Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (614)
A story in Al-Ahram in 1929 centred on the ties that bound the churches of Egypt and Abassinya. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk goes further, to the events that led to an eventual split
Under the headline, "Egypt and Abassinya: an historical overview of mutual bonds," appearing in Al-Ahram of 18 May 1929, Abdel-Halim Elias Nossir relates the story of the relationship between the Egyptian and Abassinyan churches. Nossir dates the beginning of this relationship to the fourth century, when the Egyptian patriarch Anastasius El-Rasuli sent an emissary to Abassinya to preach the gospel. Varimentus, as the emissary was called, succeeded in converting the people there to Christianity. Since that time, the Abassinyan 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 Highness the King of Abassinya participated. Later, the religious envoy would be given a farewell escort upon his departure from the country as Egypt's ambassador to Abassinya."
Nossir's use of the term "ambassador" was not accidental. The church was an important conduit for diplomatic relations between the two countries. Frequently the clerical emissaries were used for passing communications between the Egyptian sultans and the Abassinyan kings.
The religious-diplomatic link between the two countries was upped several notches in the late 19th century, when the Abassinyan monarch sent an official delegation to Alexandria, the seat of the Coptic patriarchy, requesting an ecclesiastic mission consisting of an archbishop and three bishops. Until then, the most senior Coptic clergyman in Abassinya had been a bishop. The request was granted and soon afterwards Reverend Mataous was invested as archbishop of Abassinya. Anba Mataous was "one of the most famous Coptic bishops, a man with a glorious and eventful history", Nossir writes, adding that he was so powerful and influential that he was, in effect, "a king without a crown".
In December 1926 Anba Mataous passed away. It was not until 1929, more than two and a half years later, that negotiations took place between Abassinya and the patriarchal See in Cairo to fill the vacant episcopate. A focal point of these negotiations was the Al-Sultan Monastery in Jerusalem, in which the majority of the monks were from Abassinya. Having learned that the church in Egypt was about to send a Coptic notable to Abassinya to reach an understanding over the appointment of a new archbishop, the Abassinyan emperor made two requests. The first was that the monastery in Jerusalem be brought under the jurisdiction of the Abassinyan episcopate. The second was that the new archbishop be "proficient in all religious and contemporary sciences, fluent in several living languages, especially English and French, and renowned for piety and impeccability".
After lengthy negotiations, the two sides agreed that an archbishop appointed in Egypt would continue to head the church in Abassinya. This official now would be assisted in his duties by five Abassinyan 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".
The Abassinyan 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. On the morning of 19 May the ship bearing the Abassinyan delegation arrived in Suez where they accorded a grand reception by the heads of the Coptic community in the port city. Two days later, the Abassinyan delegation arrived in Cairo where they had their first meeting with Pope Youanis. The Abassinyan minister of finance, who was heading the delegation, presented a letter to the Coptic patriarch from King Teveri, congratulating him on his assumption to the papal throne and extolling the historic relations between the churches of Egypt and Abassinya. The Abassinyan monarch went on to say in his letter 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 Abassinya so that they may disseminate the orthodox religion in the country".
On 1 June Pope Youanis met with Egyptian bishops and the members of the Milli Council to consider the candidates for the Abassinyan See. It was announced that if no objections were voiced the investiture would take place in two days. When the appointed day arrived, the patriarchal residence was the scene of an extraordinary gathering. At 6.00pm that day, Al-Ahram relates, the Abassinyan ministers arrived at the residence, spoke with the pope for half an hour and then the three proceeded to an assembly room in which were gathered seven bishops, four abbots, the members of the Milli Council and three former Egyptian ministers. Several hours later it was announced that the choice fell upon Reverend Sidarus El-Antoni whom the patriarch named Father Kirolos. Al-Ahram relates that the newly appointed archbishop to Abassinya was originally from the village of Al-Naghamish in the directorate of Girga. Now 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 Abassinyan bishops. Al-Ahram relates that after all had taken their assigned places in the church, the pope proceeded with the rituals of ordainment. His Eminence dressed the Abassinyan archbishop in "a mantle of dark red velvet adorned with gilt crosses after which he recited chapters from the book of investiture, including a supplication for divine assistance to the archbishop and the bishops". Anba Isaac, archbishop of Fayyoum, then brought forward the four Abassinyan bishops. "As they were presented, they knelt before the patriarch who made the cross over their bare heads, blessed them and called them by their new names: Anba Butros, Anba Ibraam, Anba Mikhail and Anba Isaac. His Eminence then presented each of them with the bishopric chains, which is a vest of leather crosses suspended around the neck by straps of braided leather and attached behind the back with straps of the same leather. When His Eminence noticed that some of the bishops were unable to put on this garment by themselves, he stepped forward to assist, which he did with great skill and dexterity."
