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Conflict Between Church and State: An Eighth Century Episode during the Patriarchate of Abba Mennas I (766-774)

The conflict between the secular rulers and the Church in Egypt is a constant and recurring danger in the life of the Church.

A revealing episode takes us back to the eighth century during the patriarchate of Abba Menas I (766-774), the forty-seventh Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. The episode is narrated by B. Evetts in The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, published in the Patrologia Orientalis, T. X, Fasc. 5.

After the repose of Patriarch Michael I, the choice fell on the priest of the Monastery of St. Macarius, whose name was Mennas, and who was also the spiritual son of the departed Patriarch. This Menna had been a monk from his youth and “was a man who excited general admiration by his sense and conduct.” After a peaceful beginning and general admiration of his person because of the grace, which shone from him, and because of his admirable teaching, a trial disturbed the peace of the church. It is this latter that presently interests us because of the many similarity it offers with current events.

We will leave aside all details secondary to the central incident. Also, we will not comment on the quality of the historical account, for this is not the purpose of this work.

History introduces the episode with this remark, which we do well to note here:

“But after a time, Satan, the hater of good, raised up a trial for the blessed Father. For he spoke by the tongue of a deacon-monk named Peter, in him he took up his abode, that he might suggest to him a great of which Abba Mennas and his bishops might be accused.” 

It is noteworthy that the historian recognizes the artificer of the trial as Satan himself, who was working through a church cleric named Peter.

We are forthwith told that the named Peter, under the instigation of Satan, desired a bishopric, and solicited it from the Patriarch. The latter firmly refused his request and rightly so, for a bishop is chosen, not requested. We are left to guess the manner in which the request was made from Abba Mennas’ reply, which was, “He has no lot nor share with us.” This reply was an obvious reference to the Apostle Peter’s reply to Simon the Magician’s offer to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The incident took a new turn when the disappointed monk presented himself to the Patriarch of the sister Church of Antioch, offering him forged letters from Abba Mennas, of which he was the author. The letters denounced the exploitation of the governing Caliphs, and appealed for assistance. The Syrian Patriarch, Georges, having been intrigued by Peter, caused a collection to be made from the bishops and metropolitans, which passed into the plotter’s hands, giving him the means to achieve his evil deed.

The episode took another new guise. Peter composed a report to the Caliph, notifying him of the supposed wealth of the Egyptian church, pretending that Abba Mennas had the knowledge and gift of converting substances into gold. Using the wealth of the Syrian subsidy, he gave bribes to the court attendants to introduce him to the prince. Here, a golden opportunity intervened for the deacon: In the eys of the Caliph, Peter had the exact image of a well-beloved son that the Caliph had just lost, and on account of which, his wife refused to be consoled. Peter therefore quickly secured the favour of the masters and at length made use of it to deliver his accusations against the Patriarch. Despite all the generosities of the palace, Peter did not forget his first ambitions, those of the bishopric and even the patriarchate. The account continues:

“In compliance with his request, the prince drew up for Peter a document appointing him Patriarch over Egypt.” 

He thus returned as anti-Pope, wearing a cap which he had ordered with the following inscription: “Peter, Patriarch of Egypt, and servant of the prince.”

He arrived in great array carrying the instructions to the Governor Ibn Abd ar-Rahman. The latter, upon receiving him, summoned the Patriarch and his Holy Synod. Abba Mennas felt an impending danger, for, upon hearing the news, he cried out saying, “O Lord, save me from the snare which is secretly laid for me, for Thou art my God; and give me not up to those that oppress me, for false witnesses have risen up against me.”

The Patriarch traveled from Alexandria to Cairo to appear before the governor, who was well disposed toward the Copts and had good relations with the departed Patriarch Michael I. Thus, he appeared embarrassed of the role imposed upon him, and promised the Patriarch fair treatment from him, but advised him to yield to the instructions of the Caliph. Then, the Patriarch looking up to the usurper, said, “None shall receive honour unless it be given him from heaven by God. Hear what God says concerning you and those who act like you, declaring what you deserve: ‘Every tree which my Father plants not shall be cut down and rooted up.’ So this name shall be taken away from you, and you shall die in poverty, an evil death.”

At length, after showing his insistence on the power invested in him by the secular ruler, Peter ordered the reverend father to do as he was told. The true Patriarch, who was not in a position to oppose the sovereignty, yielded to the instructions. However, Peter demanded his imprisonment and the convocation of the Synod. The historical continues:

“For that heretic, Peter, believed that [the bishops] would obey him and fo for him what he had planned, though it was contrary to the canons of the Church.” 

Peter, then, showed up before the Holy Synod as the new Patriarch, but, relying on the Holy Church’s laws, the bishops refused to recognize him as their chief. Two of them even seized and cast him out; they threw his cap down. Thus ends the principle episode of the conflict, based on an antagonism of persons, one of whom was empowered by the civil Islamic authorities, the other rooted in Church Canons.

This plot, and the imprisonment and labour imposed on the Patriarch and his bishops did not last more than a year, when a change of the political scene brought Peter down and thwarted his scheme.

The account closes with Peter in the end, seeking refuge in his native village, after having denied Christ and accepted Islam. He even changed his name to Abu’l-Kheir (“Doer of Good.”) But his family and kinsmen who had not forgiven him his plot against the Church did not receive him among them, saying to him as our Lord said to evildoers, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the fire kindled and prepared for the Devil and his hosts.”

Revealing as it is, to those who find this episode offensive, it is suggested they go back a few centuries to Apostolic times. The epistles which St. Paul wrote to the young churches in Asia reveal an unexpected picture. Even that early, at an era when living memory and witnesses of Christ and His teachings were still alive, when a strong eschatological awareness and a sharp sense of being a “peculiar nation, a royal priesthood” prevailed, the young Christian communities already showed signs of perversion. To the Thessalonians, the Apostle finds some members who “walk among [them] disorderly” (2 Thess. 3:11.) To Bishop Timothy, he deplores rebellion in his community (2 Tim. 1:15.) Even fornication found its way among the Corinthians: “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 5:1.) Likewise, the Book of Revelation, which is believed to have been written around A.D. 96, contains admonitions and warnings against corruption: heresy in the church of Pergamos (Rev. 2:14); spiritual death in Sardis (Rev. 3:1,2); and spiritual blindness, wretchedness and poverty in Laodicea (Rev. 3:17.)

However, the sincere Christian should not be vexed, for the prophetic word forewarns us of such men: “There are certain men crept in unawares, who were before old ordained to this condemnation; ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness and denying the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4.)

The writer of The History of the Patriarchs introduces his episode by saying, “It is our duty to make inquiries and researches into the whole history of the Church as our forefathers used to do.” This is so indeed, for these things are written for a purpose: our edification, that we may know how to walk blamelessly, living and handing down the Tradition which was once delivered to us.

“And so in every generation God has not left us without word.”

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

August 20, 2012