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An Historical Perspective

Saint Mark the Evangelist was the first Bishop of Alexandria, all of Egypt, and several nearby territories. Collectively, these are called the “See of Saint Mark.” Bishops resided in large cities to be close to the seat of local rulers in order to facilitate communication with civil authorities in the Roman Empire.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt, the seat of power moved to El Fostat, the region of the current capital of Cairo. Consequently, the Bishop (Pope) of Alexandria moved to Cairo, though his title remains “Pope of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark.”

Other bishops were ordained in various large cities in Egypt over the centuries. The number of bishops varied according to population shifts. Internal movements of Copts, prominence of new cities, and the disappearance of others for economic and demographic reasons led to changes in boundaries and the number of dioceses over the centuries.

The boundaries, however, were solidified in the 19th century during Mohammed Ali Pasha’s rule from 1805-1848, following the new railroad route in Southern Egypt and the branches of the Nile in the Delta. There are many more Christians in the south than in the Nile Delta, which is reflected in the greater number of dioceses.

Also, in the second of the 20th century, many services were evolving that we note limited geographical location and therefore needed special attention and expertise. Thus was born the idea of a general bishop responsible for certain services rather than for defined geographical boundaries. The first two general bishops were ordained on September 30, 1962 by the thrice blessed Pope Kyrillos VI. These were Bishop Shenouda for Church Education and Seminaries (currently His Holiness Pope Shenouda III) and Bishop Samuel for Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services (d. 1981). Soon thereafter, many more general bishops were ordained, such as a general bishop for Youth Services, Higher Theological Studies, and other general services.

The general bishop serves wherever there are needs and reports to the Pope directly. As new services evolve, he may move temporarily to serve where there is a need, including services overseas. A general bishop can also be called to serve a diocese permanently and thus become a diocesan bishop for the remainder of his life.

His Grace Bishop Serapion was ordained in 1985 as a general bishop for Public, Ecumenical, and Social Services. In that capacity, he was responsible for a multitude of social services, including management of grants from international organizations for services across Egypt. He was also heavily involved in ecumenical bodies as a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The latter responsibility afforded the opportunity to travel around the world to attend meetings and to participate in policy making, being a member of the central committees of several organizations.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

October 27, 2009