Seven years ago, we entered as individuals into communities of revolt. We joined one body that extended over streets and squares of dissent.
With each anniversary, the revolution is celebrated as that of all Egyptians. But this year, we have chosen to go back to the individuals, the initial makers of a grand moment in history. Through their stories we spend some time reflecting, looking into how losses and disappearances from that moment in our past continue to shape their lives today.
Anba Makarios, a bishop in the governorate that has the highest number of sectarian violence incidents in Egypt, has gone against the usual appeasing rhetoric of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church. He is a man who makes his voice heard but avoids being seen; he avoids media appearances, and expresses himself through official statements and brief phone calls to television talk shows. Though he eludes the spotlight, he has become an influential figure.
The outspoken positions of Makarios, the general bishop of the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas Minya, raised the question of whether or not they are sanctioned by the church. And with each new act of violence against Christians — the beheading of 21 Copts in Libya in 2015, the bombing of St. Peter’s Church in 2016, the bombing of two churches on Palm Sunday in 2017 — there is a hum in the Coptic media wondering what Anba Makarios would have said had these attacks taken place in his diocese.
Makarios’ diocese has particular characteristics. The population of the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya is 5.75 million according to the 2017 census, and although no information is available on the size of the Coptic population in Egypt, local sources indicate that they make up 30 percent of the population in Minya compared to around 10 percent nationally. Minya is also a hub for Islamist groups which have been perpetrating violence since the 1970s, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which carried out the assassination of the late President Mohamed Anwar Sadat.
Ordained as the bishop of Minya and Abu Qurqas in 2004 — one of several Minya eparchies — Anba Makarios’ statements before the revolution were not out of the ordinary despite the sectarian violence that would flare up from time to time. Indeed, when on January 11, 2011, a policeman opened fire on a Christian family on a train that was headed from Minya to Cairo, killing one man and injuring four other people, the diocese’s statement was a simple narration of the incident, which mentioned the phone call that Pope Shenouda III, who was receiving treatment in the United States, made to Anba Makarios to check on the wounded.
During the papacy of the late Pope Shenouda III, the pope became the official political representative of Copts and Coptic laypeople were marginalized from the public arena. Although bishops were given the liberty to speak to the press, none voiced any views that diverged from those of the pope, if they addressed politics at all.
Pope Shenouda III died in March 2012, leading to a significant change in the church at a time of great upheaval in the country. Sectarian violence has also been on the rise since the revolution — the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) documented 77 incidents of sectarian violence and tension in Minya alone between January 25, 2011, and January 25, 2016. This figure does not include the attacks that followed the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins in the summer of 2013, when approximately 44 churches and dozens of properties owned by private Coptic citizens and religious associations were torched and looted and seven people killed in Minya.
It was in December, 2013 that Makarios started charting a different direction. It seemed like the right time for the general bishop of a diocese that experiences forms of sectarian violence almost on a daily basis.
In December 2013, a fight broke out between the Coptic residents of the village of Nazlet Ebeid and the Muslim residents of the village of Hawarta in Minya over the dividing line for construction on a piece of land. The fight killed four and injured 20 others. Anba Makarios spoke up against convening a customary reconciliation session, saying that they “compromise justice and equality.” Makarios also hinted, for the first time, at security forces’ dereliction of duty.
Reconciliation sessions are a customary method of settling disputes and containing sectarian violence in lieu of the legal system and judiciary that have had been adopted by the state and accepted by the church. EIPR researcher Ishaq Ibrahim describes them as “a way to circumvent the law, grant the accused legal impunity and establish different forms of religious discrimination.”
Anba Makarios’ position and statements, however, were not in line with the church’s official public position. Questions about how whether he was directly disobeying the leadership of the Abbasseya-based Coptic Orthodox Church were raised. But in May 2016, after a sectarian incident took place in Makarios’ diocese that not only captured national attention, but international headlines, Pope Tawadros II authorized Anba Makarios to handle the crisis and speak on behalf of the church. A Coptic woman named Soad Thabet was attacked in her house, stripped naked and dragged through the streets of the village of Karm. The incident was sparked by a rumor of a romantic relationship between her son, Ashraf Abdo, and a Muslim woman from the village.
The Minya bishop’s statement read, “The church is firmly against referring the Karm case to a reconciliation session.” Makarios later refused to meet with a delegation from Parliament and Beit al-Aila (House of the Family), a body convened by Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb and made up of priests and Al-Azhar sheikhs, to resolve problems that arise from sectarian violence.
That the delegation came unannounced was the reason Anba Makarios gave for his refusal to receive the delegation. His position was unexpected, especially given that the delegation had an official state mandate to attempt to resolve the crisis. He condemned “this parade of courtesy and kindness as an approach to resolution,” saying it has allowed “officials to escape accountability and even their duties, and turned each catastrophe into mere fuel for a bigger catastrophe to follow soon after.”
