As Egypt celebrates Victory Day on 6 October, it is fitting to remember Anba Samuel (1920 – 1981), Bishop of Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services, who lost his life alongside President Anwar al-Sadat as Islamist jihadists gunned him down on 6 October 1981
Today, 6 October, Egypt celebrates the remarkable military feat in 1973 through which she regained the Sinai Peninsula from the Israelis who had occupied it in the wake of their victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israelis had built fortifications, major among them was the Bar Lev Line which was a sand, concrete and steel barrier that extended the 150km length of the Canal, and which they claimed was guaranteed to make it impossible for Egypt to ever regain Sinai through battle. They taunted Egyptians at their military inferiority and apparent inability to regain their land, generating a bitter sense of collective humiliation and despair in Egypt.
At 2:00pm on 6 October 1973, as the Israelis marked Yom Kippur, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal in military dinghies, extended bridge heads from the western bank of the Canal to its eastern bank in Sinai, used water cannons to bring down the ‘invincible’ Bar Lev Line, climbed the Sinai bank and raised the Egyptian flag. The feat went down in military history, and paved the way for Egyptian Israeli talks that led to a peace agreement in 1979 and brought Sinai back to Egypt in 1982. More important, however, it redeemed Egyptians and gave them back their dignity and self-esteem.
Egypt has, since 1973, celebrated 6 October as Victory Day. In 1981, during a military parade to mark the occasion, Islamist jihadists gunned down Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat as he viewed the parade, together with dignitaries representing the various sectors of the Egyptian society. The Islamists considered Sadat a traitor for making peace with Israel.
Among those gunned down with President Sadat was the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services, Anba Samuel who was representing the Coptic Church at the 6 October victory celebration.
“Anba Samuel ranks high in the Church not only for what he achieved for the Coptic Church, but rather in the hearts and minds of the congregation.” That was Pope Shenouda III mourning Anba Samuel’s shocking death in 1981.
Father Matta al-Maskeen (Matthew the Poor, 1919 – 2006), one of the pillars of Coptic monastic life in modern times said: “Anba Samuel was my soul mate; he was my colleague in monastic life and my lifetime friend since the 1940s.”
Anba Samuel gained a reputation for serving all people indiscriminately, Muslims and Christians alike. He contributed to reforms and mega projects that benefited Egypt in general and Copts in specific.
Anba Samuel was born Saad Aziz Ibrahim in Cairo in 1920 to a Coptic family whose house was always open generously and joyfully to the needy. From early childhood he grew up on love for all and sacrifice for others.
After completing secondary school in 1937, Ibrahim joined the Faculty of Law at Fouad I University, today known as Cairo University. He was only 19 years old when his father passed away in 1942, just before he graduated, and this event meant he was unable to practise law.
While still a law student, Ibrahim became interested in service in the Church, especially service for children and the needy. It was said that during that time he established, together with colleagues who went on to be counted among the pillars of community service in the Coptic Church, Sunday School activity in almost 100 villages. The service thrived and flourished to become a mainstay of Church service today.
Ibrahim enrolled in the Clerical College, the Coptic Orthodox seminary in Cairo, the modern-day extension of the venerable Catechetical School of Alexandria, graduating in 1944. He landed an enviable job at the National Bank of Egypt, but this did not leave him enough time for his beloved Sunday School activity so, six months later, he quit the job.
Because he loved children and believed they represented the future, Ibrahim enrolled at the American University in Cairo’s educational studies and psychology programme. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Education, and became fluent in English. He was granted a scholarship from the Clerical College to study at Branston University in the US, where he received a Master’s degree in religious studies.
Sunday School in Ethiopia
Following the end of the Italian occupation in Ethiopia and the return of Haile Selassie I to Addis Ababa in 1941, a development movement started up there, which included Church reform. The Emperor allocated space in his own palace to teach priests English. This sparked the idea of a theology school, and Archdeacon Habib Girgis (1876 – 1951), the founder and dean of the Clerical College in Cairo, sent a number of fresh graduates of the Clerical College in Cairo to follow up and supervise the new Ethiopian school. Among those who travelled was Ibrahim who devoted himself to Sunday School service there. He soon had 250 students, which encouraged him to establish several branches of Sunday School in a number of Ethiopian villages.
