22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (456)
The last archbishopThe centuries-old relationship between the Egyptian Coptic church and the church in Ethiopia came to a rather abrupt end in 1937 at the hands of Italian colonialist powers. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk uncovers the story of the last Egyptian archbishop of Ethiopia from the pages of Al-Ahram
Egypt has always played a central role in the region at the political, social and cultural levels. Religion intersects at all these levels, and in this regard, Al-Azhar, with its wings for disciples from various quarters of the Muslim world, embodies Egypt's regional prominence. Lesser known, however, are the transnational projections of the church of Alexandria, the Egyptian church.
This church exerted its presence well beyond Egypt's borders in two epochs. In the Middle Ages its reach extended westwards along the north coast of Africa and southwards to Ethiopia. In the modern epoch its influence transcended continents. Whereas in the first period its mission was to evangelise, in the second it served as the spiritual seat of the thousands of Coptic immigrants to Europe, South America, the US, Canada and Australia.
With the expansion of European imperialism that took place in the interval, reaching its height in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the geographical embrace of the Coptic church receded. Evangelism had always been a notorious tool of colonialist expansion, and thus one of the aims of the two major European sects -- Protestantism and Catholicism -- was to eliminate Coptic influence in Africa.
The modern period also witnessed the emergence of the centralised nation-state, which was inimical to foreign influence, even if religious in nature. In Europe at the outset of the modern era, this took the form of declining deference, politically and often spiritually, to the pope of Rome.
There were indigenous factors as well. For in the last quarter of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th, the Coptic church experienced a major rift between the clergy and the secularist laity, a conflict that affected the patriarch's policies abroad.
As a result of all these circumstances, many of the ties between the church of Alexandria and Ethiopia were severed, the final rupture taking place over a decade from the late 20s to late 30s. The story's central protagonist is Reverend Cyril (Kirollos) who, in 1929, was appointed archbishop of Ethiopia, a position that had been vacant for three years. In 1937, the Italians, who had occupied Ethiopia two years earlier, prohibited Cyril from returning to Addis Ababa and replaced him with an Ethiopian archbishop. Al-Ahram relates the story in full detail, starting first with the essential historical background.
In Al-Ahram of 18 May 1929, beneath the headline, "Egypt and Ethiopia: an historical overview of mutual bonds," Abdel-Halim Elias Nosseir dates the beginning of this relationship to the fourth century, when the Egyptian patriarch Anathasius sent an emissary to Ethiopia to preach the gospel. The papal emissary, Nosseir adds, succeeded in converting the people there to Christianity. Since then, the Ethiopian kings would send a delegation to Egypt upon the succession of a new Alexandrian patriarch. These delegations "bore luxurious gifts to the sultans of Egypt and their governors and to the patriarchs and their clergy. Then the Coptic church appointed a new bishop or archbishop nominated by a clerical council and invested in a national ceremony in which the government and the people, princes of the state and representatives of his majesty the king of Ethiopia participated. Later, the religious envoy would be given a farewell escort upon his departure from the country as Egypt's ambassador to Ethiopia".
In using the word "ambassador" Nosseir was referring to the political aspect of the ecclesiastic emissary. Frequently Egyptian rulers would pass tidings and invitations through him to the kings of Ethiopia, who, in turn, "would send their correspondences to the sultans of Egypt, urging them to watch over the Copts".
In his Monitor of the Events of Egypt, Mikhail Sherobim gives a firsthand account of the arrival of an Ethiopian ambassadorial mission to Egypt in 1880. The 72-member delegation bore two letters, one for the khedive and the other for Cyril (Kirollos) III. To the latter, they also presented "a dome-shaped gold crown inlaid with precious gems and measuring 32 centimetres high, three silver crosses and a fourth cross of gold. Amidst great pomp and splendor, they placed the crown on the head of the patriarch who blessed the members of the delegation and all the honoured representatives of the Coptic sect".
The relationship developed further in the late 19th century when the Ethiopian monarch sent an official delegation requesting an ecclesiastic mission consisting of an archbishop and three bishops. Until then a single bishop had been the rule. The request was approved and shortly afterwards the Reverend Metaous was invested as the head bishop of Ethiopia. Anba Metaous was "the most famous Coptic bishop", Nosseir writes. "His is an eventful and magnificent history. It was he who crowned the Ethiopian King Melelik III and his successor, Crown Prince Yaso. He also deposed the latter when the king contradicted the counsel of his senior advisers during the Great War. He then crowned the empress Zawadito and the emperor Teferi in 1917."
