More Things …


Three interesting new resources I have come across recently, and thought I might share with you today:

In 1991 a huge project came to fruition with the publication of the eight volume Coptic Encyclopedia. Containing nearly three thousand entries by a variety of authors, both members of the Coptic community and foreign scholars in Coptology, it is perhaps the most comprehensive reference on all things Coptic ever produced. The hard cover eight volume set is not only very expensive, but has also been out of print for some years and hard to get a hold of. So it was with great pleasure that I came across this wonderful project at Claremont Graduate University in California. An excerpt from the announcement of this project: 

The Coptic Encyclopedia, published by Macmillan in 1991, is an eight-volume work. Its 2,800 entries, written by 215 scholars, took 13 years to compile. But as a paper-bound document it was only available to a limited readership and nearly impossible to amend. The digitized version, renamed the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, can be constantly updated and is available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Apparently, Phase 1, which began in 2010, is to digitise and make available all 2,800 articles in the original 1991 edition. You can access the articles far completed here.  Last I checked, they were somewhere in the “O” section, working alphabetically from “A”. Phase 2 will be to add multimedia accompaniments to appropriate articles, especially pictures and perhaps audio. Phase 3, and most exciting of all, is to provide continuous updating of existing articles and add new ones to reflect ongoing research and developments in the field of Coptology, and to track the unfolding history of the Coptic Church in the twenty first century. Three cheers for CGU!

How often have you turned up at Church on a feast day or during a fast and wondered why everyone was doing things differently? Continue reading “More Things …”

Things to Read and Hear

 I’ve been listening to some terrific podcasts by Fr Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox scholar and parish priest. It is a series on the clergy of the Christian Church through the ages and begins in the Apostolic Age, working its way slowly through the centuries. For anyone who loves ancient Christianity, and who desires to live the Orthodox Christian faith today as closely as possible to its original form in ancient times, this set of talks is a veritable treasure chest! Keep in mind when you listen that Fr Thomas is from the Eastern Orthodox family and thus views the Council of Chalcedon from that perspective. (While the Oriental Orthodox Churches like the Coptic Church reject that Council, most other Christian Churches accept it).

 But his account of the first two centuries is engrossing and makes sense of so many things in our history that we generally hear in isolation and out of context. For example, one can gain a valuable insight into the true spirit of ancient Christian leadership when one learns that the titles for the leaders of the ancient Church were actually taken from the titles of slaves! The Episkopos (over-seer) was the household slave in charge of overseeing the affairs of the household on behalf of his master, and for the welfare and benefit of the master and his family. Episkopos is the title the early Christians adopted for their bishops. The Economos was in charge making sure the ‘economy’ of the house ran smoothly, and thus would look to the day to day details of household provisions and accounts and so on. His role was to preovide the resources that everyone else needed to live their lives happily and safely. Again, the early Christians adopted this name for those among the Elders (‘presbyteros’ ) who were entrusted with caring for the day to day affairs of the household of God, and ‘economos’ has evolved into the modern title, ‘hegomen’.

But note that both these positions were those of slaves. Applied to the Christian roles, what this meant is that the bishop and the hegomen were both ‘slaves’ of the Master of the household, God, and their role was to care for His children. As slaves, they were not to boss the children around or exert authority over them so much as to serve them and provide faithfully for all their needs. And this is of course in keeping with the command of Christ:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 

It also intriguing to hear about the developments in the years after Chalcedon, a period of history in which we Copts were not involved for the most part – being more occupied with things like survival in a hostile environment of Melkites and later Muslims. Here, this account explains so much of why both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they are today. Continue reading “Things to Read and Hear”

Of All Nations

NCO origins AAM June 2011










One of the nicest things about living in Australia is that you don’t really have to go out and visit the world – the world comes to you. Being a multicultural society, Australians are born or trace their heritage to nearly every country in the world. Our society is enriched by a multitude of languages, accents, and forms of dress, not to mention the delicious cuisines and tastes of scores of cultures. 

