Exclusive: Coronavirus ignites conflicts inside Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church

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Thousands of Coptic activists have caused great controversy in the past weeks, calling on the Coptic Orthodox Church to stop the ritual of Holy Communion during mass, especially after a priest, pastor, and two Egyptian deacons coming from a trip to the United States were infected with coronavirus. The call was aggressively answered by religious Copts, pastors, and priests who totally refused to suspend or change the ritual, which they consider to be one of the seven sacraments of the church and should never be suspended or canceled. Finally, the decision was taken that all churches should close. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53-54). These verses and others were quoted by pastors in defence of the ritual and their refusal to stop it. The ritual begins at the end of the liturgy prayers where the priests stand carrying a large piece of bread, representing the body of Christ, and a glass of wine, representing the blood of Christ, and the worshipers line up in queues. The priests put a piece of bread in their mouth and give them a spoon of wine to complete the Eucharist. The same spoon passes from one mouth to another and eventually the spoon will have been in the mouths of all of those present. Therefore, the demands to stop this ritual came out of fear that coronavirus could be transmitted between the Copts. The priests defended the ritual on the pretext that the wine is the pure blood of Christ, which cannot transmit disease or infection but rather, on the contrary, is a cure for diseases and a source of life. Mina Samih, a Coptic activist, told Egypt Watch that although communion is one of the seven sacraments of the church, it is a ritual and not a doctrine, and that there have been long periods of church life when this ritual was not performed in the current way. “During some periods, the wine was sprayed and the audience only ate bread,” Samih said. “The Bible did not tell us a specific way to apply the ritual, but the problem is that the Copts in Egypt, especially the high priests, see all the rituals performed by Pope Shenouda III as a doctrine that can never be changed or replaced.” Samih added that many of the high priests have scientific backgrounds, among them doctors and pharmacists such as the bishop of Assiut, who used to be an orthopedist. “But they set their minds and sciences aside in exchange for spiritual teachings and loyalty to Pope Shenouda III’s rituals. This farce will only be stopped by the state’s decision to close the churches,” Samih told Egypt Watch.

On social media networks a video of the bishop of Assiut during mass on March 17 circulated. The church was filled with worshipers without regard to the exceptional situation and the presence of a serious epidemic and the video went viral. The bishop told worshipers: “If there are a few in Assiut praying with all their hearts, then the coronavirus will not come close to us,” asking the worshipers to chant behind him, saying: “If we pray with all our heart, then coronavirus will never come near us.” A source from inside St. Mark’s Cathedral told Egypt Watch that the issue is greater than what it appears to some, and the differences within the church are more severe than people think. Pope Tawadros II is afraid to enter into a fight with the bishops and the Holy Synod that is dominated by hardliners. “There are severe differences within the Coptic body in Egypt, especially between Pope Tawadros II, who can be described as a reformist and the Synod that is predominantly conservative and full of Pope Shenouda III loyalists. After several previous fights, I think that Pope Tawadros II was afraid to raise the issue of suspending the ritual of communion in churches before resolving the decision under governmental pressure,” the source added. “Since the current pope assumed the papal chair, he had several fights with the Synod and the chief bishops and priests, including changing the way the Chrism, which is one of the seven sacraments of the church, is done, as the church used a manual method [from] hundreds of years ago to make the mixture. The current pope issued a decision to change the method to an automatic one to save time, effort and cost, and after a huge fight in which the pope won, the automatic method was finally approved.”

The church source notes that “despite the pope’s victory in the chrism fight, hardliners inside the church triumphed over him in other fights, including the one to allow women during their menstruation to participate in the Holy Communion, which is forbidden by the church. The current pope had another opinion that menstruation is not considered impure and decided to allow their participation, but the Synod canceled his decision.” The other fight was due to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as the source says that many inside the church accuse the pope of favouring the president at the expense of the faith, which was reflected in the desire of the pope after the inauguration of the new Administrative Capital Church to write al-Sisi’s name in the Synaxarium (a book of biographies of the churches of the See of St. Mark gathering news of the saints, prophets and apostles.) “The Synod, high priests, and bishops rejected that. They also refused the pope’s signature of the unity document of doctrine with the Vatican pope that Tawadros II did at the request of al-Sisi.”

Coptic sources told Egypt Watch that the pope has been fiercely attacked since 2014 due to his proximity to the Egyptian president, and some anti-pope groups have emerged within the church, including Protectors of Faith and The Orthodox Doesn’t Cheat. However, the sources pointed out that some bishops and priests individually took some precautionary steps to confront the epidemic before the decision that they would close, including preventing kissing the priest’s hand, and stopping the ritual kissing that is at the end of mass and only doing a distant salutation. As well, the towel with which the worshiper wipes his or her mouth after communion was banned from all Egyptian churches. Some churches decided that mass would be restricted to a priest and only one of the deacons, but no one would be prevented from attending. But this will be organised to reduce congestion by holding several masses per day and warning people not to attend more than one mass per week, and not to allow entry after the church is full. The sources, nevertheless, made it clear that the pope could not change the Holy Communion, fearing these groups, other conservatives, and followers of the former pope are “stronger than the pope.” “If he wasn’t supported by the state and al-Sisi, he would have been placed in the monastery and a five-party committee formed to manage the church, or the matter would have been greater than that, similar to what happened with pope Yosab II who was kidnapped in 1954 by the Coptic Group,” the sources continued.

The sources clarified that the differences within the church amounted to severe accusations against the pope, including the accusation by the bishop of Maghagha that the pope is not an Orthodox, and the accusation by others that Pope Tawadros II killed the bishop of Damietta and Kafr el-Sheikh, who was known for his differences with the present pope. The ecclesiastical source said that the hardline current within the church is strongly defending the Holy Communion and its inherited rituals. This current is led by the “Shenouda wing,” including Bishop Yuaanes, Marqus Bishop of Shubra and Bishop Jeremiah. No one can stand against them other than the state. The pope is afraid to request this from the state since this is going only to confirm the accusations against him of favouring the state at the expense of the creed. The source added, finally, that the decision was made just before the Holy Week of Passions, during which the churches are usually filled to twice their capacity.