They are two Churches far flung in both time and space. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in Egypt is some two millennia old, and the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow is barely more than one millennium old. Yet serious relations between them only started some two centuries ago, even though Russians regularly came to Egypt centuries earlier for pilgrimage to St Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai, a monastery affiliated to the Greek Orthodox Church and which was then very closely related to the Russian Church.
Ishaq Agban, Head of the History Department at the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo, wrote the book Relations between the Coptic and Russian Churches in the 19th and 20th centuries, published in Arabic by Russian News Arabic in 2015, on the history of relations between the Coptic and Russian Orthodox Churches. The book is now among the important references on that history.
According to Dr Agban, Russian Bishop Porphyrius Uspensky (1804 – 1885) paid several visits to Egypt and Sinai in the 19th century. Bishop Porphyrius was a traveller, theologian, orientalist, and archaeologist, who was interested in oriental orthodoxy. He visited the Holy Land in Palestine, Mount Athos in Greece, and Mount Sinai in Egypt.
Bishop Porphyrius wrote several works on Copts and the Coptic Church, and was deeply interested in Christian unity.
Also during the 19th century, works by Russian prelates and monks on theology and monasticism were translated into Arabic and circulated among Copts, generating great interest among the Coptic Church and the Coptic monastic movement.
Relations between Orthodox Russia and Egypt grew more robust over time. When Russian Tsar Alexander III died in 1894, funeral prayers were said for his soul by Coptic Pope Kyrillos V at St Mark’s Cathedral in Azbakiah, Cairo.
The 20th century brought in the communist era (1917 – 1991) to Russia, an era that saw the Russian Church harassed and persecuted, thus negatively affecting its communication with other Churches in the world. But even so, relations with Egypt’s Coptic Church did not stop altogether; Patriarch Alexy I visited Egypt in 1945 then again in 1960.
The year 1968 marked 19 centuries on the martyrdom of St Mark, the apostle who brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century and was martyred in Alexandria in 68AD; also the opening of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo. The new Cathedral was to house part of the relics of St Mark which had been taken from Alexandria to Venice in 828 but were graciously handed by Pope Paul VI in 1968 in Rome to the Coptic Church which had requested it. A great celebration was held in Cairo to mark the opening of the new Cathedral and the placing of St Mark’s relics in a shrine under the main altar. The Russian Church sent a delegation to participate in that celebration, and gifted the new Cathedral with a gold-plated altar.
In November 1971, a high-ranking delegation from the Russian Church participated in the enthronement ceremony of Pope Shenouda III at St Mark’s in Cairo. In October 1972, close to a year on his enthronement, Pope Shenouda III paid a visit to the Russian Church in Moscow, in which he met Patriarch Pimen of Moscow and all Russia. It was the first visit ever by a Coptic Patriarch to the Russian Church. In 1988, Pope Shenouda paid another visit to Moscow to take part in the Russian Church’s celebration of 1,000 years since Christianity was designated an official religion in Russia.
Patriarch Alexy II reciprocated Pope Shenouda’s visit in 1991.
The 21st century saw Patriarch Kirill visit Egypt in 2010; he was received by Pope Shenouda in Alexandria. Patriarch Kirill had been enthroned Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia a year earlier, in 2009.
The mutual visits of the prelates of the Coptic and Russian Churches during the papacy of Pope Shenouda generated valuable theological dialogue between the two Churches.
Pope Tawadros II became Patriarch of the See of St Mark in November 2012, and has since displayed a keen ecumenical sense that led him to work on enhancing relations between the Coptic Church and other major Churches in the world. He paid two visits to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch in Moscow: the first in November 2014, and the second in May 2017. During that second visit, Pope Tawadros II was awarded the prize of the International Public Foundation of the Unity of Orthodox Nations “for his distinguished activity in promoting unity between Orthodox communities, and for fostering Christian values in the community.”