Not long afterwards, Anba Kirolos left for Abassinya, reaching Djibouti on 24 June and Harar two days later. As he made his way inland, he relived the journey undertaken by the archbishops appointed from Egypt for centuries. He relates, "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 Abassinyan archbishop had to contend with a development the likes of which none of his long line of predecessors had ever encountered. In 1935, the Italians invaded Abassinya, forcing Teveri, who had been crowned Emperor Haile Selassie several years earlier, to flee the country and seek refuge in Britain. The Italian occupiers, naturally, sought every means to sever the relationship between the Abassinyan Church and its mother church in Egypt. Their harassment of Anba Kirolos was such that he decided to take his cause directly to Rome where he hoped to reach an understanding with its fascist authorities. His mission was doomed to fail, with lasting consequences for the bond between the Abassinyan and Egyptian churches and for himself personally.
THE ABASSINYAN ARCHBISHOP ended up staying in Italy much longer than had been expected. The delay occasioned conflicting rumours, some saying that the Italian authorities were preventing him from leaving the country, others that they gave him permission to leave on the condition that he did not return to Addis Ababa.
The confusion was reflected in Al-Ahram 's coverage of the subject beginning in late June 1937. Under the headline, "The question of the Abassinyan archbishop: between official Italian sources and informed Egyptian sources", the newspaper reports that Italian officials denied rumours circulating in Cairo that Anba Kirolos was effectively under house arrest in Venice and that he was pleading for the protection of the Egyptian government. In an attempt to clear up the mystery, Al-Ahram dispatched one of its reporters to a senior official of the Coptic Church, who informed him that the Milli Council would be holding an urgent meeting to discuss the archbishop's situation. "The discussions will have bearing on the results of recent meetings in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," the Coptic official told Al-Ahram. Following the meeting, the Milli Council issued a statement announcing that it had learned from a reliable source that the rumours regarding the Abassinyan archbishop were incorrect. The statement added that Kirolos would soon be meeting with his spiritual chief, His Holiness the Patriarch, in whose residence he was staying and that he was entirely free to come and go as he pleased." Rather than putting the rumours to rest, the statement seemed to confirm that Italian authorities had refused to allow Kirolos to return to Addis Ababa. Senator Ibrahim Takla took this information to its logical conclusion, on which basis he composed a lengthy appeal that appeared in the Manchester Guardian. Takla informed his British readers that it was the Church of Alexandria that had brought Christianity to Abassinya and that since then until the present day the Abassinyans had since remained true and loyal to their church. "It would be inconceivable that any power should attempt to sever the Abassinyan Church from its mother Coptic Church."
Unfortunately, it was not long before the inconceivable loomed. In a press interview an Italian senator addressed the religious problems in Italy's colonies and specifically the question of the monophysite church in Abassinya. "There is a powerful movement there to create an autonomous church or at least one whose spiritual leader is Abassinyan rather than Egyptian by birth," he said. Al-Ahram observed that such statements aggravated the fears of Copts in Egypt that Italy was pressuring the Abassinyan Church to declare its independence from the Church of Alexandria.
A news item appearing in Al-Ahram on 9 July 1937 further confirmed these fears. It announced that Anba Kirolos had set sail on the SS Asperia bound for Alexandria, instead of heading directly to Djibouti as had still been the hope. It also reported that senior clergymen in Addis Ababa had protested the political intervention by the Egyptian parliament in Kirolos's trip to Rome.
