A monk and a defrocked monk from the Western Desert Monastery of St Macarius in Wadi al-Natroun were yesterday 23 February handed death sentences for the premeditated murder of Anba Epiphanius, Abbot of St Macarius’s, on 29 July 2018. Damanhour Criminal Court referred the sentences to Egypt’s Mufti, the high-ranking Muslim cleric officially tasked with issuing fatwa (Islamic legal opinion) on relevant issues. In Egypt, a death sentence cannot be final unless approved by the Mufti. The date 24 April was set by the court to pronounce the final judgement.
Anba Epiphanius (1954 – 2018), Abbot of St Macarius Monastery from 2013 till he died in July 2018, was a widely-loved figure in the Coptic Orthodox Church, famous for his kindness, compassion, and extensive knowledge. A brilliant scholar and researcher on Coptology, he was mourned by a visibly grieved Pope Tawadros as “a true monk whose life was steeped in meekness and humbleness; also a scholar who possessed a wealth of knowledge that fruited research and publications in various branches of ecclesiastical studies”.
Anba Epiphanius was killed in the early hours of Sunday 29 July 2018 as he left his cell and headed to the monastery church for the Midnight Praise that precedes Sunday Mass. He was hit on the head with a heavy object and directly died. It was still dark when he was discovered lying in a pool of blood, his skull crushed, by the monk Gabrail al-Maqari as he too headed to church. Because of the dark, the monk Gabrail could not recognise who the dead man was; he rushed to church to alert the other monks who found out that the victim was the Abbot. They quickly moved him to the monastery clinic but he had already breathed his last.
Pope Tawadros, who was then at the nearby monastery of Anba Bishoi for his weekly retreat, was informed, and ordered that the police should be directly notified. He also delegated his secretary Father Angaelos Ishaq to rush to St Macarius’s to follow up on the matter.
The police, together with 60 investigators from Wadi al-Natroun detective authority, public and national security authorities, and the public prosecution arrived at the monastery and closed its gates, allowing no one in or out. They combed the monastery and surrounding grounds for criminal clues, secured the CCTV cameras on the gates, and searched the monks’ cells.
The possibility of the murder being a terrorist attack was discarded since it quickly became obvious the killer was all-too-familiar with the monastery, its regulations, the Abbot’s cell, the hour he would leave his cell and the path he would take to the church.
Some 400 monks and workers at the monastery were questioned, and the CCTV cameras examined. It was found that six monks had systematically refused to obey the late Abbot, and had been in constant dispute with him; the disputes being mainly over financial issues. Following prolonged questioning for over 20 hours; all the threads led to the monk Ishaia al-Maqari, 34, who had taken orders in 2010 but turned into a rebel and frequent trouble-maker. In February 2018, he had been ordered to leave the monastery for three years in disciplinary action, but other monks appealed on his behalf for a second chance at correcting his ways. This he never did, despite being granted the second chance he had requested; in fact it was discovered he frequently left the monastery contrary to his Abbot’s orders.
Another monk, 33-year-old Falta’os al-Maqari who had taken orders in 2010, was found to have been an accomplice in the crime; he had checked the coast was clear and he egged on the monk Ishaia’ to kill the Abbot.
Confession, and attempted suicide
The testimony of the monk Ishaia’ was contradictory and inaccurate, especially regarding the times he had been inside or outside the monastery; the CCTV cameras revealed that. The calls on his cell phone also revealed serious violations.
The evening of 4 August, the monk attempted suicide by drinking a pesticide, but he was taken to Damanhour public hospital, saved, and returned to the monastery.
The following day, the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod’s Committee for Monasticism and Monastery Affairs issued a decision to defrock Ishaia al-Maqari owing to his violation of monastic law, breaching his vows of poverty and obedience. He was stripped of his monk name and went back to his lay name of Wael Saad Tawadros. The Church stressed that the defrocking decision was based purely on monastic law and had nothing to do with the crime which was the strict territory of the legal authorities.
Falta’os al-Maqari also attempted suicide by jumping off the roof of a four-storey building in the monastery. He was moved to a Cairo hospital where he was treated for back, pelvic, and leg fractures; and was questioned by the prosecution. His suicide attempt left him paralysed and bedridden.
Further questioning led to a confession by Mr Tawadros who could no longer deny overwhelming evidence; he confessed to committing the crime, and led the investigators to the instrument he had used to murder the Abbot: an iron beam which he hid in a scrap store on the monastery grounds. It took three blows on the head to kill Anba Epiphanius.
On 6 August 2018, Wadi al-Natroun Prosecution charged Wael Saad Tawadros and Falta’os al-Maqari with the premeditated murder of Anba Epiphanius. They were both referred to criminal court.
