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Fr Matta El-Meskeen and Pope Shenouda III

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    Christianity Today, December 3, 2001 Reviving an Ancient Faith Two strong-willed reformers bring Coptic Orthodoxy back to life. By Cornelis Hulsman | posted
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      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
      high office.

      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
      not completely.

      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
      patriarchal throne.

      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
      name Shenouda.

      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
      Coptic spirituality.

      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.

      External Threats
      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
      church construction.

      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
      behavior. … 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
      the attack.

      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

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