Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 September 2001
Issue No.552
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Al-Ahram:

A Diwan of contemporary life (408)

Dr YunanPope Kyrollos V lived during an extraordinary period of upheaval and transition. His 53 years in the papacy, the longest in Coptic history, bore witness to the Orabi Revolution which led to the British occupation, the onset of World War I, which brought the British mandate over Egypt, as well as the 1919 Revolution that paved the way for the formal declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922. Throughout this period, Kyrollos V had to contend with a diverse range of conflicting political and social forces. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* relates the considerable acumen the patriarch demonstrated in handling the waves of change


The selfless patriot






From top: Khedive Tawfiq; Khedive Ismail; Kyrollos V; Lord Cromer and Butros Ghali Pasha

On 9 August 1927, Al-Ahram announced the death of Pope Kyrollos V, the 112th patriarch, in the succession of St Mark "who abolished paganism and raised the banner of Christianity in the Nile Valley and the Roman colonies in North Africa."

The passing of this religious authority continued to absorb Al-Ahram for much of the remainder of the year, for the simple reason that the Coptic pope was an extraordinary man who had lived through an extraordinary period of upheaval and transition. His was the longest papacy in Coptic history -- 53 years. He assumed the papal seat in 1874, in the era of the Khedive Ismail, and, thus bore witness to the Orabi Revolution that led to the British occupation, the onset of World War I, which brought the British mandate over Egypt, as well as the 1919 Revolution that paved the way for the formal declaration of Egyptian independence in 1922.

Throughout this period, Kyrollos V had to contend with a diverse range of conflicting political and social forces. Following the British occupation, the Coptic Church was lured into the Great Powers' increasingly heated power plays in the eastern Mediterranean. France had long proclaimed itself the protector of Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which was one of the reasons behind the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853. Czarist Russia sought to vie with France on the same basis, offering itself as the guardian of Orthodox Christianity, to which the Coptic Church subscribed. The British authorities in Egypt, of course, used the Christian card to prolong their occupation of Egypt on the pretext of protecting minorities.

Within his own see, Kyrollos V faced a number of other problems. The era of the Khedive Ismail and the subsequent British occupation brought an enormous influx of foreigners, one manifestation of which was the proliferation of European and American Catholic and Protestant evangelists. As these were strictly forbidden to proselytise among Muslims, they focused their attention on Egypt's Copts. The foreign religious missions made their greatest inroads through education and it is little wonder, therefore, that Kyrollos V continued the work begun by Kyrollos IV (1854- 1861) in educational reform.

But the pressure for reform carried over into the realm of the church structure, as well. The Copts constituted an important segment of Egypt's growing sector of civil society. Many were engaged as civil servants while a significant number were among the landed gentry and prominent merchant classes in the cities. Some, moreover, rose to high official positions, one -- Butros Ghali Pasha -- becoming the country's prime minister in the first decade of the 20th century. This influential segment of the Coptic lay community became increasingly involved in the affairs of the church, opening an unprecedented chapter in Coptic history: the conflict between the clergy, as represented by Kyrollos V, and the secularists who asserted themselves in the form of the Coptic Tawfiq Society, one of the most influential of the philanthropic societies that proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th century.

In his over half-a-century as the Coptic patriarch, Kyrollos V demonstrated considerable acumen and farsightedness in handling the issues related to the successive waves of change. The force of his character is evident in many episodes of his career.

The foreign evangelist movement reached its peak with the American Protestant missions. They were particularly active in Upper Egypt, where they opened their first school in Assiut and distributed Bibles among Upper Egyptian Copts. So intense was their activity that it drew the concern of the Khedive Ismail who, while quite ready to engage American soldiers to train the Egyptian army, feared the spread of American influence among the Egyptian people. Simultaneously, the Americans began to criticise the practices of the Coptic church. The nature of the criticisms were recorded in Andrew Watson's The American Mission in Egypt, published in 1898, which held that the Copts, in their excessive worship of pictures of saints and angels, were ignorant and lacked true piety.

