As 2016 draws to a close, Watani wishes to commemorate the centenary of one of the leading figures among the 20th century clergy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Father Salib Sourial (1916 – 1994).
Fr Salib belonged to a generation of pioneering men and women who worked for the renaissance of Egypt and the Coptic Church after centuries of weakness and backwardness.
In an event held earlier this year at the Coptic Cultural Centre to mark 100 years on the birth of Fr Salib, Pope Tawadros said that even though he never had met Fr Salib in person, he heard much of him from Anba Pachomius, Bishop of Beheira and mentor of Pope Tawadros. The Pope said he learned that Fr Salib was a man of exceptional character, who gathered traits that allowed him to serve the Church with dedication and genius. Participating in the event were a number of bishops and priests, as well as the family and friends of Fr Salib. Among the bishops was Anba Theodosius, current Bishop of Central Giza; and Anba Ermiya who heads the Coptic Cultural Centre.
At the end of the commemoration event, Pope Tawadros presented Fr Salib’s son, John, with an Appreciation Certificate by the Coptic Cultural Centre.
American Egyptian Dr Elhamy Khalil here commemorates Fr Salib.
Life of dedication
One hundred years ago, a giant among the pioneers of the Coptic Church renaissance was born. His impact on church ministry, both in substance and style, needs to be passed on to the generations who may not have witnessed the work of this towering priest.
Wahib Zaki Sourial was born on 6 February 1916, in the Nile Delta region of Menoufiya. He earned a law degree from King Fouad University in Giza (now Cairo University) in 1940, and practiced law for a few years before deciding to dedicate his whole life serving the Church.
During his college years, Mr Sourial and a number of other university students in Giza joined forces to establish a methodical Sunday School programme for youth in all major cities, as well as programmes for children in the villages. This group included figures who rose to be luminaries on the spiritual and ministry level in the Coptic Church. Among them were Saad Aziz who later took orders and rose to be Anba Samuel, Bishop of Services; Youssef Iskandar, later the pioneering monk Fr Matta al-Meskeen; Zarif Abdallah, later Father Boulos Boulos of Damanhur; Sami Amin, later Father Antonios Amin of Heliopolis, Cairo; Yassa Hanna; Shawqy Tawfiq and others.
This group sought, as a first step, to enhance their own religious education. The modern-day Saint Archdeacon Habib Girgis, who is considered the Father of the Coptic Church’s modern renaissance and was the founder and first Dean of the Coptic Seminary in Cairo, created a special three-year programme for university-educated Copts. Wahib Zaki Sourial, Saad Aziz, and Yassa Hanna were the first graduates of that program in 1944. Being knowledgeable in both secular law as an attorney and Church laws and canons, Mr Sourial was immediately assigned to teach Church canon law at the Seminary.
Seemingly opposing attributes
The 1940s witnessed general congregation dissatisfaction with the Coptic Church hierarchy in both policies and attitude. As it was difficult to change direction from the outside, four of those young activists decided in 1948 to plunge into their service as priests and monks. They were guided and encouraged by their mentor, the monk Fr Mina al-Baramousy, later Pope Kyrillos VI, who then resided in an abandoned mill in Old Cairo. That same year saw Saad Aziz and Youssef Iskander take orders, and Zarif Abdallah and Wahib Zaki Sourial become ordained as parish priests. Wahib was ordained by Anba Abra’am, Bishop of Fayoum and Giza who was later canonised by the Coptic Church, to serve the church of St Mark, the only church in Giza at the time. He was given the name Father Salib Sourial.
Saint Mark’s church in Giza was unique in that it served not only the Copts in the city, but also hundreds of college students from throughout Egypt during their college years at the university in Giza. St Mark’s expansive Church education programmes and the presence of many young Coptic activists were a perfect fit for Father Salib to lead. Father Salib possessed a unique combination of seemingly opposing attributes. He espoused strictness but was warm-hearted and kind, was both an idealist and a pragmatist at the same time, and had the keen ability to discern between major and trivial issues, choosing logic over emotions.
Less than a year into Fr Salib’s priestly service, Anba Abra’am, the bishop who ordained him, passed away. Pope Yousab II directly ordained a new bishop named Anba Yu’annes, against the wishes of the congregation, especially its young members among whom was Fr Salib. Yet Fr Salib recognised that nothing would be gained by continued opposition of the new bishop, and acted as a peace dove between the Patriarch and the youth activists. He persuaded the young people that it was better to work hand in hand with the new bishop, and established a working relationship with Bishop Yu’annes. A few years later, when Bishop Yu’annes aspired to enter the race for the vacant patriarch’s position in 1957, Fr Salib opposed him on the grounds of Church canons and not personal animosity. This position enhanced Fr Salib’s stature, earning him more respect from all.
In the 1960’s, Father Matta al-Meskeen and a number of monks under his leadership lived in a monastery in the desolate spot of Wadi al-Rayan near Fayoum. The Holy Synod refused to recognise the monastery and ordered these monks to vacate. As tensions rose, Fr Salib again acted as peace maker, mediating between the monks and the Church leadership. He proposed that the monks move to the recognised but semi-deserted Abu-Maqar Monastery in the Western Desert. Both Pope Kyrillos and Fr Matta agreed. A crisis was thus averted in 1969 through Fr Salib’s wisdom.
End of long-standing isolation
Fr Salib’s devotion in serving the Church, especially youth, was legendary. He saw the problems met by Coptic young men during their university years in Giza when they had to stay away from their families, whether in flats they rented or in government run dormitories. Together with Archdeacon Ramsis Naguib, he established a large hostel for them where their needs, both physical and spiritual, could be met. Later on, a multi-story building was erected near the university in Giza and called Beit al-Shamamsa, the Home of Deacons. Several of its occupants later became priests or bishops. He also established a similar residence for female university students, and a summer vacation centre near Alexandria in which Coptic youth enjoyed a vacation of fun and spiritual nourishment. Over the years, friendships between fellow students from around the country blossomed, thanks to his foresight.
Father Salib’s service went far and beyond the land of Egypt. He was chosen to join Father Makary al-Suryani who later became Anba Samuel, and Professor Aziz Suryal Atiya to participate in the Second General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, Illinois, USA, in August 1954. This participation ended a near 1500-year isolation of the Coptic Church from the rest of the Christian World.
Fr Salib was chosen in the 1970’s to serve the increasing number of Copts in Germany. He established the nucleus for seven churches throughout Germany and a monastery near Frankfurt. He was also asked to help with the establishment of St Peter and St Paul Church in Santa Monica during one of his frequent visits to Southern California.
His teaching of Church canons which started in Cairo continued in the two new Coptic Seminaries in America, namely Los Angeles and Jersey City from 1989 onwards. He visited every summer for that purpose, and I was blessed to be one of his students.
Perhaps his most lasting legacy was his fatherly love, care, and respect for everyone regardless of age or position. Beneath his stern looking face was a heart of gold. His knowledge, wisdom, and wit were legendary. He was the father confessor for multitudes over the years. He advised me, as well as countless others, with a mix of wisdom and compassion.
This year we commemorate one hundred years since his birth. Twenty-two years ago (on 2 September 1994) he departed from this world after 46 years in the priesthood. People come and people go, but their legacy and accomplishments endure. Father Salib laid the foundation for many services, and opened doors for many to walk through. He will always be remembered as a giant among the giants who worked the renaissance of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the 20th century.
20 December 2016