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Copts and Russians: Discovering Each Other

The Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo is currently under restoration. The interior work is being done by a team of Russian specialists, who are using the experience gained from restoring ancient Orthodox churches in their own country. When I visited the Hanging Church in November 2006, I asked one of the Russians how long they had been staying in Egypt. She answered with a sigh and a smile, “We have lost our sense of time here”. 

In the last century, Russian perceptions of Egypt were symbolized by three images: the Pyramids, the mosque, and the Aswan Dam, a proud monument to decades of Soviet assistance to Egypt’s modernization. Nowadays, a fourth symbol of Egypt has appeared in the Russian mind: the Holy Cross. More and more Russians are discovering Egypt as a Christian country, and for many of them this discovery is no mere tourist moment. 

Post-communist Russia is experiencing a religious revival. It is affecting all religious denominations in the country (various Christian churches and sects, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and others) – but the fact that four out of every five citizens of Russia are russkie (ethnic Russians), for whom Orthodox Christianity is a fundamental component of their ethnic identity, gives the Russian religious revival a predominantly Orthodox character. 

According to opinion polls, about two thirds of the population of Russia, or 90-100 million people, consider themselves Orthodox Christians – twice as many as fifteen years ago. It should be noted that only a minority of those identifying themselves as Orthodox (estimates vary between 3 and 15 million people) take regular and active part in the life of the Church. But this minority has grown threefold in the past two decades. 

The fact that most ethnic Russians today persistently associate themselves, at least in broad cultural terms, with Orthodox Christianity represents a sea change from the communist period. It is a recovery of the deep national tradition and a reaffirmation of the identity shaped by 1,000 years of history. It is a matter of debate how well prepared the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is to draw these “cultural Christians” into its ranks in the years to come – but the immense role of the Orthodox faith in shaping Russia’s past and Russian national character is undeniable. 

Russian meetings with Egyptian Christians date back to the Middle Ages. Historical records exist of Russian clergymen and merchants visiting Egypt in the 10th, 14th, 16th and 18th centuries. Such visits were regarded as an essential part of a pilgrimage to holy places in the Near East. 

In the 19th century, with the birth of Egyptology, Russian clerics and scholars joined its ranks. But the current scale of Russian-Coptic contacts at the civil society level is truly unprecedented. For hundreds of thousands of Russians who have visited Egypt since the early 1990s, this country has become a key site where they find Christianity preserved in one of its original forms. The resulting spiritual and cultural experience can be quite profound. 

The most lasting effect of a Russian encounter with the Copts is a discovery of remarkable spiritual affinity rooted in the key role of Orthodoxy in the historical formation of both groups’ identities. 

As they explore their traditional religion, Russians develop a keen interest in the history of Christianity in general and of the Orthodox faith in particular. 

The existence of a large and vibrant Christian community which forms a direct historical link between ancient and modern Egypt –  a link maintained over two millennia in the face of persecution and oppression –  makes a strong impression on the Russian mind in which faith has for centuries been a powerful source of inner strength in times of personal and national ordeals. 

There are many signs of growing Russian interest in the life and history of Egyptian Christians. Since early 1990s, the body of Russian-language literature about the Copts has grown from zero to dozens of volumes. 

It includes a new translation of “Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers” (Moscow, 1992), a substantive academic study of the Coptic Church by historian E.G. Tolmacheva “Egypt Without the Pharaohs” (Moscow, 2003), an edited volume “The Christian Egypt” (Moscow, 2005), Monk Lazar’s book “Asceterion: Orthodox Monasticism in Egypt in the 4th and 5th Centuries” (Moscow, 2003), the first Russian translation of J. Martin Plumley’s Coptic Introductory Grammar (Moscow, 2001), and others. 

A. Shestakov and A. Nikiforova’s book “Be Faithful Until Death: Destinies of Orthodoxy in the Ottoman Empire, 15th-20th Centuries” (Moscow, 2005) includes chapters about the Copts, as do L.S. Vasilyev’s “History of Eastern Religions” (Moscow, 2004), Christine Chaillot’s reader “The Theological Dialog between the Orthodox Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches” (Moscow, 2004), and the multivolume series of young scholars’ publications called “The Way of the East” (St. Petersburg, 2000-2005).