When the Abassinyan archbishop reached Alexandria in mid-July he headed directly to the headquarters of the patriarch and met with Pope Youanis. Afterwards he told La Bourse Égyptienne that when he met with Mussolini in Rome they did not discuss anything that would justify the rumours regarding the separation of the Abassinyan and Egyptian churches. Few believed him at the time and their suspicions would be confirmed by subsequent events. Nor was Al-Ahram able to get anything more concrete out of him when it interviewed him three weeks later. The headline of that interview sums up its substance -- or rather lack thereof: "The archbishop of Abassinya remains very reticent -- a half hour of reminiscences and conjectures."
The ambiguity continued until the beginning of December 1937 when an Al-Ahram headline blazoned: "Has the Abassinyan Church separated from the church of the Copts in Egypt? Al-Ahram correspondents from Abassinya and Italy report." In Addis Ababa, the story relates, the Italian governor-general met with Abassinyan religious representatives who requested his approval of their decision to reorganise the church and to appoint Father Abraham as the archbishop of Abassinya and to elect six bishops to serve him. The Al-Ahram correspondent in the Abassinyan capital described the decision as "a declaration of independence by the Abassinyan Church from the Coptic patriarchy in Egypt".
From Rome, the Al-Ahram correspondent reports that the Abassinyan ecclesiastical decision was hailed as proof of the success of Italy's policy towards its new African empire. "For the first time in the history of the Abassinyan Church, its leader will be elected by all the representatives of the churches in Abassinya instead of being appointed by the Alexandrian patriarchy as has always been the case until now," one Italian newspaper commented. Another exclaimed that the Abassinyan clerics' decision fulfils their long cherished ambition for independence, an aspiration long frustrated by the Abassinyan monarchy which refused to countenance such independence for fear of losing the support of the Alexandrian patriarchy.
NEEDLESS TO SAY the reaction in Cairo was entirely the opposite. Church officials declared that the decision of the Abassinyan clergymen had no validity because "anything pertaining to spiritual authority must be referred to His Eminence the Patriarch as the highest authority of the church". Some of the members of the Milli Council merely expressed disbelief on the grounds that the severance between the Abassinyan and Coptic churches ran against the grain of the deep faith of the Abassinyan people.
Opposition was not just voiced from Cairo. From her exile Empress Zodito broadcast the address delivered by Pope Youanis to the Abassinyan bishops he ordained in 1929. In this speech, the head of the Coptic Church declared, "You are bound to the command of the archbishop. You may not ordain bishops, for that is the soul prerogative of the patriarch in accordance with the laws of the church. You must preserve your unity with the Church of St Mark. You may not establish a separate See in any portion of Abassinya. You may not engage in partisan politics. You may not leave your diocese without authorisation from the archbishop and permission from the Abassinyan government. No person in a position of command or rule, whether king, minister, governor, prince, chief, master or commander, may abrogate any provisions of this decree."
Al-Ahram could not help but express its surprise that officials in the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not known of the decision of the Abassinyan clergy until they read about it in the newspaper along with everyone else. Ministry officials immediately wired the Egyptian consulate in Addis Ababa instructing it to provide full details regarding the decision and the circumstances that led to it. At a higher level, then acting minister of foreign affairs Makram Ebeid and his deputy minister met with the Italian chargé d'affaires who, at the conclusion of the meeting, promised to convey the position of the Egyptian government to Rome. Al-Ahram added that the Egyptian cabinet would meet soon "to discuss the issue from every aspect and to take the necessary measures to safeguard the spiritual relations between Egypt and Abassinya".
Cairo was not alone in its concern about these relations. Developments were being followed closely in Britain where Reuters relayed Al-Ahram reports on the subject and where the London Times wrote, "No one knows what happened during Anba Kirolos's visit to Rome but it is clear that he could not accept the conditions the Italian government stipulated for his return to Addis Ababa. Official sources in Egypt have noted that the election of a new archbishop in Abassinya may not necessarily result in the separation of the Abassinyan Church from its mother church in Egypt." In a subsequent edition of the Times a person signing himself "A friend of Egypt" wrote a lengthy article on the subject in which he concluded, "The Egyptian government and Egyptian public opinion, Muslims and Christians alike, regard [the preservation of the bond between the Egyptian and Abassinyan churches] as a national cause in the fullest sense of the term."
