On two consecutive days, the Coptic Church paid its last respects to two beloved bishops who had passed away
February 2018 closed on a sad note for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. Two well loved bishops passed away: Anba Boqtor, Bishop of al-Wadi al-Gadeed in the Western Desert, breathed his last in hospital in Dallas in the US on 16 February; and Anba Fam, Bishop of Tema in Sohag some 460km south of Cairo, departed in a London hospital on 25 February. Funeral services were held for both by the Coptic Orthodox Church in Dallas and in Brighton respectively, and their bodies were flown to Egypt for burial.
Anba Fam’s body arrived at Cairo Airport on 6 March, and a funeral service was held for him on 7 March; Anba Boqtor’s arrived on 7 March and the funeral service for him was held on 8 March. A visibly moved Pope Tawadros presided over the two services which were held at al-Boutrossiya Church in Abbassiya, Cairo.
The bodies were then taken to their respective parishes for final services and burials.
Once the passing away of Anba Fam, Bishop of Tema and its Environs, was officially announced by the Coptic Church, church bells in Tema tolled incessantly to the sad news. Men and women rushed to the bishopric, hoping to hear that his death was only a rumour, only to be tearfully informed that the news was true. Anba Fam, who passed away at age 73, had been bishop of Tema for 38 years, and was dearly loved and revered not only by Tema’s Copts, but by Copts and Muslims all over Egypt. A huge sense of loss and heartbreak engulfed Tema at his departure.
Tema diocese was placed under the care of Anba Bakhoum, Bishop of Sohag, according to a decision by Pope Tawadros.
The body of Anba Fam arrived at Cairo Airport aboard an EgyptAir flight on the evening of 6 March. Anba Bakhoum received the casket at the airport; accompanying him were a number of Sohag clergy and members of the congregation. The casket was taken to the church of the Archangel Michael in Masakin Sheraton, a Heliopolis suburb close to the airport, where it was laid for the night. Praise was held in the early hours of the day, and Holy Mass celebrated in the morning as the casket lay before the sanctuary. After Mass, it was driven to Boutrossiya for the funeral service.
Pope Tawadros presided over the funeral service for Anba Fam. Sohag Governor, Ayman Abdel-Moneim, was there to pay his last respects to the beloved Bishop. Attending and participating in the service were some 30 bishops from Egypt, also a delegation that had flown in from Sudan for the occasion. Members of the bereaved Sohag Coptic clergy and congregation attended.
Humble prayerfulness and praise
Pope Tawadros gave a deeply moving word at the funeral service for Anba Fam. He talked of death as the one most unquestionable reality on the face of the Earth, a reality full of wonder. “But Heaven is even a more wondrous reality,” Pope Tawadros said, “that awaits all who lead good, righteous lives on Earth. We live on Earth but aspire to Heaven. This is where prayer comes in.” He said, “everyone should prepare for Everlasting Life in Heaven, so we should take care not to get too engrossed in earthy matters.
“Anba Fam renounced all worldly interests in favour of a life consecrated to Christ,” Pope Tawadros said. “He earned a reputation as a quiet man of prayer and praise, who possessed an outstanding spirit of service.
“He spent more than 40 years in monastic tradition, during which time he faithfully served the Lord and His Church. For the larger part of these years,” the Pope said, “Anba Fam was Bishop of Tema which he received as a newly founded diocese but developed into a thriving one. His life and service were dominated with fervent prayer and praise, and contemplation of God’s wondrous work. This capacity of angelic praise,” Pope Tawadros said, “had a profound influence on all who dealt with him. He was a fine model of humble prayerfulness,” the Pope said.
“We bid him goodbye in hope of Resurrection; may Christ comfort all the beloved congregation of Tema, his blessed family, and all who loved him,” the Pope concluded.
The Pope thanked Governor Abdel-Moneim for his heartfelt sympathy, and members of parliament, also members of the medical team who had attended Anba Fam in London; Anba Angaelos, Bishop of London; and Anba Anthony, Bishop of Ireland, Scotland, and Northeast England.
Man of God
Once the funeral was over, the casket was taken to Tema’s Abu-Fam cathedral where a service was held on 8 March, again attended by Governor Abdel-Moneim who, in a much appreciated gesture, gave the Copts of Tema the day off to allow them to pay their last respects to their beloved pastor.
Anba Yu’annis, Bishop of Assiut, who was especially close to Anba Fam, presided over the service which was attended by a number of bishops, numerous priests, and a huge congregation. A tearful Anba Yu’annis talked of Anba Fam as a “man of God”: a man of faith, praise, and love for the poor; a prolific builder of churches, clinics, guest houses, service centres; and a man with a bright sunny smile that lit his peaceful face.
