Even in desert retreat, monks feel Egypt's turmoil

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 18 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

"If there is someone out there who thinks that persecuting the church or attacking the cathedral will drive us out of Egypt, then they are making a big mistake," said Yacoub, a 51-year-old trained engineer. "They are pestering us so as to drown the Coptic voice that rose during the revolution."

"No one can cover up facts or silence Egyptians any more. That party is over."

For monks to talk like this is a dramatic sign of the sentiment among Christians here. Egypt's estimated 1,200 monks constitute the heart and soul of the Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the world's oldest denominations. Monasticism is believed to have started in Egypt. St. Anthony, born in the mid-3rd Century, is believed to be one of the first, shedding his possessions to live in the desert. His followers gathered to first build the monastery here below his hermit's cave.

Over the centuries, monks offered spiritual guidance to Christians and have been seen as protectors during bouts of persecution through history, starting with the Romans. Egypt's monasteries saw a revival in the 1970s, and since then many have been renovated. Today, tens of thousands of Christians flock to festivals on saint's days at major monasteries like St. Anthony's and Deir el-Muharraq, near the Nile River in southern Egypt. They also often come individually for visits to pray and meditate through the night.

"The monks are the church's first line of defense because our role is to constantly pray to protect the church and comfort the flock," said 65-year-old Father Bakhomious, a monk at St. Anthony's.

He said the attack on the cathedral in Cairo was "painful — a defining moment in the history of Egypt and the church."

"Revolutions have their cons and pros and we as Christians must endure and pray for stability and peace."

Another monk, Father Hedra, says the church can feel the worries among the flock. In a sign of Egypt's overall economic woes, donations of food by the faithful to St. Anthony's to distribute to the poor have gotten smaller, he said.

"People are weighed down by their troubles and they come to us to rest and breathe fresh clean air," he said. "I can also sense the burden on everyone from the attacks on the church. When we have a crisis like that last one, the whole church is praying."

Christians felt empowered by their participation in unusually large numbers in the 18-day revolution that toppled Mubarak's authoritarian regime. Like Muslims, they rose up to create a democratic state that safeguards the dignity and rights of all Egyptians.

The April 7 violence at the cathedral showed Christians' anger and readiness to push back.

The violence followed a funeral service at the cathedral for four Christians killed a day earlier in sectarian violence in a town north of Cairo. During the service, aired live on several TV networks, mourners broke into chants against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood — an unheard-of show of politics inside a church. "Hold your head high, you are a Copt" and "We will never leave our country," were among the chants.

When several hundred mourners attempted to march outside the cathedral to protest the killings, a Muslim mob set upon them, pelting them with rocks and firebombs, leading to a battle between crowds inside the cathedral and outside.

Morsi ordered a full investigation, reassuring Christians about their safety. However, a senior presidential aide in charge of foreign relations later issued a statement in English saying the violence erupted when Christian protesters vandalized cars — a comment Christians saw as blaming them. Islamist hard-liners delivered sharp public warnings to the church against involving itself in politics.

Tawadros, the pope, was dismissive of Morsi's promises, including his reviving of a commission on equality. "We want action not words and, let me say this, there are many names and committees but there is no action on the ground," he said.

Still, alongside their more assertive tone, the monks preserve their tradition of finding solace in prayer — along with the long-term perspective engrained over the centuries.

"As monks, we will pray until God lifts his anger and help us cope with what we are facing," said a monk at Deir el-Muharraq in southern Egypt, also named Father Bakhomious. "Egypt has seen a lot over the ages and what is happening now is a chaotic phase that will eventually end," he added.

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