Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Rebel monks

What began as a quarrel over the construction of a road adjacent to a monastery has escalated into a showdown between a group of monks and the Coptic Orthodox Church and the state. Michael Adel reports

Rebel monks
Rebel monks
Al-Ahram Weekly

Opposed to a new road passing besides the Wadi Al-Rayyan Monastery in Fayoum, a small group of monks decided to take matters into their own hands. Their direct action included blocking construction work on the road. In the ensuing controversy, not only have monks attacked one another with knives but six have been defrocked.

The Coptic Orthodox Church appeared keen to wash its hands of the story. Early on, it sided with the government, insisting that if the authorities had decided a road was needed beside the monastery then a road should be built, and denouncing any attempt to challenge the authority of the government.

Not only that, some Coptic Orthodox Church leaders let it be known that the monks who were resisting the construction of the road were imposters who had never been consecrated, and that the land on which they had built their monastery was not owned by the Church.

The rebel monks tell another story. They produced documents that they say show that the government recognises the monastery. Then they confirmed that the consecration of monks at Wadi Al-Rayyan followed Orthodox rituals and was performed in the presence of leading clergymen from the nearby Anba Macarius Monastery.

How, they asked, can the Church call them imposters when they are all holders of national identity cards stating their status as monks, which could only have been issued with certification from the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya?

The monks also claim that it is unnecessary for the road to cut through the monastery grounds and that shorter, more cost-effective routes are available.

The synod of the nearby Anba Macarius Monastery is not convinced by such statements and has condemned the “improper” actions of its neighbours.

The Anba Macarius Synod called on the “church congregation not to endorse the conduct or opinion of anyone who wants to stir sedition and cause a rift between the church and its sons.”

It denounced “the actions committed by some non-consecrated monks, and ... any statements hostile to the church or its leaders,” according to a statement posted on the Facebook page of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s spokesman.

Last week, the rebel monks issued a statement in which they declared “total submission” to the Coptic Orthodox Church and Pope Tawadros II. In October 2014, the church had stated publicly that not only was the monastery outside its control but that it had defrocked six of the monks.

The Wadi Al-Rayyan monks are now seeking to petition President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. In a meeting with journalists at the monastery, the monks called on the president to halt the building of a road that “breaks the monastery in two.”

According to one monk, “The decision to build the road ignores the sacredness of the site and fails to respect that it is a place of prayer. This is a heritage area, as a committee sent by the antiquities minister confirmed. The site dates back to the fourth century and should be protected by walls, not traversed by road.”

Knife fights broke out in the monastery during the crisis, with two monks — Mikhail Ayyad, 38, and Ayyub Beshay, 35 — taken to nearby Fayoum General Hospital for treatment.

Anba Abraham, the bishop of Fayoum, said monks opposed to the building of the road attacked the two men because they held opposing views.

Though the present monastery is close to a cluster of ancient anchorite caves, its recent history dates from 1960 when Father Matta Al-Maskin retreated to the site. He brought other monks to live there, and the monastery he created remained in operation until 1969 when Al-Maskin rejoined the Anba Macarius Monastery, together with his disciples.

Monks returned to the area in the early 1990s to find the monastery buried beneath sand. The monks removed the sand and began developing the site once more. The government did nothing to stop them.

By 1994 the number of monks had reached 250, many of whom were not consecrated. The monks built a wall around the monastery and made deals with the local nomads to allow them to live in peace.

Not long after the monks restarted the monastery, Wadi Al-Rayyan was declared a protectorate. The Ministry of Environment sent officials to the monastery and demanded no new buildings be erected without first being licenced by the ministry.

Meanwhile, the number of monks continued to grow. Father Elija, the monastery head, was happy to accept individuals who would not have met the conditions — such as having a college education — required by other foundations.

When the monastery applied for building permits and received none the monks went ahead anyway and added new buildings. Elija began construction work on more cells, entering into direct confrontation with the Ministry of Environment.

Frictions between the monastery and environment officials continued until 2007 when the Environmental Affairs Agency and the monastery signed an agreement recognising the right of the monks to live and worship on the site.

The second paragraph of the 2007 agreement notes that the Wadi Al-Rayyan monks operate 52 cells, a guesthouse, a church, a chapel, a cemetery, a storeroom, a fuel tank and a 3,200-metre farm.

Under the agreement, the monastery was responsible for preserving the natural environment and protecting wildlife. The monastery had no further legal complications until a few weeks ago, when the road builders arrived.

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