When matters came to a head, Kyrollos V took decisive action, although his predecessor, Demitrious II, had began the resistance. With the backing of the Khedive Ismail, Kyrollos V undertook a trip to the south in order to caution against the missionaries' activities and dissuade Copts from attending the missionary schools. According to Watson, many Copts who had converted to Protestantism were mistreated.

In an attempt to intervene on behalf of the missionaries, the American consul-general, Mr Thayer, asked to meet the patriarch. In his report to the State Department, Thayer relates that when he asked Kyrollos V not to obstruct the work of the American missionaries as long as they were only teaching the Bible, the Patriarch answered: "Only the Bible? Why then did they come to Egypt? The Bible existed in Egypt long before America was discovered. We do not need the Americans here to teach us. We know the Bible better than they." Thayer closed his account, saying the results of the meeting were disappointing.

During the Orabi rebellion, at that critical juncture following the British bombardment of Alexandria and the landing of British forces in that city, the Khedive Tawfiq left Cairo to Alexandria, where he took refuge in his palace at Ra's Al-Tin, which he agreed to place under the protection of British forces. The action was offensive to Egyptians in general and added fodder to the insurgents' criticisms of the throne, which had just issued a decree dismissing Orabi as minister of war.

Against this backdrop, the rebel leaders invited Kyrollos V to attend a general assembly to discuss the situation. Although it was obvious that this assembly would adopt resolutions against Tawfiq, the patriarch did not hesitate to accept the invitation.

The assembly, which convened on 23 July 1882 and was attended by 260 representatives, resolved firstly to overturn the royal decree dismissing Orabi. The resolution stated: "Repelling the enemy necessitates keeping Orabi Pasha as minister of war, maintaining his leadership of the armed forces and continuing the implementation of his orders in matters pertaining to the military." The participants resolved, secondly, to depose the khedive and his cabinet for having "departed from the principles of law."

Kyrollos V affixed his seal to this document even though this constituted a breach of his legal subordination to the khedive. In its biography of the deceased patriarch, Al-Ahramexplained: "The Orabi leaders had great confidence in him, consulted him and heeded his advice. He was foremost among the nation's representatives to sign the resolution to depose Khedive Tawfiq because the khedive had left the capital and went to Alexandria to join forces with the British." The account added that, at the height of the revolution, the rebels had commissioned 15 soldiers to guard the headquarters of the patriarchy, the church and the people in it.

The "pious and selfless" patriarch, as Al-Ahram described him, was clearly a fervent patriot, inspired by the spirit of the 1882 revolution and the ideals of its ideologues, notably Abdallah El- Nadim, who appealed for national unity. However, he eventually had to pay the price for his stance. After the revolution failed and the British occupied the country and Tawfiq returned to the capital, the patriarch was coolly dealt with by the monarch.

Kyrollos V rejected all offers for protection of the Copts tendered by the powers contending for hegemony in the Middle East. The foreign presence, he knew, was ephemeral while the national body, of which the Copts were an integral part, was lasting. In this regard, Al-Ahram relates the following exchange between the Coptic patriarch and Lord Cromer, the British consul in Egypt and the effective ruler of Egypt for a quarter of a century after the occupation:

"Cromer: I am very pleased with the progress of your schools and I will ask the Egyptian government to support them. I will also ask for assistance from some educational and evangelist societies in England.

"Kyrollos V: Thank you very much. The assistance of our Egyptian government is quite sufficient. We have no need for help from other countries."

The patriarch was acutely aware that offers for protection and assistance were part of the British authorities' strategy to divide and conquer and he was determined to resist all ploys towards that end. One such situation presented itself in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Butros Ghali in 1910, spurring a group of Coptic notables and intellectuals to hold a "Coptic Congress" in Assiut the following year. Kyrollos V was opposed to the conference. He felt that the British would exploit it to sow discord in Egyptian ranks and, therefore, issued the following proclamation urging the conference organisers to abandon the project:

"We have learned that our beloved sons are in the process of arranging a large assembly of the people of our denomination to be convened in Assiut in Upper Egypt for the purpose of deliberating their national affairs. It pleases us greatly when our honourable sons are united on what is best for all and we pray for their success. However, to convene in this manner and to call a large body of our community to assemble and deliberate in a city such as Assiut causes anxiety, for the general populace of that area is unaccustomed to such assemblies. Our paternal concern and our great love for all compel us to advise our dear sons to consider the interests of our denomination in a manner other than that which they are currently pursuing."