An unprecedented leap has since taken place in the relations between the Coptic and Russian Churches, with close cooperation on the academic; media; social and development fronts; as well as on theological dialogue and the exchange of visits on various levels.
The most recent visits paid by representatives of the Russian Church to Egypt took place last May; on 13 – 16 May 2019 a delegation from the Moscow Theological Academy (MTA) came to Egypt on invitation from Pope Tawadros, and on 28 – 29 May 2019 the Bilateral Dialogue Commission of the Coptic and Russian Orthodox Churches convened in Cairo.
Moscow Theological Academy is the oldest such institution in Russia. It was founded in 1687 by two Greek monks, Sophronius and Joanniki Likhud, as part of the Slavic Greek Latin Academy which was later transformed into the Moscow Theological Academy. In 1814, the Academy moved from Moscow to the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. Today, it is under Archbishop Ambrose of Vereya, and includes 130 professors and some 2,000 students.
The Moscow Theological Academy delegation that visited Egypt last May was headed by Archbishop Ambrose and included Hieromonk Stephen Igumnov, secretary for inter-Christian relations of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, as well as six monks who teach at the Academy and 11 student monks. They were accompanied by Hieromonk Daoud al-Anthony of the Coptic monastery of Anba Antonios (St Anthony), who is currently studying at the Academy.
The Russian delegation’s seven-day visit included a sightseeing tour of the Giza Pyramids and Cairo’s renowned landmarks, after which they toured a number of Egypt’s desert monasteries and Coptic institutions.
Visits included Wadi al-Natroun in Egypt’s Western Desert some 100km northwest Cairo, home to the 4th and 5th century-monasteries of Anba Bishoy, al-Surian, al-Baramous, and Abu-Maqar (St Macarius). In the Red Sea Mountains in the Eastern Desert, some 260km southeast Cairo, the Russians visited the 4th century monasteries of Anba Antonios (St Anthony the Great) and Anba Pola the First of the Hermits (St Paul of Thebes).
In Cairo, the Russian delegation toured the 4th century churches of Old Cairo: the Hanging Church; Abu-Serga Church which includes a cave that once sheltered the Holy Family on its flight to Egypt; and the church of St Barbara. Also in Old Cairo, they were welcomed into the convents of Mar-Girgis (St George) and Abu-Seifein (St Mercurius), and in Fatimid Cairo they visited the convent of al-Amir Tadros (St Theodore) where the nuns joyously received them in a procession bearing candles and chanting Coptic praises. The Russians were so moved that they reciprocated with chants of Russian praises, forming a beautiful harmony with the Coptic.
In each of these monasteries, the Russians met the Coptic monks and had talks with them; listened to the history and current state of Coptic monasticism, and exchanged notes on the topic. They took the blessings of the holy saints’ shrines and relics housed in the monasteries, in many cases chanting their own praises for these saints.
At Anba Bishoy’s, they learnt from the Copts how to use the cymbals and triangle to accompany chants, and displayed deftness with these instruments that gained the admiration of the Copts. At al-Surian Monastery, the Abbott Anba Matta’os gave Archbishop Ambrose a Bishop’s staff as a gift before he left; at Abu-Maqar’s he was gifted with a brass serpent; in other monasteries they were gifted a number of Coptic icons.
In Cairo, the Russian delegation visited St Marcos Coptic Centre in Nasr City, where they watched a performance in the Russian language on the Russian people’s great interest in visiting the most important Coptic and archaeological landmarks in Egypt, especially the sites trodden by the Holy Family in Egypt.
They visited as well the Coptic Museum where they were given a guided tour by its General Manager Gihan Atta.
