25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Church disciplineThe defrocking of a monk and censure of members of the 'New Testament Group' came in response to a classic case of deviation from church teachings, Coptic Church sources told Omayma Abdel-Latif
The Coptic Orthodox Church reacted with anger to news reports that described Pope Shenouda's orders last week to defrock a prominent monk and relieve a number of deacons of their duties as part of a campaign by the pope to purge the church of his opponents.
Sources close to Pope Shenouda told Al-Ahram Weekly on Sunday that the actions "had been blown out of proportion" by press coverage and that the disciplinary measures had no political implications. "It is a purely theological issue. This is a group that espouses deviant beliefs and the Coptic people needed to be put in the know so as not to be lured by the group's discourse which breaks completely with church teachings," a source close to the pope told the Weekly.
The story unfolded last week when the church went public with its move against what it described as "a deviant group", commonly known as the "New Testament Group" or the "Atef Aziz Group", named after its leader, former monk Atef Aziz Mikhail. The papal order also included the defrocking of prominent monk Max Michael for allying himself with the group. Michael came to the attention of the wider public when in 1981 the Coptic Church said that he had declared himself church patriarch, capitalising on the dispute between Pope Shenouda and the late President Anwar El-Sadat. In a recent interview, Michael denied that charge.
In its attempt to end speculation over the disciplinary measures, the Coptic Orthodox Church had published a paid announcement in Al-Ahram newspaper clarifying the church's stand on the New Testament Group. This action marked the second time in almost 10 years that the church went public with such a disciplinary move. Internal church affairs have rarely been covered by the Egyptian press. However, some eight years ago, Pope Shenouda had gone public with a similar decision in which he stripped Father Daniel, a Coptic priest from Al-Minya diocese, of his title for preaching Protestant ideas.
Dr Mounir Azmi, a member of the church's Meli Council, an advisory body comprising laity, admitted that the press's exposure of misconduct by church members raises image concerns for the church. "We decided that it was in the interest of the Coptic people to know the truth from their own church and to put an end to any speculation that could tarnish the image of its thousands of priests and monks", Azmi, who has served on the council for the past 12 years, told the Weekly.
The church report on the Atef Aziz Group based its conclusions on taped sermons that Aziz gave his followers which criticised the church. The report accused the group of espousing deviant beliefs and making false claims that it was the only representative of the Egyptian Coptic Church. In one of the taped sermons, Aziz described the church's internal situation as being "full of death". "If we look around, we would find that the church [is full of death and decay]. It is full of dissent, rifts and profane thoughts. There is no yardstick with which we can measure ourselves and this is very dangerous. It is only natural that we have a real church and that it should be called the New Testament Church," Aziz said on one of the tapes.
An expert on Coptic affairs downplayed the influence of the 10 people -- six women and four men -- who were relieved of their duties as church deacons or, in the case of the monk, defrocked. The expert said that the group represented a classic case of people offering a different interpretation of a religion. "This process has occurred since the second century, and the church has had to defend itself against such innovations. In the 19th century, we witnessed the Protestant missionaries, who wanted to infiltrate the Egyptian church, but we are talking about a church that is two thousand years old whose convictions and foundation cannot be shaken by such minor dissenting groups," the expert said.
Azmi, however, believes that these groups could be "part of a campaign to put pressure on the Coptic Church". "These groups are funded by international organisations, and the Egyptian church's stand on the issue of Palestine is well-known. The pope has also maintained an honourable stand on Jerusalem. [He has urged Copts not to make the pilgrimage to the city until its liberation from Israeli occupation.] These are stands that would not make everybody happy and therefore pressure had to be exercised through missionaries or deviant groups," Azmi said.
The group members who were interviewed by the local press this week refused to say whether they had received funding from international organisations.
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