Russian Coptology as a field of academic study was born in mid-19th century and flourished until the 1917 revolution. In recent years, it has been revived. Coptic culture, art and history are studied at the Center for Egyptian Studies at the Moscow Humanitarian University and at the Center for the Study of Oriental Christian Culture, founded in 1991 by Dr. Alexei Lidov, a world-renowned scholar of iconography.

Comparing the histories of Egyptian and Russian Christian churches reveals the most important difference between the two experiences. 

While the Copts have practically never had a state of their own, Christian faith came to Russia as its state religion when the first Russian state, Kiev Rus, was officially converted to Christianity in the year 988 by its top ruler, Grand Prince Vladimir – and it remained the country’s official religion until 1917. 

The Copts have maintained the old faith in its original form – independent from secular power, affirming itself in the face of persecution – indeed, gaining strength from persecution. 

While the Russians have also experienced similar periods in their history – in the 13th-15th centuries, when Russia was a domain of the Tatar-Mongol Empire of Golden Horde, and in the 20th century, when the communist state attempted to suppress all religions in the Soviet Union, – still the normal feature of Russian Orthodoxy for centuries has been a Byzantian-type fusion between the church and the state. 

In a speech at a recent conference in Moscow devoted to the 1700th anniversary of the enthronement of Emperor Constantine, influential Russian cleric Metropolitan Kirill explained the nature of the Byzantian model in this way: 

“The ideal mode of coexistence of the Church and the state in Byzantium, called symphonia, was often represented in ecclesiastical-political thought through the image of unity between soul and body. The soul and the body exist in man as two distinct entities – spiritual and material. But, just as the soul gives life to the body, the Church helps the state to educate citizens, endowing their life with moral foundations. Accordingly, the state, like a body, defends the Church and shapes its life in specific forms.”

In the second half of the 15th century, the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans was soon followed by the rise of the new independent Russian state with Moscow as its capital, and Moscow was quick to claim the historical mission of “the Third Rome,” the new and final incarnation of the Christian empire. 

In that state, the Church was falling increasingly under state control. In 1721, during the reign of Peter the Great, it was fully subjugated to the will of the Emperor, when its Patriarchate was abolished and Church affairs were put under the control of a government agency – the Holy Synod. For centuries, the state’s subjugation of the Church would generate dissent among Russian clergy and laity, resulting in repressions against the dissidents. 

In a sense, the experience of some Russian believers under the rule of Russian Tsars was similar to that of the Copts under East Roman Emperors: persecution for their “heresy” at the hands of the fused state-church Christian power.

Since the 18th century, Russian emperors were officially committed to helping Orthodox Christians free themselves from non-Christian rule. While this posture and the policies it entailed were welcomed by Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Georgians and many other Orthodox Christians, and did contribute to their liberation from Ottoman rule, the declared commitment to Orthodox brethren served Russia’s rulers as a potent ideological tool in its geopolitical struggle for influence in the Black Sea region, the Balkans, and the Near East, where her main rival was the Ottoman Empire, though rivalries with other Great Powers, such as France, Britain and Austria, would periodically flare up as well.

It was in that context of acute and chaotic geopolitical competition between empires that Russia extended an offer of protection to the Copts in 1805. The Copts had supported Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and became victims of repressions following the French withdrawal from the country. Russia’s move to help the Copts was motivated politically by its intention to gain influence in Egypt.

The Coptic leadership politely declined the offer. Having been burned by their experience with Napoleon, the Copts were wary of again becoming expendable pawns in Great Power geopolitical games. In those games, allies became adversaries and vice versa with lightning speed. 

For instance, in late 18th century Russia fought three major wars against Turkey, then aligned with Turkey and a number of European powers in a coalition against Napoleon, then aligned with France against Britain, then switched back to an anti-French position, then signed a peace with Napoleon, which later led to a French invasion of Russia. In the 1830s, when Egypt went to war against Turkey, Russia fought Egypt on the Turkish side, and in the 1850s, Turkey, Britain, France and Austria fought Russia in the Crimean War. 

