Faithful to Egypt
History will recall that the papacy of Pope Tawadros II, which began in November 2012, has marked a phase where the Coptic Church proved beyond doubt her time honoured faithfulness to the homeland. That period was an especially stormy one during which Egypt battled—and in July 2013 vanquished—the post-Arab Spring Islamist hegemony. The Copts came in for more than their fair share of Islamist viciousness, since the Islamists realised that assaulting the Copts would be an excellent ploy to pit Egypt’s Copts against her Muslims and secure a schism in the Egyptian society which might very well lead to civil war. But the Copts and their Church were not taken in, even when some 100 churches and Coptic-owned institutions were burned and looted on 14 August 2013 by the Islamists in retaliation for the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013. Pope Tawadros’s comment then: “If we have to offer our churches and homes as a sacrifice for Egypt, we will willingly do so.” This and similar stances firmly confirmed the lasting Egyptianness of the Coptic Church.
Today I tackle a case which, even if not related to Coptic oppression, placed the Church in the position where it had to choose whether to stand by the broad interest of the Egyptian people or the narrower benefits of a monastic community. The monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite is a monastic community which occupies a spot that lies within the natural reserve of Wadi al-Rayan in Fayoum, some 150km southwest Cairo. A dispute erupted between the monks and the State last year, then once again a few weeks ago, and gained dramatic proportions by virtue of the Coptic element in the issue. Who would not fume in rage on learning that the government was planning to build a highway that would, according to the monks, “split the monastery in two”? Who would not unreservedly endorse the monks in their plight to defend their monastery? And finally who, upon hearing that the monks intended to lie down before the bulldozers to prevent the building of the road, would not strongly sympathise with them?
Our policy in Watani is to closely investigate allegations and get to the bottom of the matter before printing or posting potentially inflammatory material. In the case of the Wadi al-Rayan monastery, we found that the truth was not as alleged by the monks; the intended road would not cross through the monastery or trespass against its sanctity. We discovered that the monks, who had populated the place only since 1998, were fighting not to defend their quarters or the land they were using for agro-projects but to stop the intended demolition of a fencing wall they had illegally built in 2011 on State-owned land, and which today stands in the way of the road project. We were thus convinced that the matter did not warrant the working up of public wrath and protest. Quite the contrary, State officials explicitly said they would not hurt the monastery, its property, or the monks.
Last October we posted the facts on our online wataninet and printed them in the paper in Arabic and English. We reassured our readers that the monastery was safe and the government had pledged to take no action except in agreement with the Church and upon its approval. Officials stressed their concern for the safety of the monastery and monks, as well as for the archaeological worth of the area—the present-day monastic community occupies a site that lies within a 700-feddan (1 feddan is 4200sq.m.) area of stunningly beautiful 4th-century cave cells and churches. But this did not bring about peace, and it became obvious there was some hidden force whether in the media or among the monks that was working to fuel the conflict between the monastery, Church and State. A few weeks ago, 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, however, obstructed the construction work which, for the sake of retaining peace, was then 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. Everyone awaited some official declaration by the Church on the matter. There were conflicting speculations and worries on what stance the Coptic Church would adopt. Would it cave in to the growing public discontent fuelled by the monks’ allegations of State oppression, endorsing thus their illegal demands? Or would it say a word of truth and set the record straight, thus allowing the road to be built for public benefit? Since we at Watani had all the data and knew exactly where matters stood, I too eagerly awaited a declaration of the Church’s stance on the issue.
Pope Tawadros II had last October formed a committee of three bishops to handle the monastery’s predicament. On Wednesday 11 March, the spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church announced the official Church statement. It said that Pope Tawadros II had convened with the committee in charge of resolving the predicament 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. They 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.
The Church announced that 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.
As I see it, the Church has faithfully righted a wrong, and has written a new episode in a long series of stances that always put the homeland first.
18 March 2015