Orthodox Easter, church and politics

Sent On: 
Wed, 2021-05-05
Newsletter Number: 


We are wishing our Coptic Orthodox friends and families a blessed Easter. Western Christians celebrated Easter on April 4 but the Orthodox celebrated this year on May 2. The different dates are related to the different calendars. Western and Orthodox Christians use, Gregorian and Julian.


The Bible links the crucifixion and resurrection to the Jewish Passover, but the early church wished to eliminate dependencies to the Hebrew calendar and thus the Council of Nicaea decided in 325 CE that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox, which can occur between March 19 and March 21. Churches have been speaking for decades about reforms for the Easter date. The World Council of Churches proposed in 1997 to base the calculation of Easter with direct astronomical observation. There is, however, too much resistance in various denominations who do not want to give up their tradition. It is incredibly hard since in Egypt the Orthodox Easter date is directly linked to Sham en-Nessim [Shamm an-Nasīm], a traditional spring celebration that is observed by all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims. Apart from linking the calculation of the Easter date to the Council of Nicaea this is a link most Egyptian Christians would not easily give up.


The discussions about the Easter date are a clear example of the political interests mingling with faith. The mingling of faith and politics is from all times and in all religions. This is clearly described in Peter Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads; a new history of the world, Random House, 2016.


The Anglican Diocese of Egypt has around 3000 church members and despite its small size it is very active and dynamic. There are lots of social outreach projects and the church is deeply engaged in Muslim-Christian dialogue. The dialogue projects are, of course, also related to the size of the church. Because the church is small it strongly depends on good relations with other denominations and various government authorities. Of particular importance to the Anglican Archbishop are good relations with the Coptic Orthodox.  In 2019 he asked the Anglican St. John the Baptist Church in Maadi, Cairo, to follow the Coptic calendar for the lent and Easter celebrations. Since in 2019 and 2020 the Western and Orthodox Easter dates were only one week apart so this was not too hard. In 2021, however, the difference became one month. The consequence is that the Anglican Diocese celebrated Good Friday and Easter twice in 2021, first following the Western calendar and then following the Coptic Orthodox calendar.


Professor of history Dr. Mike Reimer preached in St. John the Baptist Church about Jesus as King, the political dimensions of the title given by Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman province of Judaea. This shows again how the political and the spiritual mingle. For the full text of his sermon click here.


We have recently uploaded a number of articles about the decades’ old tensions between the Anglican Diocese of Egypt and the Presbyterian Church of Egypt.  These tensions can be dated to the Suez Canal crisis in 1956. Egypt had become independent in 1922 but the Suez Canal had firmly remained in the hands of the British and the French. Gamal Abdel Nasser [Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣir] came to power in 1954, and stirred an Egyptian and Arab popular nationalist fervor and nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 leading to the Suez Canal crisis. This, in turn, led to the Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt during which British Prime Minister Anthony Eden played a major role. Eden is described by historians as a pompous, arrogant man who was full of his own importance. Eden had not expected that US resistance to military interference would be that large. Nāṣir lost the war militarily but won politically since the Canal remained, thanks to US pressure, in Egyptian hands. The Suez Canal war led to the end of British predominance in the Middle East and Eden’s resignation two months after the end of the war.


Not many people are aware what the consequences of this war were for the Anglican Church in Egypt. The website of Anglican Diocese reads “The government forced all [British and French] expatriates to repatriate, including bishop Francis Johnston, leaving only four Egyptian clergy, temporarily under the direct oversight of the Archbishop in Jerusalem, to maintain dozens of churches, schools, hospitals and other institutions throughout Egypt. With great regret and sadness, many Anglican churches in Egypt were destroyed, some were taken by other denominations, and some were given to other denominations.”


One of the churches that was taken by other denominations was the All-Saints Church in Ismailia. Until today Archbishop Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis [Munīr Ḥannā Anīs] has been trying in vain to get the church back, including resorting to court action in 2002 which ultimately resulted in the Anglicans losing this case in 2016. The court case and verdict had severely spoiled good relations between the Anglican Diocese, the Protestant Council of Egypt and the much larger Presbyterian Church. Archbishop Munīr has still not given up the struggle to regain this former Anglican Church and called in 2020 for a church council to write a petition to the president. The struggle is long and complex. Arab-West Report described this in a report for which access to court documents had been lacking. It nevertheless gives an insight in the complexities of this case which show that in time more research into this matter definitely will be needed. We truly hope and pray that this report will contribute to a reconciliation of both churches since debates without a full understanding of the history will be futile.


 AWR links:

  1. https://www.arabwestreport.info/en/aftermath-british-attack-egypt-1956-protestant-church-politics-egypt
  2. https://www.arabwestreport.info/en/episcopal-church-meeting-october-24-2020-about-problems-between-episcopalians-and-presbyterians
  3. https://www.arabwestreport.info/en/summary-our-problem-protestant-council-churches-egypt-pce-also-known-evangelical-church-association
  4. https://www.arabwestreport.info/en/why-not-join-protestant-churches-egypt-pce




May 5, 2021


Cornelis Hulsman,

Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report