Bishop Antonious Markos:
A lit candle is better than stumbling in the dark
An African evangelist
photo: Sherif Sonbol
Prayer and the practice of medicine, time and chance have taken Bishop Antonious Markos El- Baramousy to the heart of the African continent. Four decades ago, Abuna Mikhail of Asmara welcomed him with these words: "Saint Mark is our father, and Alexandria is our mother." That was long before he was officially ordained Coptic Bishop for African Affairs.
If there is a surefire way to enthrall the masses it is to combine ritual with miracle, mass with social and community work. "My memory of preaching to the poor begins in the early fifties, when I was a boy of 15." This weekly ritual began with a short trip to some poverty-stricken village outside Cairo where he held a service for Coptic peasants. The first village he served was Abu-Za'bal Al-Balad, in the vicinity of what is today Cairo's northernmost suburb, Al-Marg. He discovered Christian peasants who had never been baptised. Others had not had Communion for years. Poverty, illiteracy and illness were the most prominent features in their lives. Their need was great, the resources at his disposal hopelessly meagre. The learning curve was steep but he quickly realised that negative thinking led only to bitterness, fatigue and frustration. The encounters in the village prepared him for Ethiopia, which in turn prepared him for Kenya and South Africa.
"Church is not just about rituals and prayer, it is a way of life, a unique sense of community," he stresses. Vocational training centres are established alongside the Coptic churches he has founded across Africa. "I long ago learned to adopt a holistic and humanist approach. When you preach to the dispossessed give them a fishing rod or trap. Teach them to fish. Don't give them fish," says the Bishop, striding toward his nonagenarian mother who is being helped to her seat by a nurse.
"She likes it here" in the old people's home in the Anba Barsoom Al-Aryan Monastery, Helwan. Spotless and spacious, it combines a school, training centre and hospital.
"We are building similar complexes across Africa," he tells me. "We need volunteers and adventurous professionals."
Wherever he goes in Africa he always appears to be coming home, waving at one parishioner, shooting a big smile at another.
The Coptic Church was a founding member of the All-Africa Council of Churches, a pan-African organisation that groups several churches. Bishop Markos was vice-president of the AACC for 11 years. The Coptic Church is also a member of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) which brings together a large number of Christian Orthodox and Protestant churches. He has participated in several WCC meetings in which he met many African clergymen from a wide variety of Protestant churches. And to the African clergymen he would invariably claim that the Coptic Orthodox Church is the oldest church in Africa, founded in Alexandria by its first patriarch, Saint Mark.
Born in the Old Cairo district of Al-Malek Al- Saleh, the bishop's father was a clerk at the Ministry of Education. "My father was a poor but strong-willed and determined man. He made sure that all his children became university graduates, doctors, engineers, holders of PhDs."
"A loving family, a fulfilling career and charity. All these things are important but there is this other dimension. Because the world is a very precarious place you need a comforter, larger than life. So many people are living on the edge."
Bishop Antonious Markos maintains excellent working relationships with a wide variety of African churches -- mainstream Anglicans, Methodists and Roman Catholics as well as the more evangelical Pentecostalists, the indigenous African Zionist Christian churches of South Africa and the Kimbanguists of Central Africa.
Through a Swiss missionary friend, the Reverend Wilfried Flade, he was introduced to Joseph Diangienda Kuntima, spiritual head of the large and immensely influential Kimbanguist Church. The bishop soon received an invitation to visit the Kimbabguist Theological College in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital.
Today there are three Coptic churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "We respect the indigenous cultural traditions of the people. We accommodate indigenous custom except where it flagrantly contradicts the tenets of the church."
The bishop was instrumental in founding the Organisation of African Independent Churches in 1978, a grouping of indigenous African churches not affiliated to any European mother church. The Coptic Church was a founding member.
There are 12 Coptic churches in South Africa today. One is in the African township of Gugulethu on the outskirts of Cape Town, another in Soweto, the sprawling Johannesburg township and a city in its own right. "Every people's language is dear to them." In one South African Coptic Church, the priest is an ethnic Zulu, the liturgy is in Zulu and even the music is not Coptic. "The parishioners choose fast-paced tunes for their services. I do not object." The bishop smiles. "Outward appearances do not really matter. Substance is from within."