In a recording recounting his memories of the late Pope Shenouda III, Anba Makarios describes his first meeting with the pope in the Syrian Monastery in Wadi al-Natrun when he was under house arrest. President Sadat had arrested hordes of dissidents, and repealed state recognition of Shenouda III as the pope and confined him to the monastery. The arrests came just months before Sadat’s assassination by a militant Islamist group in 1982. Former President Hosni Mubarak repealed the confinement decree in 1985.
Born Makram Ayyad on June 10, 1958, Anba Makarios became a monk in his twenties and joined the Virgin Mary Monastery of Baramos in Wadi al-Natrun, where he was named Kirollos of the Baramos.
Makarios’ charisma and strong personality, for which he had become known during his time as a monk, caught the late pope’s attention. He and four other monks were asked to accompany the pope on a reconstruction mission to the St. Anthony Monastery in the California desert. Anba Makarios, however, politely declined the offer.
Over the following years, Makarios of the Baramos Monastery was promoted until he was ordained as a priest in 2001. It seems the pope had not forgotten him as he sent him another proposal via Anba Arsenios, the current Archbishop of Minya and then-secretary of the Baramos Monastery, to priest Makarios of the Baramos Monastery to travel to the California desert and replace the late Anba Karas as abbot at the St. Anthony Monastery.
Makarios’ feelings about traveling had not changed but he was — as he puts it — embarrassed to turn the pope down again. Anba Arsenios, however, intervened to request that the pope appoint him as an assistant to manage the Minya diocese rather than sending him on a mission abroad. The pope accepted the counterproposal on the condition that Makarios join his secretarial staff for a time. Makarios worked there for one year, next door to the Pope’s chambers.
Anba Makarios does not talk much about himself, but what little he said to us reveals much about his character. As a Christian, the characters of the Holy Bible are of great importance to him, but he says that he was also heavily influenced by Leo Tolstoy, Naguib Mahfouz and Khalil Gibran. A voracious reader, he spent 25 years in the desert as a monk, reading, writing and translating. His first title, Many Teachers, was published in 1988 under the pen name “A monk of the Baramos Monastery,” as was the case with his subsequent works.
“The purpose of writing anonymously,” he says, “was not to humble myself so much as it was to hear readers’ true opinions and allow them the liberty to choose my books without knowing who the author was, as I had made quite a lot of friends.” Makarios was ordained as bishop in 2004, after which he began to publish under his name. His literary production continued and he became supervisor in 2011 of the Kiraza Magazine, the official magazine of the Coptic Orthodox Church, established by Pope Shenouda III in 1965 when he was still the general bishop for Christian education.
Anba Makarios became known as a rare revolutionary within the church for being outspoken on sectarianism. But near the end of November 2017, a video surfaced of a meeting in the diocese, in which he called the mutual recognition of baptism in the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches unacceptable, referring to an agreement on baptism that had been signed by Pope Tawadros II and Pope Francis during the Catholic pope’s visit to Egypt in April of that year. The video was a disappointment to those who saw in Makarios hope for a movement of reform within the church.
In the video, Makarios said that the Coptic Orthodox Church does not recognize any Catholic rites and that Catholicism was was introduced to Egypt by the French and Protestantism by the British occupation. Both the Catholic and Evangelical churches expressed their dismay at his comments, and Anba Makarios then issued a statement in which he apologized, but only to Catholics.
Anba Makarios’ views were in line with the positions of other clergymen who were indignant in their opposition to the mutual recognition of baptism, with several priests releasing statements voicing their objection. Contrary to the Vatican’s official statement and the Coptic Orthodox Church’s earlier announcement, both Pope Tawadros II and the Holy Synod – in its first routine session after the controversy – denied that an agreement on the mutual recognition of baptism had been signed and claimed that it was only a joint declaration to dialogue on the issue.
In Minya, some incidents are sparked by the disapproval of romantic relationships between Muslims and Christians, leading to the torching of houses, property and churches and the displacement of Christian families – even if they were not involved in the incident. But most often, sectarian violence is about places of worship and comes as a response to attempts to construct churches or hold prayers, even if these are places where prayers have been held for years.
The right to the construction and renovation of churches did not become a topic of discussion until after the revolution. EIPR researcher Ibrahim associates the fact that calls for the construction of churches as well as condemnation of discriminatory practices against Copts have become stronger and louder with the societal changes that followed the revolution.
“The first change within the church came,” Ibrahim explains, “when a younger generation of leaders emerged in the clergy, who believe in people’s right to knowledge and see the media as a useful tool when it comes to Coptic causes. They are, therefore, motivated to speak to the press. Anba Makarios is the most prominent figure within this trend.”
