Christianity Today, December 3, 2001
Reviving an Ancient Faith
Two strong-willed reformers bring Coptic Orthodoxy back to life.
By Cornelis Hulsman | posted 11/30/01
Each time Pope Shenouda, the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church,
enters a church sanctuary, bishops and priests shield him from the
throng reaching out to touch him for a blessing. The high-pitched
sound of ululating women fills the air, a moving testament to his
Pope Shenouda remains vigorous at 83. He is a gifted preacher, and
his weekly Bible lesson draws thousands of people to the stately
Orthodox cathedral in central Cairo. Pope Shenouda is the first
Coptic Orthodox leader to allow everyday believers to ask him
questions. At the Bible lessons, people scribble questions on little
pieces of paper and pass them forward to the pope. He answers them
one by one, often with a touch of humor. People listen attentively,
aware that their pope takes their problems seriously.
Egypt has the largest Christian population in the Arabic-speaking
world; estimates range from 3.4 to 13.5 million. Most of Egypt's
Christian leaders believe that Christians represent 10 to 12 percent
of the population. But French scholar Philippe Farges estimates,
based on his field research, that Christians make up about 5 percent
(3.5 million). Other reliable research, based on interviews of
Christians among army conscripts in the last 15 years, supports his
At least 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox
Church, a member of the family of non-Chalcedonian (Oriental)
Orthodox churches. Coptic church tradition identifies its founder as
St. Mark, considered the first Coptic patriarch.
The remaining 10 percent of Christians in Egypt are affiliated with
Roman Catholic, evangelical, and smaller Protestant churches.
According to Operation World, the non-Orthodox Christian population
is over 500,000. The Catholic and Protestant churches are generally
better connected to the West. They have much smaller percentages of
members in poverty. They believe social outreach programs should
also address the needs of poor Orthodox and Muslims.
By contrast, many Orthodox bishops and priests believe their
resources should be used primarily for their own Christian
community. But the well-known Coptic Orthodox monk, Father Matta el-
Meskeen, 86, has disagreed strongly. Having witnessed great
spiritual and material poverty throughout Egypt, Matta has reached
out to the masses. Says Father Basilius, a prominent
disciple, "Father Matta believes that whatever a person receives
from God for his own benefit he should share with others."
Both Shenouda and Matta have had a tremendous influence on their
church in the second half of the 20th century. They represent
different but complementary views on church reform: Shenouda as a
leader of congregations and a teacher of doctrine, and Matta as the
father of revival within Egypt's ancient desert monasteries.
Study in Contrasts
These two leaders have very different personalities. Two late 20th-
century bishops, Samuel and Athanasius, told John Watson, author of
the book Among the Copts (Sussex Academic Press, 2000), that they
saw Matta as a natural leader, although he had no place in the
church hierarchy. These two bishops considered Matta as a team
leader without pretensions to leadership. Watson describes Shenouda,
in contrast, as strongly hierarchical in his leadership style.
Both leaders have their roots in the Sunday-school movement, a
highly influential reform movement in the Coptic Orthodox Church,
which Coptic laity started in the 1930s. Before he took his clerical
name of Matta el-Meskeen, Youssef Iskander was an instructor at the
Sunday School Center in Giza, near Cairo. This center has a strong
commitment to meet the physical and spiritual needs of poor people.
Nazeer Gayed, now Pope Shenouda, was one of the leaders of the
Sunday School Center of Saint Antonius in Shubra, Cairo. It sought
to educate teachers and strengthen their personal faith in God.
While Iskander focused on the masses, Gayed paid close attention to
leadership. Their different approaches to renewal have blended, but
Iskander realized that the church must be reformed from within.
Despite contrary advice from his friends, Iskander became a monk in
1948, assuming the name Father Matta. In time, he initiated far-
reaching reforms within Coptic Orthodoxy.
Coptic leaders in those days were preoccupied with maintaining
tradition within churches and monasteries. Meanwhile, the number of
monks had dwindled dramatically. Those few who remained were poorly
educated, a dangerous condition in a church that elects its highest
leaders from among the monks.
Matta developed a spirituality based on rigorous study of the church
fathers, whose works span the first few centuries of Christianity.
Students from the Sunday-school movement admired him. Many joined
the monastic life, forming a group of reform monks.
Meanwhile, Gayed became editor in chief of Sunday School magazine,
which was critical of Coptic clergy, including Patriarch Yusab II.
To bring about reform and change, Gayed said, the next patriarch
should come from the Sunday-school movement. He joined Matta's
followers in 1954, and Matta became his confessor. Gayed took the
name Father Antonius.
After the death of Pope Yusab in 1956, a debate erupted on whether
his successor should be a reformer or a traditionalist. Conservative
bishops, controlling the Holy Synod, excluded monks from the
Monastery of Samuel, the residence of Matta and his reformers, as
potential papal candidates. Antonius decided to leave Matta's group
shortly afterward. Then the anti-reform bishops created a minimum
age requirement, effectively excluding any reformist monk from the
Pope Cyrill VI was elected in 1959, after years of debate. This
selection was widely seen as a compromise between the two parties.