On 10 May, the delegation visited St Mark Cathedral, and the adjacent al-Boutrossiya Church which was the scene of a suicide bombing that blew off during Sunday Mass on 11 December 2016. The bombing killed 29 Copts, injured some 50 worshippers, and left the church in ruins. The church, which was built in the early 1900s by the prominent Coptic Boutros-Ghali family, was restored by the Egyptian Armed Forces and has been open for worship since January 2017, with the addition of a shrine for the martyrs. It was fully restored except for the marble columns and stone walls partly scorched and pockmarked with the scars left by the shrapnel, in testimony and remembrance of the tragic incident and the Christians who lost their lives for their faith. The Russian delegation was deeply moved by being at the martyrdom site of the modern age. They were able to meet the family of one of those martyrs, Nabil Habib, the church guard who died in the explosion. They were profoundly inspired by the family’s great inner peace, pride, and faith that Habib is now in a better place with Christ.
At the Institute of Coptic Studies (ICS), the Russian group was received by ICS Dean Sami Sabri who explained in detail the institute’s departments and work. They were treated to an exhibition of Coptic icons, mosaics, textile, stained glass, pottery, and other works.
A round-table discussion was held, which was devoted to prospects of further cooperation in the academic sphere between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church. A number of joint proposals were negotiated, which would then be presented to the bilateral Commission for Dialogue for approval.
Pope Tawadros II met the Russian delegation, warmly welcoming them and noting: “This visit helps to give a profound experience about Egypt and her Coptic Church.” He asked Archbishop Ambrose to convey his sincere greetings to Patriarch Kirill.
The prelates discussed the current state of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church. “In these difficult times, we must build bridges of friendship, broaden and strengthen relations between our nations and—even more important—pray for each other and for Christian unity,” Pope Tawadros noted. He expressed happiness at the young student members of the Russian delegation, because “they are the ‘future Church that should be One in Christ’ we aspire for,” he said.
Archbishop Ambrose spoke about the Russian delegation’s visit as a historic one, stressing the significance of mutual visits and their importance in gaining first-hand information on the respective Churches. “Visitors from the Russian Church who came to Egypt before us were so positively impressed, that we decided to make the visit too,” he said. He expressed how Coptic monasticism had impressed him, also how moved he was to see the blood of modern-day martyrs’ spattered on church columns, saying that it gave a wholly new perspective to martyrdom.
Cathedral of Nativity
It was fitting to conclude the visit to the Coptic Church with a trip to the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s new capital, a mega-project that is being built some 40km east of Cairo. The visitors highly praised the cathedral, built by the State, which has a floor plan of 8,100 square metres and can accommodate 7,500 worshippers.
Archbishop Ambrose and Hieromonk Stephen visited Alexandria where they received a warm welcome from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theodoros II of Alexandria and All Africa.
Commission for Dialogue
On 29 May 2019, the Commission for Dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church held its 3rd session in Cairo. The Commission is co-chaired by Russian Bishop Gennady of Kaskelen and Coptic Bishop Serapion of Los Angeles, and includes 12 members, six from each Church.
It discussed the implementation of agreements reached at the session held in Astana on 27-29 June 2017, and defined the programme of bilateral cooperation that will be presented to the Church authorities for approval.
Participants studied plans of the implementation of joint initiatives in Diakonia, noting that a delegation of the Coptic Church visited Moscow on 13 – 17 March 2017, and a delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church visited Cairo and Alexandria on 5 – 8 February 2018 for experience exchange.
Projects were outlined regarding the exchange of lecturers and students, participation in conferences, and cooperation between libraries and schools of Church choirmasters and iconographers. At present, Coptic students can study at theological schools in Russia. A two-week summer camp for Coptic young priests and students is scheduled to be held in Russia in 2020.
The Commission discussed pastoral care for Copts in Russia and Russians in Egypt.
Joint theological consultations to promote dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the family of the Ancient Oriental Churches were tackled, and plans for the 2020 meeting of theologians were discussed.
Also discussed at the session was the possibility of common work at the inter-religious meetings and coordination of multidisciplinary cooperation between diaspora communities of both Churches.
It was decided that the next session of the Commission would be hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan in 2021.
17 July 2019