Clearly the Coptic archbishop wielded extraordinary power in Ethiopia, Nosseir observes. "He was a king without a crown. It is doubtful that even the pope of Rome at the height of his prestige and influence in the Middle Ages had the authority of the Coptic archbishop in Ethiopia. A word from the archbishop could raise a man to the throne and just as easily topple the crown from the head of the master of the country and knock the scepter out of his hand."
In another contribution on the subject, Tawfiq Iskaros described the arduous journey the Coptic ecclesiastical envoys to Ethiopia endured. The overland route from Naqada via Qena and then across to Qusseir took five days costing 40 and a half talents of silver for renting the camels. From Qusseir the delegation boarded ships destined for Suwakin, which took 15 days. Then it was overland, on camelback, for another fortnight to the "borders of Christian Ethiopia, where there are churches, monasteries and safety". After that the delegation would proceed "from village to village until they reach their destination, with the aid of God on High".
In 1926, Anba Metaous passed away. It was not until more than two and a half years later, in 1929, that negotiations took place to fill the vacant episcopate. Addis Ababa made the first bid, bringing into play for the first time the Al-Sultan Monastery in Jerusalem in which the majority of the monks were from Ethiopia. Having learned that the church in Egypt was about to send a Coptic notable to Ethiopia to reach an understanding over the appointment of a new archbishop, Emperor Teferi made three requests. Firstly, the monastery in Jerusalem should be brought under the jurisdiction of the Ethiopian episcopate. Secondly, the new archbishop was to be "proficient in all religious and contemporary sciences, fluent in several living languages, especially English and French, and renowned for piety and impeccability". Finally, before even setting out to Ethiopia, the church's envoy should be fully empowered to conclude an agreement over the Al-Sultan Monastery.
On 9 January 1929, Pope Yoannes, following a meeting with the foreign minister and members of the Milla Council, announced that he would send a telegram to Teferi, informing him that he was prepared to press ahead with the appointment of a new archbishop and to spare no efforts in expanding the official's jurisdiction. Commenting on the announcement, Al-Ahram observed, "This telegram is prelude to further exchanges of information between the two parties, to be followed by attempts to reach an understanding over the problem of Al-Sultan Monastery."
Evidently, the telegram failed to convince the Ethiopian emperor who decided to send one of his senior officials to Cairo for direct talks. His choice fell on his minister of education, Sahili Sedalu, who arrived in Port Said on 16 February, accompanied by a member of the Egyptian educational mission in Ethiopia. Al-Ahram reports, "The Ethiopian minister, 42, was educated in the Menelik Academy in Addis Ababa, after which he went to Paris to complete his higher studies. He accompanied King Teferi on his recent tour of Europe. He is fluent in French and conversant in English and German."
Negotiations between Sedalu and Tawfiq Doss, representing the Coptic church, lasted over a month. In the end, the Ethiopians agreed that an archbishop appointed in Egypt would head the church in Ethiopia and that this official would be assisted in his duties by five Ethiopian bishops who would be invested by the patriarch in Cairo. The five bishops were to "fully comply with the orders and prohibitions of the Coptic church", and, "on the pain of excommunication, they may not engage in political activities, such as the annointment of kings or the investiture of religious heads."
Acting on this agreement, Pope Yoannes telegraphed to Teferi asking him to send the customary delegation along with five Ethiopian monks whom he would invest as bishops. He also asked for an Ethiopian professor who would be appointed to the new religious academy in Helwan to teach Amharic to Egyptian monks, "so as to render them the kernel of closer bonds of communication between our two peoples". Finally, four candidates were chosen among the monks of the various monasteries in Egypt and they were summoned to Cairo. One of these would be the next archbishop in Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian delegation arrived in mid-May 1929. As this was no ordinary visit, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs took extra pains to ensure its success, requesting from the Egyptian consul-general in Addis Ababa continual updates of the delegation's progress so that all arrangements could be in place at the appropriate time. In addition, the office of the patriarchy decided to send a delegation, headed by a bishop, and consisting of Coptic notables and religious figures, to greet the Ethiopian delegation upon its arrival in Port Said.
On the morning of 19 May the ship bearing the Ethiopian delegation arrived in Suez, where they were received by the heads of the Coptic community in the port city. This was when Egyptians learned that it was the Ethiopian Minister of Finance Bagrawid Zalika who headed the delegation, which consisted of four monks, five deacons and the minister's chamberlain. The minister himself was 46 years old and educated in Addis Ababa, Al-Ahram writes. "He has been delegated on numerous occasions to attend the League of Nations. He knows French and understands Arabic well, though he only speaks it a little."
