The Murder of Bishop Epiphanius Deeply Traumatizes the Coptic Orthodox Church

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Thu, 2018-08-09
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On July 29, Bishop Epiphanius, abbot of St. Macarios, was murdered in his monastery. Also known as Anba Maqār, Bishop Epiphanius (68) was found dead on Sunday July 29 at 3.00 am with severe head injuries strongly indicating that he was murdered. The early morning hours suggest the bishop was getting ready for prayer. That he was murdered in the monastery, close to his cell, also suggests that the murderer may have known the bishop. His tragic death has shocked the nation and has been followed by intense speculation.


The late Bishop Epiphanius (left) with Pope Tawāḍrūs II



It was to be expected that some media sources and bloggers would initially blame radical Islamists for the crime. This is a very common narrative. When something bad happens to Copts, Islamists or even Muslims or Islam in general are blamed. It is certainly true that jihadist terrorists have been involved in horrible atrocities against Copts in recent months. But there is no reason to think they were involved in the murder of Bishop Epiphanius.


While I did not know Bishop Epiphanius personally, I have known this monastery and several of its monks well for almost 40 years. I love the monastery for its spirituality and its monks who abstain from involvement in politics and focus their lives entirely on the love of God and fellow human beings. The monastery, which dates to the 4th century, experienced a spiritual revival with the arrival of Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ (d.2006) in 1969 who had previously formed a community of monastic followers in the Wādī al-Rayyān area, around 50 km south of Faiyum oasis. Father Mattā’s move was ordered by Pope Kīrillus [Kyrillos] VI since the monastery counted at the time only six aged monks and its historic buildings were basically collapsing. Father Mattā’s charismatic authority helped to reinvigorate the monastery which now houses approximately 120 monks.


However, Father Mattā’s influence and authority brought him into conflict with Pope Shinūda [Shenouda] III (d.2012). Personally, I believe the conflicts between Father Mattā and Pope Shinūda III were more than theological. Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ went into monastic life before Pope Shinūda with the intention to reform the church from within. He rapidly had a group of followers around him and became popular among reform minded youth. Pope Shinūda was a reformer with ambitions to become head of the Coptic Orthodox Church and he succeeded in 1971 after the death of Pope Kīrillus VI. During his episcopate he had to deal with a strong-willed Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ who was at times not willing to submit to Pope Shinūda’s instructions. Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ was in particular critical of Pope Shinūda’s role in Egyptian politics. This was not an explicitly theological issue, but it is possible that less significant theological debates exacerbated tensions between the leaders. These theological differences became bigger for a number of followers of both leaders as the interviews with Metropolitan Bīshūy and Father Basilios al-Maqārī documented in Arab-West Report suggest.[1]


Metropolitan Bīshūy, according to Father Basilios al-Maqārī, took phrases from books of Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ out of their context, and added texts or explanations that cannot be found in father Mattā al-Miskīn‎’s writings. Metropolitan Bīshūy said they were rebutting Father al-Miskīn‎’s teachings in the seminaries but Father Basilios called this defamation of father Mattā al-Miskīn‎in the lecture rooms of the seminaries or inside Coptic churches.[2]


The controversy between Pope Shinūda and Father Mattā became quite public. All Coptic Orthodox Churches have smaller or larger kiosks with books and souvenirs related to the church. Pope Shinūda had forbidden these kiosks to sell any books of the prolific Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ and other monks of the monastery. The monastery’s books where nevertheless sold but through their own channels. In addition, in the Coptic Orthodox Church only a monk can become a bishop. During his 40+ years, as head of the church, Pope Shinūda nominated bishops from all of Egypt’s monasteries except monks loyal to father Mattā al-Miskīn‎. A few monks from the Monastery of Macarios have become bishop but only after they had first broken with father Mattā al-Miskīn‎.


Metropolitan Michael of Asyūṭ (1921-2014) became the abbot of St. Macarios monastery before Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ went with his followers to the monastery. When Father Mattā arrived, he became the de-facto leader of his monastic community and Bishop Michael accepted this. Metropolitan Michael was also a very independent man who had become bishop long before Pope Shinūda had become bishop. Metropolitan Michael would not let Pope Shinūda nominate a successor to father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ as long as he was alive since there were indications that Pope Shinūda wanted to nominate a bishop who would be loyal to him and thus break with many of the thoughts of Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎. Bishop Michael knew very well that this would cause conflicts with most of the monks at St. Macarios who were very loyal to Father Mattā.