Through marriage and through the blossoming Outreach Service to the neighbours at our parish, we now count as members of our Christian family people from a rich variety of backgrounds. The map shown illustrates the various countries from which members of our parish have come, and they are listed at the end of this post.

The Apostles’ Fast is all about celebrating the incredible work of the Holy Spirit in spreading the Good News of Christ to all the nations. Whereas the Old Testament chosen people tended to be isolated and keep to themselves, the New Testament Christian is commanded to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

That is not to say that this is an easy command to carry out. One of our experiences over the years has been a certain tension between our history and our destiny. On the one hand, there is fourteen centuries of being a relatively insulated faith community that was beaten into submission by hostile Muslim suppression, so much so that we lost the desire or the skill to evangelise others. When we came to Australia, much of this mindset came with us, and we found ourselves being suspicious of ‘outsiders’, mistrusting their motivations and their morals. On the other hand, younger generations of Copts have been imbued with the Australian ethic of respect for others as equals regardless of their race or colour, and a desire to connect and interact with the Australian society of which we are a part. Continue reading “Of All Nations”

Biography of Crucifixion


At the threshold of Passion Week, I present an excerpt from an archaeological article written in 1985 by Vassilios Tzaferis. He reported on the first ever finding of the remains of a victim of crucifixion, although of course, there is a great deal of written evidence that the practice of crucifixion was by no means uncommon in the ancient world. Here he presents a brief history of Crucifixion. I warn you, some of it is not very pleasant reading.

Many people erroneously assume that crucifixion was a Roman invention. In fact, Assyrians, Phoenicians and Persians all practiced crucifixion during the first millennium B.C. Crucifixion was introduced in the west from these eastern cultures; it was used only rarely on the Greek mainland, but Greeks in Sicily and southern Italy used it more frequently, probably as a result of their closer contact with Phoenicians and Carthaginians.

During the Hellenistic period, crucifixion became more popular among the Hellenized population of the east. After Alexander died in 323 B.C., crucifixion was frequently employed both by the Seleucids (the rulers of the Syrian half of Alexander’s kingdom) and by the Ptolemies (the rulers of the Egyptian half). Among the Jews crucifixion was an anathema. (See Deuteronomy 21:22–23: “If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake, you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God: you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”)

The traditional method of execution among Jews was stoning. Nevertheless, crucifixion was occasionally employed by Jewish tyrants during the Hasmonean period. According to Josephus, Alexander Jannaeus crucified 800 Jews on a single day during the revolt against the census of 7 A.D. At the end of the first century B.C., the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment for non-Romans for certain legally limited transgressions. Continue reading “Biography of Crucifixion”

The Burden of Knowledge


Life today in a western society is very different to the life our parents and grandparents knew. As a result, our whole world view is quite different, and as such, I propose, our faith needs to also adapt to the new and ever changing circumstances.

 One important area where this applies is the relationship between faith and knowledge. Extremes often help to illustrate a point more conveniently: think of your ancestors of centuries ago, most likely living in rural village somewhere along the majestic Nile. Let us imagine Folla, your great, great, great grandmother. She has grown to be a young woman without the benefit of formal education, for very few Egyptians can afford a formal education, and the vast majority would not want it even if they could afford it. It would be a waste of time and would not in any way help in running the family farm. Thus she is blissfully unaware of any formal laws of nature, of anything but the most basic mathematics, she cannot read or write, so she has no access to books or newspapers, and the only history she knows is the local legends of her village and the stories she hears read out in Church from the Bible and the Synaxarion every Sunday. She does not understand what the priest prays in Church every Sunday, for he prays in Coptic while she only knows Arabic. Sunday School has not yet been introduced to Egypt and the priest has only slightly more education than her, so he does not give sermons or conduct Bible studies; in fact her chief source of religious knowledge is her mother, the kindly woman who would sit her on her lap when she was a young girl and tell her stories that she had heard from her mother before her.

