of the wildlife has been destroyed. We have repeatedly warned of environmental degradation.”
The Minister said that the General Authority for Roads, Bridges, and Land Transport had studied other route alternatives away from the natural park; these were eventually rejected for non-compliance with engineering standards. The decision was thus made to pave the road inside the natural park despite the high financial cost due to the area’s rough terrain. “The regulations for any natural park usually include areas where human activity is allowed and others where it is banned. The first priority is public interest.”
In the wake of the Arab Spring
The St Macarius monastery in Wadi al-Rayan occupies a site that lies within a 700-feddan (1 feddan is 4200sq.m.) area of stunningly beautiful 4th-century cave cells and churches. The vast stretch of mountain was inhabited by early Christian hermits as far back as the third century and till the 12th when the hermit community dwindled and deserted the site.
In 1960 a handful of monks, among them Fr Matta al-Miskeen (1919 – 2006) who was one of the greatest figures of contemporary thought and monasticism in the Coptic Orthodox Church, went back to these caves. They remained there till 1969 when the then patriarch, Pope Kyrillos VI, ordered them to leave and go restore and develop St Macarius Monastery in the Western Desert.
The Wadi al-Rayan site was again left desolate till 1998 when another group of monks from St Macarius’s, headed by Fr Eleisha al-Maqari, headed there for a monastic revival. Their relationship with the mother Coptic Orthodox Church was rather bumpy, but their population grew; they built a church and cells, cultivated a plot of land near the caves, and set up agro-projects to live off their proceeds. This led to conflict between the monks on one side and the State and environment activists on the other. In 2011, following the security breakdown in the wake of the Arab Spring, the monks embarked on a project of building a fencing wall to protect them from the all-too-frequent attacks by local Bedouin. The Environment Ministry accused the monks of encroaching on the national park of Wadi al-Rayan and insisted no wall would be built. The conflict was resolved in 2013 by the government sanctioning the building of the wall and the Church signing a document acknowledging that the grounds enclosed within the fencing wall were government property.
The recent crisis erupted once the government announced its plan to build the road. The monks protested against the project, but the Church decided it was not harming the monastery and that it would not stand in the face of public interest.
When a construction team and equipment were dispatched by the contractor in charge of building the road to prepare the site for the project—this included pulling down the illegally-built wall—a number of monks obstructed the construction work. For the sake of retaining peace, the construction was halted. But the entire situation raised public tension and concern as it mushroomed into a virtual battle on the social media against the State that the monks claimed was oppressing them, and against the Church which the monks claimed was siding with the State.
The Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement relieving Fr Elisha al-Maqari of his duty regarding Wadi al-Rayan monastery, and declaring it will be placed under the joint supervision of Anba Abra’am, Bishop of Fayoum; Anba Macarius, Bishop-General of Minya; and Bishop-General Anba Ermiya. The Church said it stands for projects that fulfil public interest, but demands that the sacred and archaeological sites in the area should be peacefully preserved including the old churches, caves and monk cells.
Yet this did not put an end to the crisis and, when again construction began late last February, the monks obstructed the work; it was obvious they insisted on going against the State and against Church authority. Given that a person who takes orders unequivocally renounces personal will and places himself under authority of the spiritual leadership, the behaviour of the Wadi al-Rayan monks was deviant.
Contrary to the Church’s stance
On Wednesday 11 March, the spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church announced an official Church statement that said that Pope Tawadros II had convened with the committee in charge of St Macarius monastery in Wadi al-Rayan. Present were Anba Abra’am and Anba Ermiya; Anba Macarius could not attend because he was out of Egypt. Anba Raphaiel, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod attended, as did the Pope’s secretary Father Angaelos Ishaq, and Father Boulos Halim, spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The statement confirmed that the area of Wadi al-Rayan, today a natural reserve, was inhabited in the early AD centuries by monks and hermits. In modern times, a number of monks attempted to settle there over land not owned by the Church. The Church never issued official recognition of this monastic community; the term ‘monastery’ is widely used in Egypt to denote a monastic community even if not officially recognised by the Church. There are six conditions pre-required for such recognition; the ‘monastery’ in Wadi al-Rayan fulfils only one. When the State decided to build a road that would pass close to the spot the monastic community occupies, a number of ‘monks’ protested in an improper manner and obstructed the construction work. This does not represent the Church’s official stance. Fully grasping the importance of the issue, the Coptic Church six months ago formed a committee of three bishops to closely monitor and resolve the problem, relieved the monk in charge of the monastery of his duties, and announced that it disowned two among the monastic community who posed as monks. The committee made many attempts to persuade the deviant monks to revise their uncalled-for stubbornness, but to no avail.
