Book Review: Christians in Egypt

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Reviewed by Rev: John Watson
Watani Weekly, 29 April 2007

 The picture shows:
Christians in Egypt. Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Communities Past and Present by Otto F.A. Meinardus (American University in Cairo Press, 2006. pp.177. Dar el Kutub No. 14096/05) is his last published text. He died in 2005.

Christianity in Egypt is no different from that in any country. The tragic schisms, which divide the entire Christian world, are no different from the divisions of Sunni or Shia Islam. Christianity is conflict-ridden. Otto Meinardus very clearly stated that recent developments in Christian Egypt have provided many prejudices that poison the religious climate among Christians in a non-Christian environment. These sentences are memorable and unforgettable:

“For Christians and non-Christians alike, the depressing fragmentation of the Church of Jesus Christ must evoke sadness and concern, especially in a non-Christian environment, be it secular or Islamic…One answer to this embarrassment lies in a spiritual awakening. This has occurred among those who have turned away from property, prestige, and positions!”

Meinardus noted that the Copts are theologically ‘Biblical fundamentalists’, adhering to the doctrine of the verbal infallibility of the Scriptures. Biblical Fundamentalism must be close to Quranic Fundamentalism. In regard to their firm devotion to the teachings of the Holy Bible the Copts are said to have shown certain similarities to a number of conservative evangelical churches.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary examples of ecumenical alienation is Iconography. The wonder of the Coptic Iconography of Isaac Fanous (1919-2007) is beautifully explored by Meinardus. But in fact Patriarch Kyrillos IV (1816-61) was a violent iconoclast who said, “Behold, those wooden pictures you used to honour and even worship can neither avail nor harm, God alone should be adored.” Another appalling example is the Evangelical Hannah Buqtur Wissa (1837-1907) who actually burnt the icons of the Orthodox Church in Assyut in 1870. Perhaps Pope Kyrillos and Hannah Wissa were two of a kind? Iconoclasts! In the mid-1950s Coptic Iconography survived. A modern school of Coptic Art was established in Abbasiya. Professor Fanous was the major contributor to contemporary Coptic Iconography. His icons are wonderful expressions of advanced Christian thought and devotion. A unique school of Coptic art emerged from the heart and mind of Isaac Fanous for half a century.

The recorded images of Christian Egypt are often compelling. Otto Meinardus offers his autobiographical account of the recognition of the death-bird. The Coptic Orthodox family, in the room of their departed relation, place upon the window-sill a dish of cereals so that the death-bird may fly down to the window, eat and receive the departed soul up into the air, and fly to heaven. Meinardus identifies this kind of imagery with Pharaonic Egypt – the ‘ba’ is the bird, with a human face that travels to the heavens. For Copts the function of the death-bird, carrying the soul of the departed to heaven, was an integral part of Orthodox faith in the sixth and seventh centuries. Pharaonic imagery may not appeal to all Egyptian Christians but for many it might healthily burst into more than a thousand years of history by the River Nile. A perfect adoption of the ankh, the key of life, is either rejected or welcomed by Christians. In the fifth century the Copts adopted ‘the pharaonic hieroglyph for life’ as a symbol that might easily express their faith in eternal life. The pre-Christian crux ansata became the symbol of Christ’s redemption.

Most Coptic Orthodox Christians have believed themselves to be the sons and daughters of the pharaohs, whilst their Church accepts the period from the fourth to the seventh centuries, before the militant rise of Islam, as the peaceful and golden era of Orthodox Egypt. The outstanding theologians, doctors of the church, martyrs of the Mediterranean and the Nile, devout and committed hermits, and disciplined Coptic ascetics, were those who affirmed the reality of Coptic Orthodoxy, and the rejection of idolatry and polytheism in the pagan world. For centuries the Copts survived in their homeland. But in the twenty-first century the migrant Copts are a very different breed. It is quite clear that there are many Coptic Orthodox churches throughout the world that are beautifully prepared and presented. It is equally clear that large numbers of Copts have left their national church and united with others.

Meinardus’s text is ecumenically impressive. Anglican and Catholic traditions have been carefully outlined and explained by the author. Bishop Mounir Hanna Anis, whose diocese extends from Morocco to Ethiopia, faithfully serves the Anglican Church in Egypt. He is a Doctor of Medicine but was raised to the Anglican episcopate. He is a man of modesty. Anglican Egypt adheres firmly to a conservative biblical tradition. Bishop Mounir does not ordain women to the priesthood. He rejects any form of homosexuality. He is faithful.

The Roman Catholic Church in Egypt was present for many centuries and one of its greatest saints was Francis of Assisi. He preached the Gospel at Damietta in the thirteenth century, not only to local Egyptians but also to the Sultan himself. The Catholic mission has lasted for over eight hundred years. From the middle of the fifteenth century, the Catholic Church was increasingly engaged in healing the theological schism that had once divided Christendom. It is true that ecumenism has not been successful, and has rarely survived at all, but it is clear that a wide range of individuals have devoted themselves to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. It might be noted that the Jesuits have always made a major contribution in Egypt from 1696 to 1744 and into the twenty-first century. Some of the most famous theologians and scientists of the Society of Jesus came to Egypt. Surely one of the most lovable and charming figures in Egypt is the Lazarite Father, Cardinal Ghattas, Stephanus the Second, who has only recently retired. The Roman Catholic foundation of ++Caritas-International++ was founded in 1950 and made major contributions to the medico-social centres in Egypt, giving special attention to those suffering from Hansen’s disease, and working within the Department of Leprosy. The Roman Catholic Church in Egypt held a central place in Christian Egypt for centuries. It can only be described as a modest and spiritually orientated institution.

Many Copts contributed to the religious and social life of their nation. The supreme modern martyr is Saad Aziz who became Abouna Makari al-Suriani. Pope Kyrillos consecrated Makari as a bishop in 1962. Amba Samuel was assassinated on October 6, 1981. But as the founder of Social, Ecumenical and Public Affairs it would be reasonable to observe that he was the greatest bishop in modern times. He represented the Copts in the World Council of Churches, received a Master’s degree from Princeton University, and became vigorously involved in ecumenical, social, urban and rural projects. Truly, a great man. Bishop Samuel laid down the organisational foundations of his new social system in Coptic Egypt.

One of the refreshing accounts in this book is that of the Mission of Peter Heyling of Lübeck (1607-1652). He was the son of a German goldsmith. In the seventeenth century there were conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, though Heyling was himself a devoted student of Martin Luther and Thomas à Kempis. He learnt much from theological studies and spirituality. After the existing wars in Germany, he studied Law in Paris, then moved on to the Middle East so that German Evangelicals might emphasise the truth of the Gospel. He visited the Monastery of St Macarius the Great and was taught Arabic there. Some European Christians attempted to have him arrested. They failed. He remained a student of Arabic in the Wadi Natroun. In Easter 1643, Heyling travelled to Jerusalem and then moved south to Ethiopia where he continued to teach and study until 1652. En route to the Sudanese Red Sea port of Suakin he was beheaded by a Muslim sultan.

These easy narratives and critical studies have provided us with a sweeping overview of all the major Christian churches and organisation in modern Egypt. As one of the foremost scholars of the Christian history of Egypt and the Middle East, Otto Meinardus has provided us with the widest imaginable view of Egypt and the Arab World.