Ibrahim was invited to attend the inauguration of the Clerical College, the Coptic Orthodox Seminary, in Addis Ababa. He volunteered his services there, expecting no remuneration.
Side by side his work as a professor at the seminary, Ibrahim arranged weekly Bible study meetings for young Ethiopians and established more Sunday Schools, also holding other educational meetings. He was deeply respected by Anba Kyrillos, the then Coptic Metropolitan to Addis Ababa.
Ibrahim returned to Cairo in 1946, leaving in Ethiopia a significant legacy of numerous achievements. In appreciation for his contribution and services to the Ethiopian people, he was granted the Order of the Star of Ethiopia in 1958. This was an order of knighthood of the Ethiopian Empire, established by the Negus of Shoa and later Emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik II in 1884 – 1885 to honour foreign and domestic civil and military officials and individuals for service to the country.
Ending Coptic isolation
In 1948, Ibrahim took holy orders under the name Makary al-Suriani, after the monastery of the Holy Virgin of al-Surian (the Syrian Monastery) in Wadi al-Natroun in Egypt’s Western Desert. He took his vows at the hand of Fr Mina al-Mutawwahed who later became Pope Kyrillos VI, the 116th Patriarch of the Coptic Church (1959 – 1971) and a modern-day saint.
During the time of Pope Yussab II, the 115th Patriarch of the Coptic Church, Fr Makary was chosen to head the delegation that represented the Coptic Church, for the first time, in the World Council of Churches held in the US. On the way, the delegation stopped in London to hold the first ever Coptic Liturgy there. It was held on 15 August 1954, and was attended by Waheeb Attallah, later Anba Gregorios, Bishop of Scientific Research and Theological Studies from 1967 until his death in 2001. Anba Gregorios was then in London, designated by Cairo’s Clerical College to study for his PhD.
The trip to the US achieved great success and was the beginning of an ecumenical movement that gradually broke the isolation the Coptic Church had suffered since the Chalcedon Council in 451AD.
In the early 1960s, the first wave of Egyptian migrants left Egypt. Many of them were Copts who had lost or stood to lose much of their wealth owing to the social transformation by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which saw countless private businesses and lands nationalised. Fr Makary was delegated by the Church in Cairo to offer pastoral services for emigrants. He was enthusiastic about establishing a Coptic Church in the US to serve Coptic immigrants to America and Canada, which opened the way for the Coptic Church later to expand exponentially outside Egypt, a movement that peaked during the papacy of Pope Shenouda III (1971 – 2012).
As Fr Makary’s dynamic personality and his role as ecumenical bishop gained fame in Egypt and abroad, he was delegated by Pope Kyrillos VI to hold the first meeting of Coptic Diaspora priests in North America. He then travelled to Bangkok, where he held the first Coptic Mass.
Fr Makary showed great concern for Copts in the Diaspora. With every visit he paid he was keen to update the database of the Coptic congregation there, which he saved—not only in his heart—but also in his personal diary that accompanied him everywhere. This was full of Copts’ names, birthdays, addresses and telephone numbers. He did his best to visit Egyptian families as often as he could, to look after their needs. He even celebrated Mass in their homes at a time when there were no Coptic churches there, using a ‘portable altar’.
Over many years, Fr Makary was concerned with deepening the principle of communion in the Coptic Church. In his book The Diaries of Pastoral Theology, Fr Makary set a complete programme for the life of togetherness, highlighting the Church’s role towards family, children, adults and the elderly.
In the period from 1955 to 1962 Fr Makary was professor of pastoral theology at the Seminary in Cairo.
On 30 September 1962, Pope Kyrillos VI crowned the efforts and services of Fr Makary by consecrating him bishop of the newly founded Bishopric for Public, Ecumenical and Social Services, today known as BLESS; the new Bishop was named Anba Samuel. BLESS touts its vision as: “A community capable of investing its potential, accepting diversity, respecting differences, and preserving human dignity”.
