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The autoimmune disease of the Coptic church

On the night of April 25, 2018, the bishop of Matai in Minya Governorate ordered the demolition of the old metropolitan cathedral in the town. The advantage of carrying out this operation on Sinai Liberation Day, a public holiday, and at such a late hour, was that it could take place undisturbed. The destruction was so rushed that a few days later, police ordered the reconstruction of a single wall, as a licence had been not been granted for its demolition since it overlooked a market area.

This incident, and several others like it, raise suspicions of administrative misconduct, not only against the law, which may be assessed in due time through the courts, but also against the moral laws of the Coptic church and its needs.

For years the bishop had actively pursued the demolition of the cathedral in order to build a larger structure on the site, despite it being structurally sound (claims to the contrary would seem to carry no weight, as Easter liturgy at the building was attended by the governor of Minya, and there was no scaffolding in sight to protect an allegedly falling structure).  

Courtesy: Monica Hanna

If the local community needed a larger place of worship, which is a legitimate aspiration, why the need to completely knock down the old one in order to accommodate this need, if not for selfish interests, a total lack of gratitude to past benefactors, or bad managerial skills? — Another plot of land had been purchased for the purpose of erecting a new building, but the transaction was botched and construction was halted over financial disagreements with the owner of the land.

In a period in which Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt find it difficult to obtain (and implement) permits to build new churches — sectarian violence broke out in the governorate of Beni Suef over this very issue just a few days before the demolition in Matai — why would a bishop destroy his only church? He could have fought for a second church, but instead he ended up with nothing.

The cathedral was built around AM 1645/AD 1929 by local landowner Morqos Girgis Saad (1878-1933), whose descendants claim ownership of the place and believe the building was demolished illegally. Aside from the infringement of property rights, the bishop committed a pernicious offence against cultural heritage. The local office in charge of protecting and registering buildings of architectural interest refused to intervene, stating that the church was nothing special and was only built in the 20th century. This raises the question of what constitutes heritage.

That the cathedral was built by a private sponsor for the benefit of the local Coptic community speaks volumes about the social and economic situation of the Coptic Church in the 1920s. It was also part of a historical trend, in which rich, provincial families would enrich the heritage of their hometowns by erecting private mansions and public buildings. In fact, a number of Coptic families own houses in Upper Egypt, and some even a family church. So, although the architecture of the building itself was not of particular interest, the history of the place surely constitutes heritage, because it is a testimony to a certain period and cultural history.

It is not by chance that the church was sponsored and managed by laymen, because its construction dates back to a time when relations between the Coptic patriarchate and the Millet Council (an elected Coptic Orthodox council responsible for administrative church matters), who had been clashing since 1878 over endowments administration, were at their best, i.e. during the papacy of John XIX (1927-1942) and Makarios III (1942-1945). The cathedral in Matai was a product of this specific historical juncture.

Courtesy: Monica Hanna

The matter of heritage should also be considered in relation to the location of the buildings in question. While a church built in 1929 might not be of particular interest somewhere else, it is in Matai, where, aside from a few family mansions, nothing remains of the architecture from before the early 20th century. The church was, in fact, one of the oldest buildings in the town.

Another important element that may qualify the church as a building of heritage is that the paintings on its iconostasis were the work of a Muslim artist, who also worked at a church in the Azbakeya district of Cairo, and in Alexandria. The fact that a Muslim painter was asked to decorate a church also speaks volumes about the situation in the 1920s, when priests were invited to conferences at Al-Azhar and Muslim clerics would often speak in churches. This was a time when nationalistic sentiments generally prevailed over sectarian ones, and when attempts to justify British intervention in Egypt as being for the protection of the Christian community were widely rejected. Abouna Sergios, a famous Coptic preacher in 1919 responded to this justification by saying, “Let the Copts die and Muslims live as free men.”

Another important aspect of the building that contributes to its heritage status is that its benefactor was granted the privilege of a burial inside the church, by virtue of a decree by Interior Minister Mahmoud Fahmy al-Qaisy Pasha. His tomb was not located in a crypt, but in the chancel (haykal) — an unusual case, perhaps only similar to that of Butrus Ghali Pasha, who was buried in the Butrusiya family church in Abbasseya, Cairo, after his assassination in 1910.

The paintings on the iconostasis were damaged during the building’s demolition, and the painted panel bearing the formal dedication of the church was intentionally destroyed in order to remove any trace of it. Heritage is not just constituted by these single elements, however, even if they were preserved. It mattered that this iconostasis was in this specific church, with its specific proportions, surrounded by other elements of decoration, like the beautifully painted domes, which are now gone forever.

In its ruthless pursuit to demolish this cathedral, the Coptic Church has not only prevaricated the rights of the family that sponsored the building, it has also insulted the memory of the benefactor who erected the cathedral for the benefit of the local community.

This is only the latest in a string of abuses carried out by the Coptic church against its own cultural heritage. Other recent demolitions include the 18th century cells in Dayr al-Suryian, and many other important Coptic historic and archaeological sites that should have been preserved. The Coptic church should reconsider its strategy regarding cultural heritage. Lack of intervention is proof of poor management, even at its highest levels, and of great ignorance about cultural issues and a lack of a vision and strategy concerning Coptic heritage — an autoimmune disease that brings self-destruction.

In a moment in which Christian cultural heritage in the Middle East is suffering from the abuses of extremist groups, such as the so-called Islamic State, it brings me great sadness to see church leaders carry out their own demolitions at home, and to see congregations blindly following such vandalism of their own heritage and identity.

Monica Hanna is a third generation descendant of Morqos Girgis Saad, who lost all her childhood memories and family heritage with the destruction of the cathedral of Matai.

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Monica Hanna