Although the proclamation failed to put a halt to the conference, it helped to sideline some of the more radical Coptic elements and ensure that the resolutions adopted were moderate. Most of the resolutions pertained to equality of opportunity in education, government appointments and parliamentary representation, demands the legitimacy of which were readily acknowledged by all.

Kyrollos V's patriotic zeal did not temper with age. He was close to 90 when the 1919 Revolution broke out but he lent it the full support of his office. He held frequent assemblies of Copts and Muslims in the Church of St Mark and he was among the first to welcome nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul upon his return from exile. Indeed, one suspects that the many pro-Saad and anti- British demonstrations that were led by Muslim and Coptic clergymen at this time would not have taken place without the blessing of this nationalistic religious figure. According to many sources, Kyrollos V continued to support Zaghlul even after the ruptures within the Wafd in 1922.

Christ On the social front, Kyrollos V was equally forward looking. He was a great promoter of education and lent his backing to Coptic individuals and philanthropic organisations that sought to found new schools. Moreover, he preceded the famous women's liberation advocate, Qassim Amin, by more than a decade in his call for female education and he also advocated the abolition of the veil. With regard to the latter, Al-Ahramobserved, "He was protective of the reputation of the daughters of his congregation. Although he permitted them to remove the veil, when some women began appearing in church with cleavage, and arms and legs exposed, he issued a promulgation condemning such displays of vulgarity."

The Coptic patriarch was also an ardent supporter of the campaign to found a national university, which ultimately came into existence in 1908. In fact, we can detect his influence in the declaration of the university's founding fathers that the university open its doors to all students "regardless of race or religion," and in the fact that the Copts were represented in the new institution's administrative boards from the outset.

The 19th century brought a movement within the Coptic lay community to have a greater say in the affairs of the church. Pressure for reform of the church's administrative structure led to the creation of a laymen's representative body, Al-Maglis Al- Milli, and it was this body, which first met in 1874, that elected as the 112th successor to St Mark, Yohanna El-Nasekh who took the name Kyrollos V.

Contrary to the expectations of the Maglis, the new patriarch proved not as amenable to the interference of the lay community in the running of the church as they had expected. To the contrary, Kyrollos V spent the better part of his papacy at loggerheads with the Maglis, a phenomenon that has been treated at length in history books. However, perhaps the best summary of the contentions between the Coptic religious hierarchy and the lay community is that featured in Al-Ahram of 11 August 1927 under the headline "The Patriarch, the Maglis and the Awqaf (Pious Foundations)." Written by Tawfiq Habib, the account offers three more revealing episodes in Kyrollos V's career.

When Kyrollos was elected patriarch in 1874 he recognised Al-Maglis Al-Milli, which had not yet been formally incorporated, chaired its meetings and approved the decision to establish a clerical school. Habib relates, "However, it was not long before the patriarch found himself pitted against the members of the council. Since the bylaws of the council did not make a provision for anyone to stand in for the patriarch as chairman, Kyrollos armed himself with this in order to obstruct its activities by simply not attending the sessions. The affairs of the Maglis thus remained in disorder because the government was preoccupied with the nation's financial problems, then with the deposition of the Khedive Ismail, the succession of the Khedive Tawfiq, the Orabi Revolution and the British occupation."

Habib selected the second episode in Kyrollos' career from the period immediately following the British occupation. In 1883, the Egyptian government amended the charter of Al-Maglis Al-Milli and held new elections of its members. The action, taken in response to the patriarch's stance against the khedive during the Orabi Revolution, forced Kyrollos to deliver a written riposte to the government:

"There is no need for the council which some members of the congregation seek to create. The issues which they suggest should come under its review are purely religious matters and, hence, the competency of the patriarch. When we assumed the patriarchy our experience with the council led us to the conclusion that it is useless and can serve no purpose whatsoever and we, therefore, dispensed with it."