The ship bearing the Ethiopian delegation was accorded a grand reception in Port Said. Three launches set out to the ship bearing the governor of the port city, senior church officials and prominent leaders of the Coptic community.
The following morning, the delegation went to the Coptic church in Port Said where they were received by Anba Yusab, bishop of Girga, at the head of other clergymen. "Preceded by the deacons, the members of the delegation entered the church, where the Reverend Anba Yusab delivered a prayer of gratitude for the safe arrival of the delegation. He then delivered a speech on the ancient relations between Egypt and Ethiopia, concluding with a supplication for the well-being of the kings of Egypt and Ethiopia and his holiness the patriarch."
The visiting delegation encountered further receptions at every stop on the road from Port Said to Cairo. In Ismailia, people crowded along the tracks to greet the delegation's train with applause, cheers and prayers of supplication. In Zaqaziq, Al-Ahram reports, "the platform thronged with hundreds of people, prominent among whom were local Coptic notables, senior officials, members of the Coptic Charity Society and the Milla Council. Also present were the students of Abdel-Messih Mousa School, bearing their school banner, and the priests and deacons, in their respective ecclesiastical costumes, bearing crosses and the Egyptian and Ethiopian flags."
If that was the case in Zaqaziq, it is not difficult to imagine the fanfare that greeted the delegation in Cairo. However, the leaders of the delegation soon made it clear that they were in the Egyptian capital to negotiate, not to be feted. Although the church had put them up in the official residence of the patriarchy, the Ethiopian minister of finance and the minister of education, who had joined the delegation in Cairo, excused themselves from accepting this hospitality and had their luggage forwarded to the Hotel Khedieval. Al-Ahram adds that the four monks and five deacons remained in the patriarchal residence.
On 21 May, in the first meeting between the delegation and Pope Yoannes, the Ethiopian minister of finance presented a letter to the patriarch from King Teferi congratulating him on his assumption to the papal throne. After extolling the historic relations between the churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, the Ethiopian monarch went on to say that he had sent four religious scholars, "whom we believe worthy of elevated position". These clergymen "were chosen by the people and the heads of the church to be invested by your immaculate hand as bishops of Ethiopia so that they may disseminate the orthodox religion in the country".
Nevertheless, a brief hitch in formalities occurred when the four nominees refused to adopt the official attire of Coptic bishops. Apparently they were prevailed upon to change their mind, for Al-Ahram next reports that "a specialist in ecclesiastical attire was brought in to tailor the necessary robes and turbans." That problem overcome, on 1 June, Pope Yoannes met with Egyptian bishops and the members of the Milla Council "to consider the nominees for the Ethiopian see. If no objections are voiced the investiture will take place in two days".
The selection process, however, was not as easy as hoped for. Initially, the pope offered the position to "a bishop renowned for his great erudition, however the candidate declined on grounds of ill health". Habib Girgis, dean of the Ecclesiastical Academy, also turned down the position in deference to the objections of the Ethiopian delegation which had stipulated that the candidate must not be a layman, no matter how pious. They also turned down two other candidates for being too young. Finally, Al-Ahram reports, "opinion converged on Reverend Sidarus Ishaq, head of the Deir Al-Muharraq Monastery. However, he too, was unwilling to accept the position. Although the patriarch pressed him to accept, the Ethiopian ministers stated that they refused to accept an archbishop who was coerced into office."
Thus, when the appointed day arrived, the patriarchal residence was the scene of an extraordinary gathering. At 6pm that day, the newspaper relates, the Ethiopian ministers arrived at the residence, spoke with the pope for half an hour and then the three proceeded to an assembly room in which seven bishops, four heads of monasteries, the members of the Milla Council and three former Egyptian ministers were also present. "The vestibule of the patriarchal residence and secretariat building were filled with delegates of the press, reporters, photographers, priests and other spectators," the newspaper added.
All expected to hear the name of the new archbishop of Ethiopia. This was not forthcoming, however. Pope Yoannes announced that negotiations had taken place with the Ethiopian delegation and that not one candidate, but four were considered. These were Reverends Sidarus El-Antoni, Kirollos El-Baramisi, Abdel-Massih El-Muharraqawi and Luke of the Monastery of St Paul. He added that the Ethiopian monks would like to interview the four candidates in order to select one of them and that the assembly would, therefore, adjourn for two hours.