 Folla’s faith is a very simple one. It is not based on outright reason so much as on trust. Continue reading “The Burden of Knowledge”

Persecution, New and Old

Sheikh Tantawi

Having enjoyed tremendously The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity (Popes of Egypt) by Stephen J. Davis, I was quite excited when I learned that Volume 2 had been published. Entitled The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt: The Popes of Egypt: A History of the Coptic Church and Its Patriarchs Volume 2 and authored by Mark N. Swanson, it makes for absorbing reading – if you are into history and the Coptic Church, that is. Now, the History of the Patriarchs is accessible on the net*, but it is only one among many primary and secondary sources that the author has drawn upon to provide a more comprehensive picture of the Coptic Church during the Islamic era. He has also added to his well-balanced scholarship some very insightful remarks on the patterns and lessons that may be drawn from this history. It is always interesting to see what an ‘outsider’ thinks of our Church.

 One of the things that really struck me as I read through the centuries was just how much more the words of some of our prayers mean if you think of the circumstances in which they were prayed back then. As you develop in your mind a picture of the pressures that were applied to Egyptian Christians a thousand years ago, you get a sense of a Church struggling just to stay alive. Heavy taxes on non-Muslims could only be relieved by converting to Islam, a course sadly taken by many Copts. Humiliating rules like being allowed to wear only black or dark blue clothes and turbans (the origin of today’s priestly uniform) and riding only donkeys, not horses, further pressured the Copts of the time. Added to this was the often blatant discrimination in the workplace, and the glass ceiling that prevented Christians from holding any kind of worthwhile position in government or in commerce. And then there was stifling burden that Muslim rulers imposed on virtually every new Patriarch upon his consecration: a one off tax of huge proportions that forced many patriarchs to spend their days wandering around the country collecting donations just to keep the peace for the flock and their Church. Many patriarchs who failed to satisfy the Muslim ruler’s greed found themselves in prison for lengthy periods of time.

Continue reading “Persecution, New and Old”

Remembering Fr Mina

Fr Mina Nematalla and his family as a layman, not long before his ordination, together with his uncle, Pope Kyrollos VI.
Fr Mina Nematalla and his family as a layman, not long before his ordination, together with his uncle, Pope Kyrollos VI.

Tomorrow, July 1st, marks the the tenth anniversary of the passing of Fr Mina Nematalla, the pioneering Coptic Orthodox priest of Australia. In 1969 he became the first Coptic priest to settle in Australia and established the Coptic Orthodox Church on this continent. Today I would like to share a few personal thoughts to mark this occasion.

Upon my ordination back in 1991 I was assigned by HH Pope Shenouda III to serve at Archangel Michael and St Bishoy Church as an assistant to Fr Mina. At that time, Fr Mina was alone in the parish, and very, very sick. In fact, it was during my ordination and stay in Egypt that Fr Mina Continue reading “Remembering Fr Mina”

Growing Up

In all our Churches we keep a "Bible" in a metal cover on the altar. But in fact, the tradition is to keep just the four Gospels in that casing, not the whole Bible, or even the whole New Testament. Why only the Gospels? Most likely, this tradition began when manufacturing a whole Bible was simply impractical and people generally used "part-Bibles"; books with only one Gospel, or only the Letters of St Paul, or, as in this case, only the Four Gospels.
In all our Churches we keep a "Bible" in a metal cover on the altar. But in fact, the tradition is to keep just the four Gospels in that casing, not the whole Bible, or even the whole New Testament. Why only the Gospels? Most likely, this tradition began when manufacturing a whole Bible was simply impractical and people generally used "part-Bibles"; books with only one Gospel, or only the Letters of St Paul, or, as in this case, only the Four Gospels.

Santa Claus has a lot to answer for!

Now, I’m talking about the pudgy fellow with the flowing white beard and the red and white suit. I would not be surprised if this jolly old chap were responsible for more people losing their Christian faith over the years than anyone else in history.