The bishop may be a man of religion but it is difficult to pigeon-hole him. He was the first Egyptian surgeon to practice in Ethiopia. His nickname, "Doctor Bishop", opened doors, endearing him to the poor, both confusing and amusing the powers that be. He initially had trouble convincing the Kenyan authorities that, even though he was a monk, he was applying to the Kenyan Ministry of Health for a licence to practice medicine.
He tends to answer questions about his experiences in Africa south of the Sahara by painstakingly working out both the year and his age at the time as if shuffling through mental index cards for an autobiography already in progress. He has, indeed, written several autobiographical works covering different periods of his African ministry in which he variously describes himself as doctor, deacon, monk or bishop to designate the different stages of his career.
The Coptic Church in Africa struggles against many odds, as no one knows better than Coptic Pope Shenouda III's special emissary in Africa and chief advisor on African affairs. Unlike the Church in North America and Australia, where wealthy Coptic communities sustain church coffers, the Coptic Church in Africa is poor. The bishop, moreover, does not want the activities of the Coptic Bishopric in Africa to be a drain on the church's resources though he is perfectly well aware that "a missionary without money is like a soldier without a gun."
Even before his ordination Bishop Antonious Markos was obsessed with working for the Coptic Church, and no more so than in Ethiopia. He left Egypt for Ethiopia in May 1966. His first posting was in Asmara, today the Eritrean capital but then a pretty provincial city. From Asmara he was transferred to Deber Berhan -- The Mountain of Light -- a remote and impoverished outpost. Conditions there were deplorable. The church was too small to accommodate the masses outside every Sunday morning. Sixty children showed up for the first Sunday School. The following Sunday the number jumped to 250 children. In subsequent weeks it multiplied -- 500 to 1,000 to 1,500. Services were in Coptic and not Ge'ez, the ancient liturgical tongue of the Ethiopian Church.
Perched high in the wild range it was wet and bitterly cold. Ethiopian doctors refused to work there, frightened off by rumours of the barbarous nature of the region's inhabitants. Bishop Markos's introduction to the youth of Ethiopia was through the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Local YMCA leaders asked him to help in first aid training; in return he asked the youths to teach him Amharic. The Tigrinya he had learned in Asmara was incomprehensible in other parts of Ethiopia.
The bishop never had a family of his own but in Ethiopia he adopted the son of a poor Ethiopian priest, educated him and raised him as his own. Also in Ethiopia the bishop founded a welfare association and home for needy students.
Bishop Antonious Markos has the easy warmth of those born to minister. I first met him in Ghana in November 1977 when he was assessing the possibility of founding a Coptic church to serve the Egyptian Coptic and Ethiopian communities in Ghana. Sometimes his diligent efforts do not bear immediate fruit and to this day there is no Coptic church in Ghana, even though he did manage to establish churches in two of Ghana's immediate neighbours, Ivory Coast and Togo.
But Bishop Antonious Markos is patient and continues to work on founding a Coptic Church in Ghana.
Africans appear to be particularly impressed with the Coptic funeral service. "Someone once told me that, 'you pray for the departed as if he or she was a king or queen'." Prayers for the departed are in the local African languages which is very important. Indeed, many Africans become curious about the Coptic Church after witnessing a funeral service.
The Coptic Church sees itself as the Mother Church in Africa. And of all Africa's contemporary churches, the Ethiopian is the closest to the Coptic. "One faith and a 17-century spiritual bond," the bishop remarks. Tradition and the priesthood have linked the Coptic and Ethiopian Churches down the ages. The 20th century, however, witnessed a tragic break between the two. The bishop was in Ethiopia when talk of the severing of ties was first bandied.
The prospect grew out of a long-running grievance and the demise of the emperor only exacerbated matters. The Elders of the Ethiopian Church were yearning to cut the umbilical chord between the Egyptian and Ethiopian churches and it was eventually severed, though the final cut was largely at the hands of politicians rather than the clergy.
All the warning signals were there. The sudden deaths of first Abuna Basilious, the head of the Ethiopian Church, in 1969, and then of Egypt's Pope Kirollos in March 1970, presented an opportunity for radical change.
The Egyptian Church "received a surprise request" from the Ethiopian Church to consecrate the Ethiopian patriarch in May 1971 without waiting for the enthronement of the new Egyptian pope. More symbolically significant and without any historical precedent, the Ethiopians also requested that their patriarch's consecration take place in Ethiopia and not Egypt. "The Coptic Holy Synod decided to send a Coptic delegation to Addis Ababa to consecrate the new Ethiopian patriarch. The Egyptian delegation was led by the Metropolitan Antonius of Sohag, the acting patriarch while the throne of Saint Mark was vacant.
