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Legends and murders lurking behind church walls Looking at the Coptic church through the lens of a legend: On the murder of Anba Epiphanius

The age of miracles may be over, but legends still prevail. They do not need to be immortalized, as long as they are told and retold and believed. But every legend has a desire to satisfy and a purpose to serve.

When the death of Anba Epiphanius at the Anba Makkar Monastery (Saint Macarius the Great) was announced, surrounded by speculation that he may have been murdered, the media rushed to solve the mystery. After all, a murder in a monastery in the desert is prime fodder for the imaginative detective.

Some media articles about Epiphanius’ death called to mind Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose (1980), which is also about a murder in a monastery. And, combined with perceptions of the church in the Egyptian imaginary, which are often surrounded by myth and speculation, the Anba Makkar Monastery murder became imbued within a greater context of disagreement over meaning and truth.

It did not escape the media that the scene of the crime was the same monastery in which the late Father Matta al-Meskeen was based, and consequently the details of the theological and personal strife between Meskeen and the late Pope Shenouda III were rehashed and added a layer of drama to the story of Epiphanius’ death.

The rumors about Meskeen’s confrontations with Shenouda helped portray him in a revolutionary light, particularly regarding his ideas on the role of the church in society. He was always reported to have been against Pope Shenouda embroiling the church in politics.

This narrative was perpetuated by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s book, Autumn of Fury (1983), which depicted Shenouda and Meskeen as belonging to two rival schools of thought, each with their own interpretations of theology and ideas about the role the church should play in public life. Within this narrative, Shenouda perceived the church as an institution that should serve the spiritual, corporeal, social and other needs of believers, while Meskeen believed it should be strictly concerned with spiritual education, a view synonymous with that of many of the intellectual elite.

As part of its coverage of Epiphanius’ death, the privately owned Youm7 newspaper published an interview with Meskeen conducted by Gaber Asfour, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid and Hoda Wasfi, under the headline “Allah wal-Maseeh wal-Zaman” (God, Christ and Time). This story and others like it served to perpetuate the legend of Meskeen as an outcast, a victim of the pope’s authority deserving of sympathy. And, like any other legend, it is believed because it feeds into an existing school of thought within the Coptic community itself that is critical of the way in which the church is run.

I am not concerned here with determining the truth of such stories, rather with examining the ways in which myths can be amplified and the deaths of certain figures used long after their bodies are cold to provide an explanation for current events — in this case, the murder of Epiphanius, just a few days after his death.

Pope Tawadros’ sermon on August 8 suggested that Epiphanius’ murder may have been motivated by individual interest. Then, before he confessed, media personality and member of Parliament Mostafa Bakry, who is close to government circles, named the man formerly known as monk Ashia al-Makkary (who was defrocked by the church on August 5) as the perpetrator.

The picture of what happened is still murky, but there is nothing to suggest that anything other than a personal vendetta motivated Epiphanius’ murder. The wider picture of theological disagreement and the evoking of Meskeen’s memory therefore appears to be largely unfounded.

So, why, then, did the media dismiss this scenario in favor of a legend-inspired motive? Why can’t a murder that took place in a monastery be just a criminal offense like any other murder?

The church and its institutions are often portrayed as mysterious entities that are teeming with disputes and conspiracies, which feeds into a larger sectarian rhetoric that has always depicted them as places to be feared. And the church itself is not innocent of perpetuating such an image.

The official response from the church on this occasion went some way toward countering such exceptionalism, stressing that monasteries are like any other place and that monks are ordinary people who can also be sinners and criminals, and reiterating that the matter was under legal investigation. It also went further, encouraging church members to assist monks in adhering to the rules of church and state by refraining from making personal visits and calls to monks, and not offering them individual donations.

The details of the crime, however, bring us back to Meskeen’s legend. Seeing as the perpetrator is likely to have been a monk who was perhaps accustomed to disobeying the rules, there is a question about institutional transparency.

Practices of discipline within the church have historically been shrouded in some secrecy — based on a combination of spiritual authority passed down through generations, individual relationships to members of the clergy, and the legacy of an Ottoman millet system of separate legal courts for issues pertaining to personal law, under which minorities could determine some matters themselves. The institution has been through a series of radical changes, with the coming and going of protestant missions, the emerging of an educated middle class and mass migration to urban centers, expanding the physical and spiritual reach of church activity, but it still faces huge challenges in terms of how to oversee such a massive institution and limit disagreements within it. This is even more complex, given that the church is not an island and does not operate in isolation of the media, intellectual elite, state actors and the general public.

The administrative system of the church remains intensely centralized and hierarchical. Its actual power is retained by a small number of ecclesiastical figures, with input from secular influencers. The state remains the main partner of the clergy, and is often called upon to resolve disputes that get out of hand, or to enforce its legal authority. Very often the wider Coptic population is left out.

As the story of Epiphanius’ death has shown, such incidents will sadly only bring about greater centralization of ecclesiastical authority, and further restrict any independence currently found in church-affiliated institutions.

Pope Tawadros concluded his weekly Wednesday sermon by quoting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who said on July 22 that 21,000 rumors had been circulating in the country over a period of three months. The pope asked the congregation to be cautious of such rumors, which he said are detrimental to “the country, the economy, politics and the church.” Such statements do not show promise in terms of increasing future transparency vis-à-vis the church. If its leadership opts to cast aspersions on the media and to urge Copts to trust the church without engaging in decision-making processes, or in monitoring the performance of its clergy and institutions, then this is surely just reproducing the rhetoric of the state in relation to its subjects.

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