Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II (3R) and other high-ranking clerics arrive for a meeting with Pope Francis in southern Italy last month. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt’s Copts Soul-Searching After Murder of Prominent Bishop

Why Bishop Epiphanius was killed last month by a monk under his authority is still an open question

A remote Christian monastery is undoubtedly an odd setting for an unfolding murder mystery. That is unless you have seen The Name of the Rose, a 1986 film starring Sean Connery.

In the opening scenes, Connery, who plays a Franciscan friar, arrives at a remote Benedictine abbey in the cloud-enveloped mountains of northern Italy, accompanied by a young novice (played by Christian Slater). The year was 1327.

The friar, reputed for his investigative talents, soon discovers that something is amiss. It turns out that a few days prior, a monk famous for producing beautifully illuminated manuscripts was found dead at the base of the abbey’s tower. Was it suicide or did someone push him? The film delves deeply into the intrigues of monks, who, on account of their ascetic lifestyle in a remote locale, live beyond the control of Church higher-ups in Rome.

A similar episode has been playing out in Egypt in recent days. Late last month, a bishop was found dead at a desert monastery about 54 miles north-west of Cairo. The body of Bishop Epiphanius—the head of the Coptic Orthodox St. Macarious Monastery—was found in a pool of blood at the door of his monastic cell. He had received a severe blow to the back of his skull.

Egyptian authorities quickly opened up an investigation, questioning nearly 150 people, including monks at the monastery, which dates back to the 4th century. As the probe picked up steam, Faltaous al-Makary, a monk at the monastery, apparently tried to commit suicide by cutting his wrists and throwing himself off a four-story building inside the monastery, according to sources there who requested anonymity.

Al-Makary survived the fall and was reportedly rushed to a hospital. Shortly after the incident another monk, Wael Saad, a monk known as Isaiah al-Makari, confessed to bludgeoning the 64-year-old bishop to death with an iron pole.

Coptic Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria defrocked Saad a week later. Officials in the Coptic Church also confirmed that Saad had a long record of behavior “unbecoming” for a monk. Al-Makary, the one who reportedly tried to commit suicide, was arrested while recovering from his injuries in a hospital. Other monks tried to persuade prosecutors that he was suicidal, but officials now suspect that al-Makary was likely the target of a revenge attack by monks angered about the abbot’s death.

So what is the whole episode about?

Although Saad has been formally charged with the killing and is behind bars, his motives remain unclear. Church officials, who are now tight-lipped about the incident, initially suggested that Saad may have been motivated by an ongoing investigation that began before the bishop’s murder over Saad’s long-standing violations of his duties. Members of the church’s rank and file reportedly considered expelling the monk in the weeks before the murder.

Prosecutors believe that Saad and al-Makary, both of whom joined the monastery in 2010 as novices, were close friends who spearheaded a dissenting faction that sought to undermine Epiphanius’ authority.

When contacted by The Media Line Saad’s lawyer, Amir Nossif, declined to comment on the issue. He referred to his previous statements on an Egyptian television channel. “The precise motive that drove the monk to carry out the killing remains a matter of speculation,” Nossif said. “The devil controlled the monk,” he said, but later added: “According to some in the monastery, there were conflicts between the bishop and the other monks.”

Father Mercurius, a monk at the monastery, told The Guardian that the situation has caused great “suffering and agony.” When asked about the alleged dispute between a faction of monks and the bishop, he responded: “We are not able to talk about such things. We still don’t have a motive announced, though those of us who follow the church affairs closely have become aware of that motive.”

The murder has pried open the otherwise cloistered world of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and one that introduced monasticism into Christianity. Egypt’s Coptic community, which comprises about 10% of Egypt’s population, has been trying to make sense of what brought a monk to murder a respected senior leader of the Church. The killing has made front-page news in Egyptian newspapers and spurred a lot chatter on TV talk shows.

The murder also comes at a time when monasteries have become more central to Egypt’s Coptic community. Scattered across the country, often in remote areas, they have acquired a privileged status because of their role in shaping early Christianity’s ascetic traditions. They have also attracted students and professionals within the Coptic community who often help monks find ways to generate income, through farming and dairy initiatives, for example.

Dr. Nelly van Doorn-Harder, an expert on Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church at Wake Forest University, told The Media Line that becoming a monk is a major decision that involves a lengthy amount of time.

“It is a hard and counter-cultural life style. The monk who confessed to murdering the bishop was about to be defrocked. This means he was on his way out and had to find a place and position ‘in the world,’” van Doorn-Harder said.

This is deeply humiliating for a monk, she explained, as these clerics enjoy a high degree of respect and admiration within the community. Saad’s sympathizers might have thought that getting rid of the bishop would prevent him from leaving, she speculated.

Plus, there is the issue of mental health. Both Saad and Al-Makary allegedly tried to commit suicide, she explained. “This is an unspeakable act among Copts. The fact that monks are considered near perfect humans makes open discussion of mental illness very difficult.

“While many think a monk should be removed from the world to dedicate himself to prayer and contemplation, the Coptic community also expects monks and nuns to interact with the youth and others outside the walls of the monastery.”

This interaction, she explained, can often take place via social media platforms like Facebook. “What has happened is that the line between a monk using Facebook to serve his ministry and just for social interaction has become blurred. Monks are not supposed to socialize for personal satisfaction.”

Therefore, van Doorn-Harder concluded, “the murder reveals the stress, crisis, and questions called up by modernity.”

The case has raised vexing issues within the Church that many outside of it had no idea existed. One such issue is the growing influence, factionalism, and independence of monks in remote monasteries who appear to be at odds with Pope Tawadros II, the church’s central leadership.

In response, the pope has already issued 12 new decrees aiming to regulate monks’ behavior, including a ban on the setting up of “illegal” monasteries, a ban on monks leaving monastery grounds without permission, and heavy restrictions on their use of social networks and media appearances.

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