Councils of Churches
Anba Samuel was keen to attend international conferences that targeted firming up and consolidating relations between the Coptic Church and other Churches all over the world. After ten years of dialogue between the Orthodox Middle East Churches, Anba Samuel worked to establish the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) as an entity separate from the Near East Council of Churches, the membership of which was restricted to Protestant Churches.
The first convention of the MECC was held in Cyprus in 1974. This opened the door for significant cooperation among the Orthodox Churches of the region in education, media and theological dialogue, as well as tackling Middle East issues, including that of the Palestinian refugees.
As a World Council of Churches leader until he passed away, Anba Samuel brought millions of dollars in donations to fund and finance projects for the needy, especially in the war years of 1956, 1967, and 1973. He was a prominent member of the dialogue committee between the Coptic Church and the Vatican, and was among the members of the Egyptian commission that travelled to Rome in 1968 to receive the relics of St Mark the Apostle from Pope Paul VI.
“Teach them to fish”
“Do not give the hungry a fish, teach them how to fish; help people help themselves” were the principles Anba Samuel believed in. His ministry centred on helping people discover their skills and use them well. He was keen not to help through giving handouts, which he saw as an indignity. He took Jesus Christ as his role model. “I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it more fully.” (John 10:10)
Among the many services and projects Anba Samuel founded were classes for teaching languages: English, French and German, and teaching young people how to use computers. Through his contacts, he was able to obtain the necessary funds to build vocational training centres and schools in Cairo.
Anba Samuel ran many pioneering projects. Among them was the ‘rural ministry’ for small villages that had no church. The ministry offered social and spiritual services, using a portable altar that enabled priests to move from one village to another, celebrating Mass in any given village once a month. The portable altar was designed by Fr Makary to be easily moved from one place to another.
Anba Samuel went to the poorest in the slums, including the garbage collectors. These were awakened to the comprehension of their faith, and consequently established their own humble churches such as Kaneeset al-Zabbaleen (the church of the garbage collectors). The Garbage Collectors’ social development project at Muqattam, founded in 1974 years later won a UN award. The project changed the lives of many miserable people, giving them pride and success.
Anba Samuel’s main focus was the ‘family’. His efforts were crowned with the 1975 Conference of the Coptic Family held in Alexandria, in which Pope Shenouda III gave the opening speech. The Pope formed a committee to study the problems facing the Coptic family, and arrange courses in various parishes to promote the family institution.
Along the line of the family project, Anba Samuel encouraged churches across Egypt to establish pre-school nurseries so that working mothers need not worry about their children as they go to work. He arranged literacy classes for village girls, also training courses in hand and needlecraft to economically empower them.
At the hands of Anba Samuel, the Bishopric of Public, Ecumenical and Social Services became a true example of life of ‘togetherness’.
When President Anwar al-Sadat cracked down on some 1,500 Egyptian intellectuals and public figures on 5 September 1981 under the pretext that they were political dissidents, the Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III was banished to a desert monastery and the Papacy was temporarily transferred to what was called the Committee of Five, a caretaker body formed by the President, with approval of the Holy Synod. Bishop Samuel was appointed to head this committee; the members were Anba Maximos, Bishop of Qalyubiya; Anba Samuel, Bishop of Social and Public Services; Anba Gregorios, Bishop of Scientific Research and Coptic Studies; Anba Athanasius, Bishop of Beni-Sweif; and Anba Yu’annis Bishop of Gharbiya.
A month later, Anba Samuel was shot dead while he was on the main stage beside Sadat, who was viewing the military parade on Victory Day, 6 October. He left a will which was published publicly to the effect that any funds in his name, in any bank, were the property of the Coptic Church and that no one in his family was entitled to any of it. He used to receive funds from foundations in Europe for his projects in Cairo.
Man of God
“Anba Samuel represents the first and firmly-established base of this bishopric,” Pope Shenouda III said in his opening speech at the ceremony held by BLESS to mark its 25th anniversary.
At Anba Samuel’s hands, BLESS became a pillar of spiritual, theological and social services. It still stands a witness to the faithfulness and greatness of that honourable man of God. It is a well-thought-out extension of the school of love and giving of Anba Samuel, who drew up its curriculum with the aim of helping the needy to lead a better life.
6 October 2019