Habib relates that Kyrollos V delivered the letter to the prime minister personally and then met with the khedive in order to explain the circumstances within his congregation and ask for permission to dissolve the council. It is difficult to imagine, given recent history, how the patriarch could have hoped for a sympathetic answer from Tawfiq, and certainly one was not forthcoming. In fact, the response was stinging:

"We were surprised by your excellency's letter in which you appealed against the implementation of the royal decree. On the basis of excuses that were inappropriate for your excellency to voice you argued against a request to create a council to reform the affairs of the church, a request submitted by notables of that community, greeted favourably by the government and approved by His Royal Majesty the Khedive. As the government cannot accept your rejection of the afore-mentioned order, it was deemed necessary to write it out to your excellency and to reiterate our caution to you to convene the council forthwith and elect its members and deputies in accordance with the royal command."

Kyrollos V, of course, had no choice but to do the royal bidding. But according to Habib, "He never let the council work in peace, forever putting obstacles in its path, creating problems and hindering the implementation of its decisions."

Nine years later, the clergy clashed openly with the lay community. In 1891 the Coptic Tawfiq Society was formed "from notables and prominent senior officials to institute reform and demand the rights of the people with respect to their religious trusts and schools through the reinstitution of Al-Maglis Al-Milli." Soon afterwards, in 1892, the church's governing body declared, "We cannot consent to the appropriation of the rights of the church and the honour of its religious leaders who have been entrusted by the Divine with its care, and to deliver its people to the leadership of those who have no spiritual authority whatsoever, for it is the spiritual leaders who will be held accountable for the welfare of the flock on the Day of Judgement."

In response, the members of Al-Maglis Al-Milli, led by Butros Ghali Pasha, submitted a lengthy complaint to the government in which they said, "The afore-mentioned patriarch has violated the laws of the church, breached its charter and brought harm to the congregation, whose misfortune it is that its council elected him to head the church." The complaint precipitated a rapid chain of events which culminated in the decision of the Khedive Abbas II, who had recently assumed the throne, to banish Kyrollos V to El- Baramous Monastery. However, as Tawfiq Habib relates, "When the Maglis appointed one of the bishops to act as head of the church, the patriarch excommunicated him and threatened to excommunicate anyone who supported him."

Kyrollos V spent three months in exile. In his Compendiumof Ancient and Modern Egyptian History, a contemporary of the patriarch described what happened during that period. The man sympathised with the "Tawfiqists," as he called the supporters of Al-Maglis Al- Milli, at least in part because he was an in-law of Butros Ghali. Nevertheless, he had to acknowledge the patriarch's widespread popularity among his congregation. He relates that in the wake of the patriarch's exile, "the ordinary people of the church rallied at the headquarters of the patriarchy and formed long lines and surrounded the premises day and night with unceasing energy and fervour." Indeed, such was the reverence for the exiled patriarch that in his absence the churches virtually emptied, even during the major feasts when they were normally packed with worshippers.

The crisis was only resolved when Nubar Pasha became prime minister and succeeded in persuading the khedive to relent on his position and in persuading Al-Maglis Al-Milli to submit a petition for Kyrollos V's return, to which the khedive assented. Ancient and Modern Egyptian Historydescribes the jubilant popular outpouring to greet Kyrollos V's pageant-like entrance into the capital. "Students of the Coptic schools, carrying olive branches and palm fronds, stood along both sides of the road, and a large contingent of priests and monks, carrying candles, incense burners and crosses, stood at the head of the lane leading to the patriarchal headquarters. As the patriarch's carriage proceeded through the throng cheers rose to the heavens and the sounds of joy could be heard until he entered the seat of the patriarchy, whereupon the church bells chimed and prayers were held."

Against this manifestation of popular adoration for the patriarch, Kyrollos V's adversaries had no choice but to bide their time. He was over 60 when he was released from exile and, surely, they thought, he would not have that much longer to live. In this, too, he proved stronger than they had imagined, remaining robust, active and highly influential for yet another 35 years.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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