Tema congregation turned out in huge numbers to bid their late pastor a last farewell. “It is a demonstration of love,” said Fr Shenouda Samuel of Tema bishopric. “Anba Fam was a man who treated us not as head of the diocese, but as a real father who loved, understood, forgave, and embraced his children. His heart beat with love, purity, and sanctity that never bore any hatred against anyone.
“We shall never forget him. What else can we offer him but love in return?”
Fr Shenouda talked to Watani about the huge service Anba Fam had achieved in Tema over the years. “He served the poor and needy with heartfelt sympathy; he built churches for the growing congregation, and guesthouses nationwide to house Tema’s sons and daughters who had to leave for study or work in other places in Egypt.”
Resting where he longed to be
Anba Fam, Fr Shenouda said, had a strong bond to Fr Yassa Mikhail, a modern-day saint from Tema, even though they had never met. After he was consecrated as a bishop, Anba Fam heard a lot about Fr Yassa and used to visit his tomb. Then Anba Fam bought a land and built a church consecrated to Fr Yassa, and expanded until it has become a big ‘monastery’—a complex of churches and affiliated buildings—where he had a cell to which he would go for spiritual retreat.
Fr Shenouda vowed that Anba Fam’s sons would accomplish the projects he had started. “He had started to establish a hospital and a school, which we will resume building.”
Anba Fam’s body was laid to rest in a special tomb prepared for him at the monastery of St Fr Yassa Mikhail, in response to a wish he had expressed before his death.
Anba Fam was born Tobia Ishaq Kheir in 1945 in the town of Sahel Tahta in Akhmim, Sohag, into one of the prominent Coptic families. He earned a degree in mining engineering from Assiut University in 1967, and began a career as a mining engineer. Yet he chose to leave the world to take orders, and took his vows at the monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Western Desert in 1977 under the name Mina al-Anba Bishoi, was ordained a priest in 1979 and, in 1980 was consecrated Bishop of Tema, a parish he served for 37 years.
The congregation of Tema is especially proud of the fact that it was they who chose the name of their bishop. The story which circulates in Tema says that when Anba Marcos, the previous Metropolitan of Abu-Teeg, Tema, and Tahta passed away in 1977, it was decided that a temporary acting bishop should handle the diocese until a new bishop was chosen. Pope Shenouda III, who was patriarch from 1971 to 2012, talked to the Church officials concerned and, following profound discussions, decided to break down the parish into three smaller ones, owing to the marked growth in the congregation.
“We name you Fam”
As is the custom, a delegation of Tema representatives that included members of the clergy and laity set out to meet Pope Shenouda in Cairo to discuss matters pertaining to the new bishop they needed. The eldest priest among them, Fr Marcos Abdel-Sayed told the Pope: “In Tema, every one of us is a bishop in his church; we need someone who will be a patriarch over us.” The Pope realised it would not be easy to choose someone to handle the situation at Tema; he asked his aides to nominate someone who belonged to that region and would fully understand it. After consultations, it was decided that Fr Mina al-Anba Bishoi was the best for the job. The Tema delegation agreed unanimously.
Fr Mina was told of the decision as he lay in hospital recovering from surgery in the nose. A brother monk from Anba Bishoi’s who went to visit him congratulated him, to which Fr Mina replied: “What congratulations? A recovering patient is told ‘Get well soon’, not congratulated!” “You have been chosen bishop of Tema,” the monk said. “May God’s will be done,” replied a rather astounded Fr Mina.
The Pope decided to name the new bishop Anba Takla. This was declared during Vespers on the eve of the consecration Mass, as the ceremony goes. But representatives of the congregation hastened to meet the Pope and asked him to give their new bishop the name “Fam”, after St Fam who is the patron saint of Tema. The following day, during consecration Mass, the congregation was elated to hear Pope Shenouda announce their bishop as: “We name you Fam, Bishop of Tema and its Environs”. The congregation broke into joyful applause and ululations.
“Boqtor” eight centuries on
The day following Anba Fam’s funeral service, another one was held in Boutrossiya, also presided over by Pope Tawadros. It was held for Anba Boqtor whose body had arrived from Dallas to Cairo the evening before.
Attending the service were a large number of bishops, priests, monks and nuns, and members of the congregation. Anba Boqtor’s sister was there to receive condolences for her brother’s departure.