Cyrill was not one of the reform monks, but he was highly esteemed
by many of them. During his tenure, Pope Cyrill VI worked for church
renewal. Antonius was consecrated a bishop in 1962, and took the new
In 1969, Matta was asked to restore the ancient Monastery of
Makarios, where only six old monks remained. Most of the buildings
had collapsed, and the surrounding land lay neglected. Today, 32
years later, the monastery has a flourishing agricultural program,
counts more than 100 monks, and has produced hundreds of books on
Focusing attention on pastoral leadership for congregations, Bishop
Shenouda reinvigorated Coptic seminary education, starting in the
early 1960s. The number of students studying theology increased
threefold. In 1971, the church's Holy Synod picked Shenouda and two
others as candidates for patriarch. Using lots, the synod asked a
young boy to choose one of three names placed on an altar. He chose
As the Coptic pope, Shenouda expanded theological education and
training. The statistics show amazing development in church
leadership. Only about 500 students graduated from seminary from
1900 to 1961. More than 2,300 graduated from 1961 to 1994. The best
of them became priests, monks, and (eventually) bishops.
Egyptian politics turned bloody in the 1970s, with the rise of
extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Violent outbreaks
between Muslims and Christians became common. Anwar Sadat, who
became president in 1970, was under heavy pressure to designate
Shari'ah, the Islamic legal code, as the source for constitutional
law. Shenouda became a public opponent of designating Shari'ah as
such. He also publicly protested government policies restricting new
Religious tensions grew worse. In September 1981, Sadat placed the
pope under house arrest along with scores of Muslim and Christian
leaders. A committee of five bishops replaced the pope. Watson,
serving at the time as a representative of the Anglican Archbishop
of Canterbury, advocated the immediate release of Pope Shenouda.
But, as Watson told ct, many Coptic intellectuals and
clergy "publicly blamed Pope Shenouda for inflaming tensions with
his high-profile protests against injustices."
Bishop Marcos, a member of the ruling Holy Synod since 1978, denies
that clergy publicly criticized the pope. "The first meeting of the
Holy Synod after September 1981 decided that the authority of the
pope is not to be challenged," he says, "but cooperation with the
papal committee was needed to keep the church in peace."
Father Matta was still more blunt in a rare interview with Time
magazine in September 1981. "Shenouda's appointment was the
beginning of the trouble," he said. "The mind replaced inspiration,
and planning replaced prayer.
For the first years I prayed for
him, but I see the church is going from bad to worse because of his
I can't say I'm happy. But I am at peace now. Every
morning, I was expecting news of more bloody collisions. Sadat's
actions protect the church and the Copts. They are from God."
Many Copts believe that Shenouda has never forgiven Matta for these
words. The interview appeared only days before Islamic militants
assassinated Sadat during a military parade on October 6, 1981.
Bishop Samuel, chairman of the papal committee, was also killed in
In the aftermath, top leaders in the Coptic church pressed for
Shenouda to be sidelined. But pro-Shenouda groups came to his
defense, including the U.S.-based American Coptic Association.
Shenouda remained under arrest at the Bishoi monastery for another
39 months. When authorities released him, Shenouda returned to Cairo
on Coptic Christmas, January 1985. But he was taken by surprise that
some of his own clergy had turned against him.
Thereafter, Shenouda referred to Matta as "the rebellious monk."
According to Marcos, the pope and the Holy Synod differ with Matta
on theology. Many observers believe the pope resents Matta's
opinions about his leadership.
The internal differences are not limited to Shenouda and Matta. The
Egyptian press frequently reports many other intrachurch
differences. Issues often arise over the pope's authority. Pope
Shenouda once described himself as the father of the church. Just as
children have to obey their father, he explained, so the children of
the church have to obey him. Many do. But not all.
Shenouda's influence has been dominant since 1985. The balance has
tilted in the direction of his style of church government. Religion
scholar Wolfram Reiss, whose research on Coptic reform was published
in the German journal Studies in Oriental Church History, believes
Shenouda's greatest influence on the church is in nominating so many
new bishops and creating new dioceses.
Shenouda often subdivides a diocese into smaller parts after its
bishop dies. Bishops, in Shenouda's view, should be closer to the
priests and believers. Some dioceses, such as in the Sinai, are
extremely small. But Reiss concluded, "The bishops prior to 1971 all
represented large bishoprics, which gave them strength and
influence. A larger number of bishops in smaller bishoprics
increases the power of the patriarch to an extent no patriarch has
enjoyed in centuries."
Matta has withdrawn to his monastery in recent decades, but his
books still have a potent influence even though his books have not
been sold in Coptic Orthodox bookstores in Egypt since 1985. No
bishops have been selected from his monastery since 1971. Still,
Matta's monastic revival has introduced a new generation to ancient
Coptic monastic disciplines.
The followers of Matta and Shenouda are likely to struggle anew when
Shenouda dies. The vitality of Coptic Orthodoxy may depend on
whether the legacy of Father Matta and Pope Shenouda is conflict or
cooperation between the church's bishops and monks.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. December 3, 2001, Vol. 45, No.
15, Page 38