The second change that Ibrahim points to was the shifts within the press, with the establishment of several privately owned outlets after 2011. This enabled a space to write about the church and Coptic issues. Finally, Ibrahim adds, there was a certain atmosphere of freedom after the revolution which lasted until the end of 2013, when these figures were compelled to withdraw from public space again.
“Writing laws is easy, but governing is difficult,” Makarios says, citing Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace about the long-awaited law on the construction of Christian places of worship passed in 2016. It was celebrated by the church and Coptic members of Parliament cheered for it loudly, while Makarios’ response was far more muted. “I hope there are no loopholes in this law that destroy it, that it does not contain within it the reasons for its failure or lack of implementation,” he said.
Makarios went so far as to say, “Myself, I feel that this law was passed to curb the construction of churches,” pointing to various prohibitive conditions. “If local security officers deem the security circumstances unfavorable, construction will be prevented. Within this law Coptic issues remain a matter for the security apparatus.”
Several churches were indeed closed after the passing of the law. In August 2017, two churches within Makarios’ diocese were closed, the Anba Paul Church in the village of Kedwan and the Virgin Mary Church in the village of Ezbet al-Forn. They were reopened in September after Makarios had released a statement on September 10, thanking President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his intervention to resolve the crisis, although he did not specify what form this intervention took.
Just a few weeks later, three more churches in Minya were closed within one week in October. Anba Makarios released a statement, in which he said, “We have kept our silence for two weeks after a church was closed, hoping that officials would carry out their duties entrusted to them by the state. But things have only got worse — another church was closed, and then another, and attempts to close a fourth were made. Copts are forced to travel to neighboring villages to perform their rituals, as if prayer were a crime that they should be punished for.”
The statement infuriated the governor of Minya, Major General Essam al-Bedeiwy, who responded that same day with a strongly worded statement of his own, in which he called on Anba Makarios to be careful and accurate with his choice of words, lest it be understood that the church is seeking to antagonize the state. Anba Makarios did not respond.
Commenting on Anba Makarios’ statement and the Minya governor’s response, Ibrahim says, “Many people are afraid to speak freely now. But Anba Makarios’ stance is different. He is applying pressure on those institutions that are particularly rigid regarding Copts’ rights, but he does not criticize the presidency.”
Ibrahim believes that Anba Makarios has succeeded in peacefully protesting the systematic practices that aim to prevent Copts from enjoying their right to worship. He points to the different methods Makarios uses, for instance following one of the recent church closures, Copts prayed on the street, and in another, they staged a sit-in and held prayers until the church was reopened.
In his interview with Mada Masr, Anba Makarios refuses to be described as extraordinary. “I do not believe that my presence in particular in Minya makes such a big difference,” he says. “Any bishop can lead the march, and probably better than I do.”
Anba Makarios’ politics is quite different from Anba Demetrios, the Bishop of Mallawa, Ansana and Ashmounein, another Minya diocese. The disparity is highlighted in Anba Demetrios’ statement in November in which he thanked the president, the interior minister, the director of National Security Agency, the head of the Minya Security Directorate and the governor for their cooperation in resolving the problems facing the Coptic church.
In 2018, hundreds of Minya Copts were left with no place to pray or celebrate Eastern Orthodox Christmas. According to Anba Makarios, over 15 houses of worship are currently closed, and there are 70 villages and small towns currently with no Christian places of worship.
In Cairo, Pope Tawadros II celebrated Coptic Christmas in the new administrative capital at the Cathedral of the Nativity — celebrated by Sisi and the media as the largest in the Middle East — in the presence of several state officials, including the president. These prayer arrangements received intense coverage in the Coptic media, but were not enough to overshadow Anba Makarios’ surprise visits to the residents of the Minya village of Ezbet al-Tobgy. He joined them in their Christmas eve prayers at their small church made up of one room and an altar.
When the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas experiences sectarian violence, the parishioners prefer to remain silent until the release of Anba Makarios’ official statement, which usually provides relevant information, supported by eyewitness reports. They trust him, believing that he will not relinquish their rights.
It has become the norm that bishops and men of the cloth only speak to officials, communicating information to their parishioners through representatives. Anba Makarios, however, visits the affected Coptic citizens within his diocese following each crisis. “Nothing is everlasting but God, the church and the people,” Anba Makarios says to us. “Connections with public figures and powerful men are futile unless they are eventually employed to benefit the people.” Thus he summarizes five years of strong positions and bold statements that have earned him a reputation as the clergyman who has broken the church’s silence and spoken up against the status quo that denies the existence of sectarianism in Egypt.