Against this background, it was only a matter of common sense for the Copts to choose to rely on the protection of God, rather than a foreign state. The changes in the temporal domain also influenced their decision, as the reign of Muhammad Aly (1805-1849) resulted in reforms which significantly improved the situation of Egypt’s Christians. 

The next Russian approach to the Copts took place in the 1850s. Porfiriy Uspenskiy, a prominent Russian Orthodox theologian from Kiev, made several trips to the Middle East, collecting an enormous amount of information about the Christians there and becoming one of the first Russian Egyptologists. At the start of one of his journeys, he wrote: 

“I would love to fly to the East like a bird! Waters smile at me there. Flowers bloom on the ruins there. People are eternal there. There, thoughts free and true meet no obstacle, suffering is more bearable, faith stronger, hope clearer, God nearer. Do we know the Christian East? I am not sure we do. It is time for us to know the paths of our Mother – the Oriental Church, and know them deeply.” 

Appointed the head of the Russian Orthodox mission to Jerusalem, Archimandrite Porfiriy was particularly interested in the situation of the Copts and made tremendous efforts to repair the schism between them and the mainstream Orthodoxy. Whatever his diplomatic agenda was, he was genuinely and profoundly impressed with the Coptic experience. His visit to St. Antonius Monastery was a memorable high point which he vividly described in his memoirs. 

Records of his conversations with Coptic hierarchs are very moving: long theological discussions invariably led both sides to the conclusion that the Copts, officially regarded as “monophysite heretics” since the Chalcedon Ecumenical Council of year 451, understood the nature of the Saviour in fundamentally the same way as Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians. 

Porfiriy became a passionate advocate of repairing the Chalcedon schism and drafted a definition of Jesus which both sides might be able to agree to: 

“Jesus Christ, the only Son of the living God, is the perfect God and the perfect man, in whom all the qualities of the Deity and of humanity are preserved without confusion, division, or change.”

The Russian Holy Synod, acting in the spirit of “Orthodox ecumenism,” gave him the authority to hold talks with Coptic Pope Cyril IV and Alexandria Patriarch Callinicos for the purpose of endorsing the reconciliation formula, as well as of persuading the Pope to request the protection of the Russian Church and state for Egypt’s Christians.

According to Russian accounts, both Cyril and Callinicos showed keen interest in exploring Porfiriy’s idea. In 1861 he arrived in Egypt for the official talks, but Cyril IV was very ill and died before the talks could commence. Another Russian cleric, Kirill Naumov, conducted similar discussions with the Syrian church, another one of those castigated since Chalcedon as “monophysite.”

Cyril’s interest in reaching out to the Russians was not typical of the attitude of the Coptic Church which traditionally maintained isolation from the outside world. And after the establishment of the communist state in Russia in 1917-1920, the Russian Orthodox Church also found itself in isolation from the outside world. It lost its status as the Russian state church. Its clergy, many of whom opposed communist power, were subjected to large-scale repressions. In 1937 alone, 85,000 priests were executed and 136,000 imprisoned. Of the 54,457 Orthodox temples functioning in Russia in 1914, only 6,800 remained by 1970. 

The Soviet Union’s Constitution recognized freedom of conscience, but in practice the Soviet state conducted a systematic anti-religious campaign seeking to replace all faiths with communist ideology and keeping all religious life in the USSR under strict supervision by the Communist Party and the KGB. 

In the second half of the 20th century, both churches began to come out of their isolation. In the 1960s, the ecumenical World Council of Churches (WCC) became a site for the resumption of contacts between representatives of Coptic and Russian Orthodox Hierarchies. The contacts were encouraged – indeed, made possible – by the governments of both countries which saw WCC as a forum to promote policies of peaceful coexistence, officially advocated by both Moscow and Cairo. Soviet-Egyptian friendship and cooperation in Nasser’s years, when relations between the two countries developed to unprecedented levels, created a favorable atmosphere for interchurch contacts. 

It was under the WCC auspices that the first informal theological dialogues between the two Orthodox Church families took place in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1985, in a major upgrade of this work, the official Joint Commission on Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Churches was established with a view to re-evaluating the Christological question which divided the two families since the 5th century. Coptic and Russian theologians made significant contributions to the Commission’s work. 

