Will the laity save the Coptic Church?
The death of Bishop Epiphanius reopens discussions around electing a new Millet Council

A ruckus of events this summer shook Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, ever since the murder of Bishop Epiphanius, the head of the Anba Makkar Monastery in the Wadi al-Natrun desert on July 29.

According to the prosecution’s findings, the head of the Wadi al-Natrun Monastery was murdered by Wael Saad Tawadros. Tawadros, who was formerly known by his monastic name, Isaiah al-Makary, prior to his August 5 defrocking, committed the murder with the aid of Raymond Rasmy, known as monk Faltaos al-Makary. No official reports of Rasmy’s defrocking have surfaced as of yet.

According to the investigation, Tawadros initially confessed to striking Bishop Epiphanius three times on the head with an “iron pipe,” killing him. The public prosecutor of the Alexandria Appeals Prosecution referred Tawadros and Rasmy’s case to a criminal court on August 20, and the first trial session took place in September. The case was adjourned to November 24.

As for possible motives for the murder, the investigation has opened a can of worms.

Speculation has posited that greed and corruption could be behind Epipahnius’ death, as monasteries are considered to be the main source of the church’s financial activity, and where its more lucrative projects are based. Many monasteries formally rely on activities such as agriculture, as well as food production and export, to generate income.

Another key source of the church’s wealth comes from donations made by the many Christians who consider tithing money to be more worthwhile than giving it to the poor, in the eyes of God, believing that monks find better use for the funds after praying for those who donate it. And although many Christians have faith in the vow monks take for asceticism and austerity, they continue to overwhelm them with gifts, believing that they have a special connection with the poor and that these donations will go to those in need.

Shortly after Epiphanius’ death, Pope Tawadros II stressed that Copts should refrain from giving monks any material offerings, adding weight to the theory that financial corruption fueled the murder at the Anba Makkar Monastery.

Recognizing the crime as one in which a monk allegedly murdered his spiritual superior, some observers have sought to analyze the incident through a more structural lens: Who actually controls the Coptic Orthodox Church and its economy today?

The July controversy calls into question the role of Pope Shenouda III, the former patriarch of the church, and his legacy of exercising power over the establishment and its followers.  In his quest for exclusive control, Pope Shenouda was party to a long-running conflict between bishops and secular representatives on the Millet Council, a body formed to manage the church’s non-ecclesiastical affairs in the late 1800s by khedival decree.

A contested Millet Council

In 2011, a year before Pope Shenouda’s death, the Millet Council’s five-year term ended and was not renewed.

In March 2017, Pope Tawadros attributed the six-year lapse in the Millet Council’s down to political events in Egypt at the time and the subsequent lack of stable institutions. He added, however, that with the current Parliament now in place, a new council could be elected.

In the meantime, Pope Tawadros has continued to meet with members of the defunct Millet Council to discuss the council’s status, according to previous statements. The inactive council has also come out publicly in support of the pope in the wake of fierce criticism against him — most notably, following his visit to the United States, in which he mobilized Copts to welcome President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to New York as he attended United Nations General Assembly meetings in September. In its statement, the council denounced all criticism of the pope, describing attacks as “violations” and “unjustified campaigns aimed to undermine the church’s unity.”

During Pope Shenouda’s era, the Millet Council made the church’s finances, and those of its monasteries, an undisclosed issue, shutting these matters off to secular inquiries.

Kamal Zakher, the founder of the Secular Copts Front, a group campaigning to reduce church officials’ control over Copts’ lives, points out that “for the duration of Shenouda’s papacy, the Millet Council was merely decorative and included members that could be trusted [by the clergy].” Pope Shenouda, Zakher adds, refused any real secular regulation of the clergy and maintained an excessive interest in monasteries’ finances. This dynamic was inherited by Pope Tawadros, according to Zakher.

Confirming this historical take, Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher heading the religious freedoms unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), explains that Pope Shenouda marginalized the Millet Council and controlled the election of its members. This, according to Ibrahim, is due to “a long history of papal and secular conflicts. The council’s origin, and the tension that accompanied it for decades, led to its rejection by the clergy due to competition over who has the final say in the administrative and financial management of the church’s affairs.”

“This is untrue,” says Monsef Soliman, a judge who was former deputy head of the State Council and a member of the Millet Council during Shenouda’s time, regarding accusations that the council is only a token institution. He adds that he is unhappy with the rhetoric from secular Copts who insist on the council’s revival with “new regulations and laws,” referring to an attempt by the Secular Copts Front to put forward a draft law on the Council of Arakhna (secular elders) to Pope Tawadros II in 2012. He describes secular rhetoric from those who are not former members of the council, or do not have roles in the church, as “riding a wave.”