Rife with conflict
The Church announced the monastic community in Wadi al-Rayan was not recognised by the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Church washed its hands of the problem between the monastic community and the State, and acknowledged the State’s legal right to take the matter in hand while fully respecting the archaeological and sacred site and caves, as well as the wildlife in the region. The Church strongly condemned all the violations committed, and asked the congregation not to believe the falsifications propagated or to sympathise with the protestors without officially getting back to the Church for the precise facts which the Church promised it would faithfully report. It denounced the improper demonstration by those who claimed to be monks but whose actions went against the genuine monastic behaviour based on obedience and voluntary poverty.
The statement ended by the Church declaring that it disowned six so-called monks—the statement mentioned them by name—who had led the rioting.
Following the Church’s statement, a number of monks of Wadi al-Rayan signed a petition to the Pope to assign a spiritual leader for them, insisting that the majority of the monastic community had not taken part in the action against the Church and State; this was conducted by a small number of loud-voiced monks. Later events proved them right as the internal conflict among the monastic community gained headlines and became public knowledge.
Pope Tawadros II for his part assigned the monk Fr Isidoros al-Maqari to look after the monastic community at Wadi Rayan and resolve their internal problems.
According to Fr Boulos, spokesman of the Church, there are today 124 monks at Wadi al-Rayan and 112 waiting to take their vows. Granted, he said, a portion of these wish to live monasticism as it was in the 4th century, but there are also those who were not accepted by other Church-recognised monasteries, who left their monasteries because of problems they had with their spiritual supervisors, or those who were under monastic penalty. Fr Eleisha had never taken licence from the Church leadership to accept all this number. “One of those waiting to take vows is yet a student in medical school;” Fr Boulos said, “how can he be allowed to take such a life-changing decision at this point?”
There are conditions for the Church to recognise a monastery. It should be on Church-owned land, inhabited by a monastic community—this is the only condition met by the Wadi al-Rayan monastery, and should have a Church-appointed abbot. The Holy Synod must issue the recognition in response to a report issued on the given monastery by the Church committee concerned.
The Coptic Church has offered a vision for changes to the present monastery in order to legalise its status. These changes include a wall to surround the cells, church and buildings for spiritual services, whereas the agro-projects and the water source which has yet to be provided remain outside the wall.
As to the heritage site, Fr Boulos said, the State is the authority responsible to preserve it. The Church is a custodian of the site.
“This stunning site is of priceless archaeological value. The caves above the ground indicate there are many more underground waiting to be excavated. The tips of churches buried in the sand are all we can see—for now. Much work needs to be done for this spectacular treasure of a heritage to be uncovered. This will take years to accomplish—the site stretches across a staggering 700 feddans—but it is unthinkable that we would not do it.”
This is how Loay Mahmoud, head of the Center for Coptic Studies at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, enthused about the area that is home to the cave monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite in Wadi al-Rayan. He had gone there last October, together with a group of archaeologists, Coptologists and restorers, to visit the site following news of the road to be built there, which might very well threaten the heritage site and caves. The heritage site is known to the Coptic Church but is not officially registered with the Egyptian authorities as a site of antiquity. “It is of equal importance to such monastic centres as Kelia in present-day Wadi al-Natroun in the Western Desert,” Dr Mahmoud said.
The archaeologists handed a documented report on their findings to the Minister of State for Antquities Mamdouh al-Damati for the area to be listed as a site of antiquity, which would then place it under protection of the law.
When asked how the Ministry of Antiquities could be unaware that Wadi al-Rayan monastery is a site of inestimable heritage, Dr Mahmoud replied that more than two thirds of the Coptic antiquities are not registered in the ministry. Consequently, if the area is damaged, nobody will be liable because the caves are unlisted; this is a problem facing most Coptic heritage sites in Egypt.