Pope Tawadros spoke about Anba Boqtor who, the Pope said, had studied engineering as a young man, but forsook a promising career to take orders and dedicate his life to God. “He was an active, dynamic monk, and I had heard of his long service among residents of al-Wadi al-Gadeed” the Pope said, “I thus thought he would make a good bishop over that parish so widespread and so needful of service. [Al-Wadi al-Gadeed stretches over Egypt’s Western Desert and oases.]
“His name as a monk was Bishoi al-Muharraqi, and he wished to retain that name as a bishop, but I said there were other bishops named Bishoi so we needed a new name. I asked him to think of one while I too thought of one. Surprisingly, we both came up with the name of Boqtor; I chose it because I thought we needed a short name that would begin with ‘B’ since Fr Bishoi had been reluctant to give up his monastic name. When I asked why he chose ‘Boqtor’, he said it was because the last bishop who served that area some eight centuries ago had been called Boqtor. So Boqtor it was.”
Building a new, thriving diocese
“Anba Boqtor’s service as bishop,” Pope Tawadros said, “lasted a mere three years. It was short but rich in forbearance and contribution. He travelled far and wide to serve, spiritually and materially, a flock scattered over the vast desert region of al-Wadi al-Gadeed. He built and consecrated churches, and ordained priests to care for the flock. He also encouraged the study of history and archaeology in his widespread parish that is rich in old Christian relics.
“Anba Boqtor had great love for all, a trait through which he forged cordial relations with all. He was always present to share in all Muslim or official occasions in Wadi al-Gadeed.
“In short, Anba Boqtor succeeded in building a new thriving diocese in al-Wadi al-Gadeed which had not had a resident bishop for eight centuries.
“We sadly bid Anba Boqtor farewell,” the Pope said. “As a monk, priest, and bishop, he faithfully served the Lord and Church for close to 40 years; during many of which he bravely carried his cross of illness and pain. We are confident he has heard the voice of the Lord welcome him to everlasting life where he will be crowned for his service and the prayerful tears he shed on its account.”
Anba Boqtor’s body was moved to his parish church of the Holy Virgin in al-Kharga oasis for burial, where a special shrine was prepared for him. A large, grieving congregation paid him their last respects.
Anba Boqtor took orders in 1980 at al-Muharraq Monastery in Assiut some 350km south of Cairo. He was given the name Bishoi al-Muharraqi. On 23 May 2015, he was consecrated General-Bishop at the hands of Pope Tawadros II and, on 12 June 2016, was seated Bishop of al-Wadi al-Gadeed and the Oases.
Fr Shenouda Sahyoun who served with Anba Boqtor told Watani: “When we first came here, there was only a church in al-Kharga Oasis, the one closest to the Nile Valley. But the more remote oases of al-Dakhla and Farafra included no churches. We could find no place in which we could hold prayers in Dakhla; there was no church, and the Copts there were afraid to hold prayer meetings in their homes since this provoked their Muslim neighbours and the local officials. Now, thanks to the genial, loving nature of Anba Boqtor and his capacity to connect to officials and defend his request on behalf of the Coptic congregation, we have a new church and community centre in Dakhla, one in Farafra, and another in Sahl Baraka in Farafra. This last one was ordered by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi to serve Copts working on the One-and-a-Half-Million Feddan project.”
Spirit of artist
Trevina Mamdouh, a young woman among al-Kharga congregation, mourned Anba Boqtor. “The man who came to us to found the diocese of al-Wadi al-Gadeed is gone! He came to find no educational or cultural service at the church of the Holy Virgin in al-Kharga; apart from Mass on Sunday and Friday almost every week—some weeks no Mass was held at all—service was no more than Sunday School classes held every Monday. Anba Boqtor changed that. In exemplary forbearance and perseverance, he went on to establish weekly meetings for young people, women, families, volunteer workers, Bible study, and spiritual growth. He regularly visited remote villages and used a portable altar to hold Mass to those who had for a very long time had no chance to partake of Communion. During seasons such as the Holy Virgin’s fast he attended to daily spiritual and praise services during Vespers and morning Mass.
“He also introduced our young people to scouting, theatre, computer and online activities, and a library.
“What many do not know about Anba Boqtor,” Ms Mamdouh said, “is that he had the spirit of an artist. He was a gifted poet and icon painter whose Coptic-style icons are on display at the monastery of the Archangel Gabriel and the shrine of Anba Abra’am in Fayoum. He had his own flute on which he played beautifully.
“Oh how we will miss him!” she sighed.
Reporting on Anba Fam: Sheri Abdel-Massih
Reporting on Anba Boqtor: Nevine Gadallah, Marina Barsoum,Fuad Saad
14 March 2018