Al-Ahram recounts that the Ethiopian monks asked the candidates about their age, personal histories and careers with the church, after which all returned to the patriarchal residence to inform the pope of their decision. They had chosen Reverend Sidarus El-Antoni. "His eminence congratulated them and then descended to the ground floor where the audience of notables and dignitaries had swelled in number. He delivered a short speech in praise of the new archbishop, at the end of which he placed his hand on the head of Reverend Sidarus and named him Anba Kirollos."
The new archbishop of Ethiopia was originally from the village of Al-Naghamish in Girga. By then aged 50, he had entered the order of the monks as a young man and spent the next 30 years between the monastery and the Ecclesiastical Academy in Alexandria. He had recently been appointed as deputy archbishop to Girga.
The next step was to ordain the new archbishop and the four Ethiopian bishops. Al-Ahram describes the ceremony: "His eminence the patriarch left his residence in a retinue of deacons and headed the procession of the archbishop of Ethiopia and its four bishops, priests and ministers, and prominent notables. After pausing briefly on the steps of the church for photographs, all proceeded inside, as the church bells chimed and the deacons chanted. The patriarch took his seat at the front of the church. The four Ethiopian bishops sat in front of him and Anba Kirollos sat to his right and beside him sat the Ethiopian minister."
Proceeding to the rituals of ordainment, the pope dressed the Ethiopian archbishop in "a mantle of dark red velvet adorned with gilt crosses". The reporter continues, "after reciting chapters from the Book of Investiture, including a supplication for divine assistance to the archbishop and the bishops, his eminence brought forward Anba Ishaq, archbishop of Fayoum, who presented to him the four Ethiopian bishops. As they were presented, they knelt before the patriarch who signed the cross over their bare heads, blessed them and called them by their new names: Anba Boutros, Anba Ibraam, Anba Mikhail and Anba Isaac. His eminence then vested them in the bishopric chains, which is a long necklace of braided leather suspended around the neck and secured with two straps that extend beneath the armpits. When some of the bishops were unable to fit this garment by themselves his eminence gracefully did it for them with consummate skill and dexterity."
The following day, Al-Ahram featured an inspired speech delivered by Habib Girgis on behalf of the pope. Focusing primarily on Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, the speech enumerated the many strong bonds between the two countries. "One of these bonds is the geographical proximity bred by nature and the effective and natural partnership wrought by the Nile and its tributaries. A second is the bond of kinship between the Ethiopian and Egyptian people, as Kush the forefather of the Ethiopians, and Misraim the forefather of the Egyptians were brothers. The third is the bond of religion, specifically the bond between the churches of Ethiopia and Egypt, and just as Egypt of the Pharaohs disseminated the light of civilisation in the world, so too, as history has demonstrated, did Christian Egypt spread the light of religion in many lands. The people of Ethiopia embraced Christianity at the hands of the evangelists of the Egyptian church and established the canons of their church so as to subordinate it to this see and so as to ensure that only Egyptians can appoint their archbishop."
Unfortunately, festivities were marred by an event in Jerusalem. Although the Ethiopian delegation was appropriately received at Al-Sultan Monastery, they encountered an unpleasant situation on the way to the nearby church to pray. Al-Ahram relates the incident: "The road from their monastery to the church passes through a gateway the key to which is in the possession of the Coptic monks. When the delegation sent for the key, the monks refused to give it to them, forcing the delegation to take another route. Returning to the monastery after prayers, the Coptic monks invited them to coffee. The delegation refused absolutely and the Ethiopian ministers of finance and education voiced their indignation over the way they were treated." The newspaper adds that the feelings were assuaged with an appropriate apology from the pope.
Meanwhile, Anba Kirollos left for Ethiopia, reaching Djibouti on 24 June and Harar two days later. Reliving the journey undertaken by the archbishops from Egypt for centuries, albeit by modern transport, Al-Ahram's correspondent writes, "In most of the stations we passed through we were hailed by large delegations headed by men of the cloth carrying crosses and censers, and chanting verses from the psalms of David."
Nevertheless, the new archbishop of Ethiopia had to contend with developments none of his long line of predecessors had ever encountered. In 1935, the Italians invaded the country forcing Teferi, who had been crowned Emperor Haili Salasi several years previously, to flee to Britain. The Italians, naturally, sought all means to sever the relation between the Ethiopian church and its mother church in Egypt. Their harassment of Anba Kirollos was such that he ultimately felt compelled to travel to Rome to reach an understanding with the fascist authorities. His mission failed, of course. Moreover, not only was he then prevented from returning to Ethiopia, the Italian occupation authorities abolished his position. Kirollos was thus the last Egyptian archbishop of Ethiopia.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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