MINYA — Anba Makarios, a bishop in the governorate with Egypt's highest number of violent sectarian incidents, does not employ the usual appeasing rhetoric of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church. He is a man who makes his voice heard but avoids being seen, expressing himself through official statements and brief phone calls to television talk shows. Even while shunning the spotlight, he has become an influential figure.

Makarios' is the general bishop of the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas Minya, and his outspoken positions have left many wondering whether or not they are sanctioned by the church. 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 — many in the Coptic media wonder 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, south of Cairo, 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% of the population in Minya compared to around 10% 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 2011 revolution were not out of the ordinary despite the sectarian violence that would flare up from time to time. Indeed, when on Jan. 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.

Not in line with the church’s official public position.

During the reign of the late Pope Shenouda III, the pope became the official political representative of Copts, leaving Coptic laypeople 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 Jan. 25, 2011, and Jan. 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, with seven people killed in Minya.

It was just over four years ago 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. A fight broke out in December 2013 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 ensuing battles 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, for the first time, alluded to security forces’ alleged 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 were not in line with the church’s official public position. Questions about 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.

Photo: Mohamed Hakim

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.

He spent 25 years in the desert as a monk.

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.

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 Kiraza Magazine, the official magazine of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

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 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.

“Writing laws is easy, but governing is difficult,” Makarios says, citing Tolstoy’s 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.

Thanking President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for his intervention.

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 Sept. 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 gotten 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 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.

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.”

*Translated from Arabic by Salma Khalifa


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