In Paris Le Temp warned that if the Abassinyan Church broke away from the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Church of Rome would embark on an intensive campaign, for which it had yet to rally the means, to attract Abassinyan Christians. At the same time, the French newspaper noted that Portugal launched a similar drive in the 15th century, "but all its attempts failed because the Abassinyans are notoriously attached to their religion".
Not surprisingly, the Italian press struck a different note entirely. It attempted to portray the decision of the Abassinyan clergy as a form of patriotism which had won the overwhelming approval of the Abassinyan people. One newspaper wrote, "In order to counter the influence of the head of the Abassinyan Church who had been appointed by the Alexandrian patriarchy, the last king of Abassinya created the post of a religious advisor to the government and the Abassinyan abbots. There arose as a result an interminable conflict between the archbishop and the religious advisor." Italian propaganda was clearly taking the tack that the Abassinyan desire to shed the domination of the mother church in Egypt had a long history and that the government in Rome was not solely responsible for recent developments.
Meanwhile in Addis Ababa a new Coptic archbishop was officially invested in a huge ceremony held in St Mariam Cathedral. In an address delivered on behalf of the king, Marshall Grazianni said that the Abassinyan Church was entering a new phase of life free of trouble and turmoil. The newly ordained archbishop then rose to deliver his first formal address.
Still, officials in Rome clung to the line that in spite of the new hierarchy in Abassinya they were keen not to disturb the relationship between the Abassinyan Church and the Orthodox Coptic Church in Egypt. They also insisted that they had no intention of altering in any manner the articles of faith of Abassinyan Christianity.
In Egypt, few, if any were taken in by these claims. Indeed, as the "friend of Egypt" wrote in the Times, the issue had acquired the status of a national cause at both the official and popular levels. In an attempt to illustrate how important the long-established religious relations between the Egyptian and Abassinyan churches were to the bilateral political relations between the two countries, Al-Ahram published a letter, dated in 1875, from the Pope Kirolos V to the Abassinyan king. A brief war had recently erupted between the two countries, which prompted the Coptic patriarch to write, "One is deeply disturbed and saddened by the current hostility and warfare between your kingdom and our esteemed Egyptian government." The Abassinyan king responded, "Having read your letter, we are compelled to obey your orders, as we have no will but that of Your Eminence. As you know, we have never harboured enmity towards our brother the Khedive Ismail with regard to borders or any other matter."
At the popular level, a large rally was held in front of the office of the patriarchy to protest the secession of the Abassinyan Church and to support the patriarch's policy of non- intervention in Abassinyan political affairs. Ten days later, a large throng gathered in the courtyard of the patriarchy to support the continued unity of the Egyptian and Abassinyan churches. Al-Ahram relates, "Among the demonstrators were many Muslim youths carrying placards bearing patriotic slogans and other moving messages such as 'All Egyptians are brothers' and 'Muslims and Copts are sons of the same nation and condemn the separation of the Abassinyan Church from its mother Coptic Church.'"
Although the government was playing its cards very close to its chest, officials made no secret of their concern and their determination to defend Egypt's rights through diplomatic means. They also stressed that the issue was one that concerned all citizens of Egypt. As though to confirm this MP Naguib Iskander took the floor of parliament to direct several questions to the government. Was it true, he asked, that the Abassinyan clergy had elected a new archbishop for their church in spite of the fact that one already existed? If so, had that new archbishop taken the oath of loyalty to the Coptic Church in Cairo? Were the Abassinyan clergy's actions the result of coercion on the part of the military authorities in Abassinya? The MP's questions remained unanswered. Moreover, the crisis that erupted between the Wafdist government and the palace at the end of December that year, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas, diverted Egyptian attention from the question of the Abassinyan Church. The Italians were thus left unopposed and succeeded in severing a bilateral spiritual and political relationship that had lasted more than 16 centuries.