A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Coptic Church's Synod Recognizes Two Modern Saints

The Coptic Church's Holy Synod, consisting of the bishops, has recognized the sainthood of two modern figures who had already been widely venerated by the Coptic faithful. And no, Gamal Abdel Nasser was not one of them, but Pope Kyrillos (Cyril) VI, shown with Nasser in this 1965 photo, was. The Coptic Pope from 1959 to 1971, prior to the late Pope Shenouda III who reigned from 1971 to last year, and the predecessor once removed of current Pope Tawadros II, has been widely acclaimed as a saintly figure among the Coptic faithful.

His good relationship with Nasser is often cited as a marked contrast to Church-State relations in the Sadat and Mubarak era and the awkward situation since the election of President Morsi. Nasser was a key patron of the building of the new Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiyya (the Pope and the President are shown above laying the cornerstone in 1965, and below, with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Anwar Sadat at the dedication, 1968).
I'm a little uncertain about one thing: traditionally formal canonization of saints in the Coptic Church had to wait for 50 years after the person's death, while Pope Kyrillos died in 1971, 42 years ago. Perhaps they are making an exception due to the fact that he has long been acclaimed a saint by popular opinion.

The other figure is less well known outside Coptic circles: Archdeacon Habib Girgis (1876-1951), who played several key roles in the renaissance of the Coptic Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Church had become calcified through the centuries, with poorly educated priests and Coptic faithful with little understanding of their Church, and it was losing adherents to Catholic and Protestant missionary efforts.

Habib Girgis
During the half-century long papacy of Pope Cyril V (Pope 1874-1927), both the papacy and the Coptic laity committed themselves to modernizing the church. The emergence of the Maglis Milli, a Coptic layman's council, created friction with the clergy, but the Pope also moved to improve education, founding the Coptic Theological School of Alexandria. Habib Girgis became its first student, and years later, its second head. He was consecrated an archdeacon as well.

Girgis as an Archdeacon
Girgis was also closely involved in the foundation of the Coptic Sunday School Movement, which sought to educate the faithful as the Theological School educated the clergy. He was one of a number of Coptic figures, clerics and laymen alike, who helped revive interest among Copts in their own tradition; I've written before about another figure from the Coptic revival: Claudius Labib, who sought to bring back the Coptic language.


Anonymous said...

"A layman, Archdeacon Habib Girgis"... An archdeacon is not a layman, they are an archdeacon, consecrated to the church just as much as a priest or bishop. Maybe you are confused since Coptic chanters and readers are laymen who today wrongly refer to themselves as deacons because they fill some of the role of the deacon in the absence of deacons... But the are not deacons, they are laymen in the minor orders. A real deacon (including an archdeacon) is in the major orders, along with the priest and bishop. This is the same through the orthodox church , including the Copts.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

I'm taking out "layman" for Girgis though leaving in the role of the Coptic laity. Thanks.