The monastery of Abu-Fana lies on the eastern border of the Western Desert, 30kms north of the town of Mallawi in Minya, Upper Egypt. It is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the first ages of monasticism.
The monastery was established in the fourth century by St Abu-Fana, a disciple of Anba Shenouda, St Shenoute of Atripe, the ‘father of hermits’ in monasticism. It flourished until the 15th century, but then sand dunes began moving towards the monastery and the monks abandoned it, leaving it in the care of priests who lived west of Mallawi. Eventually sand covered the entire monastery until at the end of the 19th century when Father Mitiass Gaballah, the priest of the near-by Qasr-Hur village, removed the sand and uncovered the buildings. But it was not till 2004 that the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church officially recognised this solitary conglomerate of churches and cells as a ‘monastery’. Today it is again a monastic centre which some 15 monks and hermits call home. But despite the fact that the monastery four years ago applied for a permit to build a fencing wall around its grounds, it was only given licence to do so following a barbaric attack two weeks ago. Neither has any running water or electricity been extended to the monastery.
On Wednesday 10 January Deir Abu-Fana was the target of an armed assault which resulted in the ruin of eight cells belonging to solitary hermits, and the Bibles, books and icons inside them burned. One hermit was injured.
Watani headed to the monastery to investigate the incident. Once there we had to leave our car since it was next to impossible to drive across the soft sand dunes. The monks and hermits had us board a small agricultural tractor they use to navigate the dunes, and took us to the sites of the assault to witness the damage ourselves. West of the monastery proper lay the hermits’ cells, each some one or two kilometres apart from the nearest one. The ride was no easy task, not with the strong winter wind blowing the fine sand straight onto one’s face and eyes. It was obvious the hermits had chosen to live frugal, harsh lives. “The essence of a hermit’s life is to be isolated from other humans,” the monk Father Kyrillos who chauffeured the tractor said.
The first cell we encountered was heavily damaged. Its domed roof was entirely destroyed, its walls damaged, its windows stolen, and the icons, pictures and books burnt. The second cell was an absolute ruin; it was flattened to the ground. The eight other cells attacked were no different than these two.
“Let’s have tea”
The monks and hermits were angry not only at the attack, which was the 13th they had been subject to in the past three years, but also—and especially so—at what they insisted was police complicity with the attackers. The attackers are a group of ‘Arabs’ as they are commonly called, who live in the desert and who appear to covet part of the monastery grounds. Their leader is one Samir Mohamed Hussein who goes by the name of Samir Abu-Luli and who, together with his son Abdullah, led a recent attack on the monastery on New Year Day and occupied a portion of the monastery’s land. “We directly reported the matter at Hur police station, Father Kyrillos said, and asked the police inspector Major??? Hisham Yehia to come over and inspect the situation. He came but did absolutely nothing. He did not register our complaint and, upon finding Abu-Luli and his son on our land, and upon Abu-Luli’s flagrant challenge of ‘I have attacked and will attack again’, simply smiled and invited him over for tea saying: ‘Come on, Abu-Samra (a fond nickname for Samir), let’s have a cup of tea’.”
“This time, the monk Father Mina said, more than 30 men with automatic weapons came on Wednesday morning from apparently nowhere, surrounded the monastery buildings, then fanned out to attack the hermits and their solitary cells. Fortunately, all the hermits but one, Father Maximos, had that day descended to the monastery so were not in their cells. Father Maximos ran down to the monastery to tell us of the attack. We tried to stop the attackers but they shot at us incessantly, wounding Father Makary, who was driving the tractor, in his hand, so we had to leave and again informed the police. The police only showed up in the evening, led by Major Yehia. Again he did nothing; no culprits were caught and no investigation conducted. Worse, the monks Makary and Bishoi were questioned for three full hours, and the monks You’annis, Bakhoumious, and Bishoi for another four hours the following day, as though they were the culprits not the victims.”
While we stood with the monks a committee from the village council of Hur arrived to assess the damages. The monks were gratified the committee had arrived since no official whatsoever had responded to their complaints; the only parties who promptly responded were the rights activists. The monastery decries the absence of a fencing wall, and blames the repeated attacks on the fact that this renders the fourth century national heritage of a monastery defenceless.
The lawyer Mamdouh Ramzy commented that as long as the Coptic file remains in the hands of the police and the security authorities, more violence and destruction will ensue. When attackers destroy and burn Coptic property, Mr Ramzy said, they know very well that these authorities will not take them to account nor penalise them. The scenario has become typical: Copts and their property are attacked, no offenders are caught or if any is caught they are released with no penalty. The Copts are then pressured into a cosmetic ‘reconciliation’ in which they are pushed to renounce their rights. This happened in Udeisat last February, in Ayaat last May, in Alexandria last June, and these are but a few examples.
More often than not, Mr Ramzy continued, the prosecution delays examination, understates the situation, uses the reconciliation to freeze the case, and the attackers go triumphantly free. Worse, the victims are accused of stirring up sectarian sedition if they reject the so-called reconciliation.
Mr Ramzy referred to the importance of referring Major Yehia to court for failing to perform his duty. For its part, he said, the Church should assume a strict stance; it should not surrender the Copts’ rights.
“The monks are good men”
Another lawyer Peter Ramsis al-Naggar said that the law criminalises attacks on places of worship, but no move is taken by the security authorities to prevent such attacks. The Police, Mr Naggar added, use criminals as informants, which explains why Samir Abu-Luli who was arrested more than once, was left by the policemen to threaten and terrify citizens. The general prosecution broke the law when it did not move to the site of the crime once it was reported.
Mr Naggar demanded that Minya governor should licence the building of a fencing wall around the monastery, and criticised the harsh investigation conducted with the monks rather than the criminals.
Pope Shenouda III has followed up on the Abu-Fana incident through Anba Demitrious, head of the monastery and Bishop of Ansena, Ashmonein and Mallawi. His Holiness ordered a fact-finding commission to report on the details.
Anba Demitrious told Watani that he will do his utmost to have the criminals brought to justice, and has contacted the officials who promised that the problem of the fencing wall is about to be solved. As Watani went to press, news were out that the long-awaited licence was finally issued.
As we prepared to leave, Saad Abul-Leil, an aged Muslim man who sat near the monastery told us: “We have been living here close to the monastery for as long as I can remember, working on the land and dealing with the monks. This last incident was very sad; Abu-Luli is responsible for the sorry state of affairs because of his greed. The monks have always been good men.”