"After the end of the liturgy, we realised that all the films taken of the crowning of the Ethiopian patriarch had disappeared. The only pictures remaining were those of him adjusting the crown with the help of the Ethiopian bishop. And these appeared in the Ethiopian media with headlines like: 'For the first time the Ethiopian Orthodox Church crowned its patriarch with its own hands and in its own land and among its own people.' Tempers were running high," the bishop remembered.
The Ethiopian emperor was a conservative who loved Egypt and its Coptic Church. His name was ritually changed from Ras Tafari to Haile Sellasie, or The Power of the Trinity. The old emperor couldn't stop the call for change which was reaffirmed after his political demise. The Egyptian doctor in Ethiopia was at a loss. He refused to play the blame game. In the past the Ethiopian Church was a daughter of the Coptic Church, but now it is a sister church, he told himself.
The bishop cherishes the memory of the late Emperor Haile Sellasie. "His Imperial Majesty visited the sick and infirm in hospitals. He sat by their sickbeds, held the hands of his diseased and humble subjects. He was a kind man, a fatherly potentate who helped his people. He did not publicise his good works," the bishop assured me. "'Where is the Egyptian doctor who speaks Amharic,' inquired the emperor on one of his rounds." Thus began a special friendship between two devoutly religious men.
Tragedy struck on the first day of the Ethiopian New Year in September 1974 with the eruption of the Ethiopian Revolution. The Egyptian doctor had no idea trouble was brewing as Mengistu Halie Mariam was usurping power as the country's new strongman. The imperial bodyguard was disbanded, the vast imperial estates confiscated and the private imperial exchequer closed. Next the aged and ailing Haile Sellassie was deposed. A few months later the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Patriarch Abouna Theophilos was disrobed. The Egyptian Church refused to recognise the new head of the Ethiopian Church. They were trying times.
The Egyptian medical practitioner loved the old Ethiopia but there was no place for him in the new. Ethiopia Tikdem, Ethiopia First, was the new slogan of the ruling military and revolutionary clique. The country was now officially atheist and the bishop soon received a surprise visit from a high-ranking officer who told him in no uncertain terms that proselytising was forbidden. Religion, he was told, was the root of backwardness. That was the last straw. He left Ethiopia for good in March 1975. He was to return for short visits again to the country he had come to love and Ethiopia was the springboard from which he explored other African countries.
After a brief spell at the family home in Faggala, Cairo, the doctor headed for a monastery and braced himself for monastic life. But he yearned to return to the social concerns of his earlier career. At heart he was a preacher, a prosyletiser, more so than a medical practitioner. But he had vowed to devote himself to monastic life on 22 February 1964. Now he was about to fulfil his promise.
On 29 July 1975 Pope Shenouda visited the Baramose Coptic Monastery, and the doctor was summoned and summarily informed that he would be consecrated as a novice at dawn. He spent a sleepless night in prayer and has never turned back.
Even so he could not resist the pull of Africa and barely six months later he was back. Accompanied by a young Kenyan, Joseph Omanyo, who had just completed his theological studies in Cairo, he left for Kenya on 11 January 1976. Armed with liturgical books, altar utensils and a few medical and surgical instruments he arrived in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Kenya was a world away from its northern neighbour Ethiopia. His first task was to master Kiswahili, the national language. The second was to cater to the needs of the Copts of Nairobi who wanted to have liturgy only once a fortnight because they were accustomed to head for the beautiful countryside surrounding the Kenyan capital on Sundays to picnic. Services were therefore held twice a month, and still the congregation arrived late -- "just before the end of the liturgy".
Life, at first, was difficult. He enrolled in a school of languages to study Kiswahili -- a Bantu language heavily influenced by Arabic. He had to speak the language of the people and within six months of intensive study he could communicate well with the locals.
Food and accommodation proved to be a less easily surmountable problem. Devout Copts fast for well over half of the year. During the fasts Copts do not consume meat, dairy or other animal products. At the Methodist Church's guest house, where he was initially lodged, the cooks refused to prepare vegetarian meals for him. Lent of 1976 became a most trying time.
In a separate incident the Archbishop of the African Independent Pentecostal Church in Kenya prohibited Bishop Antonious Markos from preaching the Coptic sermon. "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely," the bishop says of the time. He knew he was in uncharted waters, but he pressed on. Trials and tribulations only strengthened his faith.