The only piece of legislation governing the Millet Council that Soliman deems legitimate is the draft law that is currently being prepared. “The legal committee of the current Millet Council [whose term ended in 2011] drafted a new law to regulate the council’s affairs, based on Pope Tawadros’ request and assignment,” Soliman tells Mada Masr. “It is expected to be presented first to the Holy Synod [the highest authority within the church] for approval, then to the state for approval, ahead of its implementation. The law will fulfill more ambitions than anyone expects, and the Millet Council will come back stronger than before.”

Soliman explains that one of the articles of the draft law entails the formation of local councils, which will stem from the main Millet Council and will manage eparchies. This will be a first in the church’s history. Regarding secularists’ concerns that Holy Synod supporters will be disproportionately selected as council members, which took place during Pope Shenouda’s time, Soliman says, “The members of the new Millet Council will be elected, and whoever thinks they are qualified can run.”

EIPR’s Ibrahim emphasizes that there is now a need for a real council that will cement the concept of the church as an institution based on both the clergy and the laity. He adds, however, that this council has to have an effective role and not be purely “decorative.”

“Members must be elected freely and not appointed or selected by acclamation by the clergy, because the council loses its value of representing the laity this way,” he adds.  

Ibrahim believes that the existence of a council of secular representatives sharing the management of church affairs with the clergy is now necessary, especially given the diversification of church activities. The church does not only deal with theological and religious issues, according to Ibrahim. Schools, hospitals and social and economic activities also need supervision and management.

“An impartial Millet Council is a necessity to prevent monks from falling into the clutches of financial corruption and to oppose attempts from state apparatuses to control church finances under the guise of regulation and crime prevention,” Zakher concludes.

A history of dispute between laity and clergy

The conflict between laity and clergy over the church’s affairs and the Millet Council stretches even further back than the dynamics cemented by Pope Shenouda.

In 1872, a decree by the Ottoman Khedive Ismail founded the Millet Council as the Council of Arakhna, comprised of secular copts and clergymen. This was a time of economic prosperity for the church, according to the Synaxarion, a book that compiles the biographies of saints and clergymen.

According to the original internal regulations of the council, its activities included accounting for the church’s assets, monasteries and schools, collecting its documents, regulating deposit and expense accounts and maintaining financial credit. Solving marriage and separation disputes, managing personal status issues and Copts’ internal affairs, keeping inventory of churches, clergymen, monasteries and monks, as well as guarding existing records, were added to the council’s duties at a later date.

But shortly after its formation, the feud between the council and the church’s religious leadership began. In 1874, Kirollos V became pope and decided that the council’s existence represented a encroachment upon the church’s authority, and began co-managing its activities. Kirollos then dissolved the Millet Council in 1875. Several years later, in 1883, the state ordered that the council be re-founded.

After the 1919 revolution against the British occupation, Sourial Girgis, a member of the Senate, a parliamentary house that would later become the Shura Council, presented a draft law to amend the internal regulations of the Millet Council. The draft law entailed the cancelation of a series of amendments put forth by Kirollos, which had increased the clergy’s authority within the church. With state intervention, the pope regained some power from the council, relating to the appointment of heads of monasteries, as well as forming a committee for the management of monastery assets.

Based on the Synaxarion, as well as other secular sources, the bishops at the time were extremely interested in expanding the church’s overall economic activities, and of monasteries in particular, in light of an unspoken accord with the state. A prominent example is Bishop John XIX, who became pope in 1928 and who was known for his efforts to increase the church’s income.  

The era of Pope Macarius III, who succeeded John XIX in the papacy,  is considered the beginning of direct clergical intervention in the affairs of Copts, via the Holy Synod. In 1944, the synod presented a memo to the pope and the minister of justice, protesting the precepts of the personal status law for non-Muslims. The Millet Council considered this a transgression on behalf of the synod and an intervention by the clergy into non-ecclesiastical affairs, according to the Synaxarion.

Macarius was angered as a result of the dispute and sealed himself off in the Anba Antonios Monastery in the Red Sea in the company of a few bishops. Then-Prime Minister Ahmed Maher brought him back to Cairo after requesting his demands be met by the Millet Council. The council conceded. The Holy Synod reconvened, headed by the pope, in 1945 and issued several decisions, included drafting a personal status law limiting acceptable reasons for divorce to adultery only. The Holy Synod also decreed to bring the papal nomination and electoral process in line with Christian doctrine to include the drawing of lots, and implement a census within each church to record the number of Copts.

The struggle continued between popes and secular elders. Kirollos VI became the 116th pope in 1957.  His relationship with the Millet Council remained tense, which led to his request to President Gamal Abdel Nasser to suspend the council’s activities in 1967. That year, Nasser issued a presidential decree to dissolve the Millet Council and form a committee headed by Pope Kirollos to manage church assets. The Millet Council made a comeback during President Anwar Sadat’s era, spurred by a report commissioned by Parliament on the 1972 Khanka sectarian incident, the most violent event against Coptic Christians since the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power. The report recommended the return of the council, which took place despite several attempts by the late Pope Shenouda to stop its convening during his papacy.

Karoline Kamel 

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