At its second meeting in 1989 in Anba Bishoy Monastery in Egypt and the third meeting, held in the Swiss village of Chambesy near Geneva in 1990, representatives of 19 national Orthodox Churches produced agreed theological statements meant to facilitate the process of reconciliation. The agreed definition of Jesus contained in the Chambesy statement echoed the work done by Archimandrite Porfiriy a century earlier:

“Both families agree that the Hypostasis of the Logos became composite (sunqetos) by uniting to His divine uncreated nature with its natural will and energy, which He has in common with the Father and the Holy Spirit, His created human nature, which He assumed at the Incarnation and made His own, with its natural will and energy.

Both families agree that the natures, with their proper energies and wills, are united hypostatically and naturally, without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation, and that they are distinguished in thought alone (th qewria monh).

Both families agree that He who wills and acts is always the one Hypostasis of the Logos incarnate.”

In the decade and a half since the publication of the Anba Bishoy and Chambesy Statements, issues of reconciliation have been a matter of acute debates among Orthodox theologians. World Orthodox opinion remains divided on the ways – and even the very possibility – of overcoming the ancient schism. 

Obviously, reconciliation is by definition a highly complex process, involving such major issues as revising the decisions of four out of the seven Ecumenical Councils, mutual lifting of anathemas, and mutual recognition of saints. In some national churches, including Greek and Russian, strong voices have been raised against reconciliation with “monophysite heretics” on any terms short of their repentance and full abandonment of the “heresy.” 

In the Russian Orthodox Church, these voices have had some impact, but they still remain in minority: its Hierarchy continues to endorse the dialogue with the Oriental Churches in the hope that the process should gradually bring about a mutually acceptable formula for communion between the two sides. In the meantime, the continuing existence of the theological schism does not prevent development of friendly ties between Egyptian and Russian Orthodox Christians. 

Since the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev launched liberal reforms in the Soviet Union, and especially after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Orthodox Church has gained the freedom of action and the independence from the state it did not enjoy for centuries. Its affairs are no longer run by government agencies. It is adapting to the changing times. It has rebuilt its structures: for instance, the number of its monasteries has grown from 12 to 455, and the number of its seminaries, from 3 to 22. 

Remarkably, opinion polls consistently indicate that the Church has become the most trusted social institution in post-communist Russia. 

Even though ROC officially desists from direct participation in politics, it does play a growing role in the country’s social and political life. In line with its tradition, the ROC supports most of the Russian state’s policies, domestic and foreign – without having to be ordered to do so by the Kremlin. 

The fact that with Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin the Russians have for the first time since 1917 a top ruler who is reported to be a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, contributes to the climate of cooperation in church-state relations. Collaboration between ROC and the Kremlin in foreign affairs involves such spheres as charity, social programs, protection of natural environment, and preservation of cultural heritage. 

In 2004, reflecting a desire to develop its own initiatives in world affairs, the ROC hierarchy declared that the Church was resuming its historic role of the patron of Orthodox Churches in those countries where Orthodox Christians constitute religious minorities. It means monitoring of the situation with religious rights in those countries and raising concerns about existing problems. This stance applies first and foremost to new independent states in Central Asia and the Baltic region which emerged from the fall of the USSR – but it can be applied to all Orthodox believers worldwide. 

As always in the past, the context of interstate relations has a major impact on relations between Christians in Russia and Egypt. Russian-Egyptian relations today are very friendly, the two countries’ perspectives on major international issues are close, and cooperation between them is developing with new impetus in all spheres. 

Russian Christians and Copts are freer today to develop mutual ties than at any time in the past. 

In the years to come, we may yet see a communion, after long centuries of separation, between the world’s two major Orthodox Christian churches. Such a communion, whatever specific shape it should take, would be of great value to both sides. 

For the Copts, discovery of millions of kindred souls in the world’s largest state could be an inspiration and a new source of strength and confidence in their future. 

For the Russians, the Copts could become an important spiritual source in the ongoing Russian search for identity and sense of purpose in the world.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

February 3, 2009