Throughout an extended trial that riveted public interest, the two suspect murderers vehemently denied the charges against them, Tawadros insisting his confession was extracted under nervous and psychological pressure.
In his testimony, General Khaled Abdel-Hamid, who headed the Interior Ministry’s team that investigated the crime, said that no pressure whatsoever had been applied, pointing out that, had there been any, Tawadros could have reported it to the public prosecution, which he never did.
The investigation revealed, General Abdel-Hamid said, that the two defendants had attempted twice to kill the Abbot but had not succeeded. Once, the Abbot left his cell earlier than they had estimated so they missed him; the other time he woke up too late.
The differences between the two defendants and the Abbot, General Abdel-Hamid said, were deep and concerned serious financial breaches and violations of monastic tradition. He cited several such instances. He said the evidence found against the suspects included a lot of appalling details which the prosecution abstained from making public.
It was discovered, General Abdel-Hamid said, that Mr Tawadros had visited an Internet site that showed how to conceal fingerprints on a murder instrument. And it was he who guided the investigation team to the instrument used in the murder, the iron beam which he had hid in a scrap storeroom at the monastery. A forensic report proved the beam carried traces of the Abbot’s blood, and was the possible cause of the deadly blows on the head of the Abbot, also all the bruises on his body and on the palm of the left hand of the suspect, Tawadros.
In its session on 23 February, the head judge Gamal Tosson said that the court, after studying all the evidence furnished in the case, listening to the prosecution and defence, responding to every demand by the defence, and listening to the testimony of the witnesses, was assured that the defendants had stripped themselves of all humane values and all concepts of reason, and had committed an atrocious crime, killing a human soul. “The defendants,” the court said, “were not deterred from committing the crime by the fact that they were monks who in all free will took vows to embrace goodness and tranquility in a full life with God. They had no qualms about doing their deed in a holy place where their brothers worship, nor did they respect the age, spiritual stature, or tolerance of their victim.”
The court said it could find no pretext whatsoever to use leniency with the defendants; hence it unanimously decided to refer the case to the Mufti.
Tawadros received the judgement in silence, whereas Falta’os broke into tears. His sister, who was in the courtroom, rushed out weeping.
Comfort from Pope
Pope Tawadros II had on 14 August made a call of comfort and support to the sister of the monk Falta’os al-Maqari; she is the only living member of his family. He also called the mother of Wael Saad Tawadros, in which he expressed his deep care; she later said that call had given her immeasurable comfort. The Pope met the defrocked monk’s brother who is a monk too at a monastery in Upper Egypt.
In ratifying the defrocking decision, Pope Tawadros had urged the defrocked monk to repent and correct his ways for the salvation of his soul and his eternal life.
Copts in shock
The crime sent severe shock waves through the Coptic congregation. Copts venerate monks and monasteries as ‘men of God’; as such, a great many Copts refused to believe such a brutal killing could have been committed in a monastery, by a monk. Even after the court pronounced its judgement, there is conviction among a large sector of Copts that something went wrong with the investigation and the defendants are innocent.
With the collective pain of the Coptic congregation almost too much to bear, Pope Tawadros II had dedicated his weekly sermon on the evening of Wednesday 8 August to tackle in detail the topic of the crime at St Macarius’s.
The Pope started by stressing that the horrendous crime which took the life of Anba Epiphanius should be seen as just that: a crime. “A crime involves a victim and a culprit or culprits,” he said. “And crimes should be investigated. The culprit should be found; there should be a case before the court of law, and a verdict should be issued. This is the order of things, and this is the path we are now treading. Crimes should never be covered up.
“The crime that pained us so much took place at one monastery, St Macarius’s, and the victim was the Abbot, Anba Epiphanius. But please, do not be shaken. Stand firm; don’t let anything shake you … Our monasteries are fine and have been fighting and overcoming countless spiritual battles throughout their long history … Monasticism is well and will triumph.
“We have issued decisions to discipline monastic performance. [On 3 August the Committee for Monasticism and Monastery Affairs issued a 12-decree statement to enforce stricter discipline on monasteries and monastic life.] And we’ll issue more such decisions. The congregation and monks should all help fulfil them.”
“Stand firm, be prayerful”
The Pope talked about incidents in Church history when there was treachery and when monks succumbed to temptation or weakness. “Jesus chose 12 disciples,” the Pope said. “One of them, Judas, betrayed him. There has always been and will always be a Judas, perhaps even one in every 12 persons. This is a fact, and it should not shake you.
“My beloved, please understand that in Church we all move according to live consciences, and to the responsibility that makes us answerable to God alone.”
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24 February 2019