Pope Tawāḍrūs II, in office since 2012, took a very different stance from Pope Shinūda III. Metropolitan Bīshūy, who had been very critical of Mattā al-Miskīn‎, lost his position as influential secretary of the Holy Synod but that was not unusual. New popes often nominate new candidates to that position. Pope Tawāḍrūs also tried to bring the monastery of St. Macarios back into the mainstream of the Coptic Orthodox Church and made Bishop Epiphanius abbot of the Monastery of Macarios.


Monks in the monastery of Macarios were happy because Bishop Epiphanius was one of theirs. He was a follower of Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ but was also close to Pope Tawāḍrūs who has been working hard and with success to solve the underlying disagreements between the followers of Pope Shinūda and Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎. The books of the monastery are now available in church kiosks again. Pope Tawāḍrūs’s healing efforts have been accepted by large parts of the Coptic Orthodox Church but not by all. There remain loyalists to Pope Shinūda, who oppose the rehabilitation of Father Mattā al-Miskīn‎ and his followers.


In light of this background, it is hardly surprising that many are speculating that the death of Bishop Epiphanius is related somehow to these historic theological and ecclesiastical tensions. The truth is that we do not yet know whether the gruesome murder of the bishop has any relationship to this historical background.


On August 5, the Coptic Orthodox Church defrocked monk Isaiah al-Maqārī (Wāʾil Saʿad Tawāḍrūs) since a church committee found him guilty of committing acts deemed “incompatible with monastic conduct.” This is a very drastic step that is rarely taken but it opens the opportunity to prosecute him in a civilian court. Coptic websites reported in February 2018 that Bishop Epiphanius had complained about him which made Pope Tawāḍrūs order his transfer to another monastery which he had challenged through collecting 45 signatures of fellow monks who asked the pope to withdraw his decision.[3] This suggests division in the church and could also shed light on what happened to the bishop.


The murder is deeply shocking for the entire church but in particular for the monks in the Monastery of Macarios. The Egyptian police have questioned all monks and workers living in the monastery, over 400 people.[4] Faltāʾūs al-Maqārī, a monk in his mid thirties, tried to commit suicide in the monastery. We don’t know the reasons but it is very well possible that he is one of the younger men who with great religious fervor went into monastic life. In such cases, the strange murder of a bishop could be traumatic. In my younger days I briefly contemplated spending a year in this monastery that has such a profound spirit. If then a respected leader is murdered, it is expected that this will have a profound effect on his followers.[5]


Bishop Epiphanius was a widely respected scholar, inside and outside of Egypt. His presence will be greatly missed.  We hope the Egyptian police will find the perpetrator(s) and we pray for healing within the Coptic Orthodox Church.


Cairo, August 9, 2018


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report




[1] Cornelis Hulsman, Reviving an Ancient Faith; Two Strong Willed Reformers Bring Coptic Orthodoxy Back to Life, Christianity Today, December 2001 and republished with additional commentaries in Arab-West Report, 2001, week 51, art. 13

Katrin Koehler,Biography: Mattah Al-Māskīn,

These are not the only articles about the controversy between both leaders in Arab-West Report.


[2] Cornelis Hulsman, Interview with Metropolitan Bishoi, Secretary of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, November 14, 2002,” Arab-West Report, 2002, week 47, art 16.

Bāsīliyyūs al-Maqārī (Father), A Response to the Interview with Metropolitan Bishoi, Arab-West Report, 2002, week 47, art. 17,


[3] Middle East Eye, Egypt Coptic Church defrocks monk in the wake of bishop's murder, August 6, 2018.


[4] Albawaba, Egyptian Police Question 400 Monks, Workers Over Death of Bishop Epiphanius, August 6, 2018,


[5] Egypt Today, St. Macarius’s Faltaous al-Makary tries to commit suicide, August 6, 2018