US behind Coptic church schism?

It is heartening that in this paranoid age even the Coptic Christians of Egypt see US-backed conspiracies in the challenges which are emerging to their own orthodoxy. As we recently noted, neocon groups like the Henry Jackson Society have been seeking to exploit the Copts, who face persecution from the Muslim majority, as ideological cannon fodder in their propaganda war against Islamic extremism and the Islamic nations generally. The suspicions expressed here (note highlighted text below) would suggest they have a long way to go. Also interesting that the orthodox Copts’ complaint of US meddling mirrors that of their Islamic fundamentalist oppressors: the yankees are backing modernizers who are eroding core tenets of the faith. First, this short clip from Egypt’s Middle East Times, July 12:

Mubarak refuses to intervene in Coptic Church affair
CAIRO — Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday said that he would not intervene in the affairs of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, after the controversial announcement by a priest to form a splinter Church.

“I do not intervene in religious affairs,” Mubarak said in an interview with the state-owned daily Al-Messa.

“Copts are able to solve their own problems without any intervention,” he said.

On July 3 self-proclaimed Archbishop Maximus I announced plans to start appointing bishops around the country and split from the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Mubarak stressed that when he spoke to Pope Shenuda III, who heads the Coptic Orthodox Church, it was only to welcome him back after a month of medical treatment abroad.

Shenuda, leader of the Church since 1971, on Monday sought to play down the importance of the challenge by the dissident bishop saying that the Church “was never harmed by the dangers threatening it and it will not be affected by this development.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Maximus offered his own program of “liturgical, social, and cultural” reforms, saying that his priority was to bridge the gap (between Christians and Muslims) and to “re-establish the status of Copts as citizens, not a religious community.”

Maximus also defended divorce, which is banned by Shenuda’s Church other than in exceptional circumstances.

The 57 year-old Maximus, whose real name is Max Michel, has had friction with the Church – to which 6 to 10 percent of the 73 million Egyptians belong – since 1976.

In 2004 he announced the creation of the Church of St. Athanasios and was ordained Archbishop by three US Orthodox bishops in a church in Nebraska.

Now this background, from Italy’s AKI, July 6:

Egypt: split shakes the Coptic Orthodox minority
Cairo – Following the recent controversial creation a breakaway Holy Orthodox Synod of Egypt and the Mediterranean by the archibishop of the Holy Orthodox Synod of the US, Maximus Johanna I, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church said in a statement on Thursday: “Max Michel [the real name of Maximus Johanna I] was appointed by people who have abandoned the Orthodox church […] and therefore the church does not recognise his authority.”

In its statement, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church stressed the invalidity of Maximus Johanna’s I pronouncements, such as the recent appointment of two new bishops for northern Egypt and for the Nile Delta region.

Maximus Johanna I, a former member of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church’s clergy, was forced to leave the country in the seventies due to his disagreement on a number of issues with Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III. He emigrated to America, where he became the archbishop of the Holy Orthodox Synod of the United States, a separatist Coptic church which had previously been founded by Egyptian immigrants.

The church he heads is inspired by progressive and moderate principles, which clash with the traditionalist conservatism of the Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church.

Commenting on the foundation of the Holy Orthodox Synod of Egypt and the Mediterranean by Maximus Johanna I, the spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo, Salib Mata Sawiris, told journalists that there was the possibility that such a “split” was backed by the US in its efforts to decrease Pope Shenouda’s III popularity.

Spokesman for the US embassy in Cairo, John Berri, promptly replied to such allegations, saying that the American administration is not backing Maximus Johanna I and will interfere in the business of the Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church in the future.

Maximus Johanna I himself has also denied he is receiving financial help from the US authorities.

Pope Shenouda III, who is currently on a trip to Germany, has announced he will speak about Maximus Johanna’s I’s breaway move in a press conference on Monday, after his return to Cairo.

Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church is an indigenous form of Christianity that was established in the country by the apostle Mark in the middle of the first century AD. Today, over 95 percent of Egypt’s 7.4 million Christian minority (10 percent of the population) belong to it.

In 1981, president Anwar Sadat exiled Pope Shenouda III and other prominent members of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox clergy. He appointed a committee of five bishops to replace the pontiff. Pope Shenouda III was re-admitted to Egypt by president Hosni Mubarak in 1985.

See our last posts on the Egypt, the Copts, and the related Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

  1. Coptic Christian
    Followers of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, which arose from the first schism with Rome, can be found in Northern Sudanese towns including Dongala, Atbara, Wad Medani, Port Sudan, El-Obeid, Khartoum and Omdurman. They have 23 churches and two bishops. There are less than 200,000 members of the Coptic Christian community in Sudan, but their presence in the country dates back over thirteen hundred years, and because of their advanced literacy and numeracy their role has been more significant than their numbers would suggest. Their adoption of a passive, non-confrontational role in an overwhelmingly Muslim society, coupled with their light skin colour, has helped them to avoid the worst excesses of religious and racial discrimination, but in recent years they have been harassed and intimidated by the National Islamic Front regime. Although they have common roots with the original Christian missionaries in Sudan, they tend to be overlooked in the debate on religious persecution, which focuses on the Christians in Southern Sudan.