It’s not really his fault, poor old fellow. It’s what people do with him. See, grownups will insist on pretending that this preposterous anachronism is real to their little children. The children gobble him up (sometimes literally, if he’s made of chocolate). They eagerly await his advent, full of delicious anticipation at the bounty he will bring them. They live their days in righteousness in fear of his wrath, lest he smite them with an onion in their stocking in the last days. They may even offer to him a sacrifice of milk and cookies. And then on the fateful day of his coming, they rise early to find the bounty he has graced upon them, and which has miraculously appeared over night beneath his twiggy altar. Grownups glow with fuzzy warmth at the sight and continue to feed the lie to their children.

Until one day … it all comes crashing down.  Continue reading “Growing Up”

Deeply Disturbing

Today, a more serious subject than is usual for this blog.

There have been a number of reports in the international media recently about the increasingly numerous allegations of paedophile Catholic priests that are surfacing. These allegations are threatening to implicate even Pope Benedict in cover ups from the 1980s.

The sin of sexual abuse is horrible enough as it is. Suffice to say that our Lord’s words seal the fate of those who perpetrated these atrocities:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6.

I was deeply disturbed on recently reading Dirty Work by former Detective Glen McNamara. In it he outlines the corruption that was endemic in the police force in the Sydney Kings Cross area in the 1980s and 90s. One of the more disturbing revelations he makes in the book is that of a network of police, judges, lawyers and prominent businessmen who form a powerful paedophile ring that systematically abuses children and protects its member from the law and from exposure with a ruthless efficiency. The chilling thing was that this was not a fictional novel, but a chronicle of real life that apparently is still happening today. No wonder parents are over-protective of their children!

To learn that such things happen in the world is bad enough. To learn that they happen within a Christian Church, which should be protecting little children, is nothing short of devastating.

We shouldn’t go overboard here – it is, after all a very emotional subject. No doubt, the paedophile is in one sense a sinner as all of us are sinners, and as such, deserves compassion and pity. But this particular sin is one with awful consequences for the innocent and vulnerable victims who cannot protect themselves. I have, sadly, had to counsel victims of child abuse a number of times (yes, it does happen in our community) and have been shocked at the far-reaching effects these victims have experienced, well into their adult life.

In Christianity, mercy is reserved for those who repent. Sadly, many paedophiles seem to have accepted their sin and show little sign of repentance. Would not a repentant Catholic priest have voluntarily removed himself from contact with children, perhaps even left the priesthood altogether? Perhaps this did indeed happen with some, and of course we hear nothing about that person now because he stopped anything from happening in the first place. But the ones we hear about are those who insisted on continuing in their service, dealing with children, knowing full well the temptation that represented for them. Often they consciously plotted with the greatest of care and created situations that allowed them to abuse children. Their actions are unforgiveable, for they prove that there is no repentance in their hearts.

But even more shocking to me is the silence of Catholic Church authorities when they learned of these paedophile priests. Rather than defrocking the perpetrators or at least confining them away from the public, they were simply shuffled from parish to parish, in the vain hope, perhaps, that a transfer would be enough to stop them offending again? Where is the logic in that? The more I hear of the details about how these horrible crimes were hushed up and left unresolved, the more angry and frustrated do I become. It is dangerous to prejudge things, but there seem to have been enough cases that have been tested in the courts to show an unmistakeable pattern of the Catholic Church putting its reputation above its values.

This got me thinking: how could this happen? What was so wrong in the whole Roman Catholic Church system that could have led not just one or two Church leaders to cover up for paedophile priests, but apparently to have become the system-wide policy? I find this frightening. And saddening, for there is a great deal to respect in the Roman Catholic Church, such as its apostolicity, its sacraments, its tradition and its strong commitment to practical Christianity and charity through arms like the St Vincent de Paul Society. All the Catholics I have met personally have been wonderful ambassadors for Christ. How utterly unfair it is to have a small section of the Church so terribly tarnish what is otherwise a beautiful expression of Christianity!

I do not wish to judge another Church here. But for the grace of God, there go I. But certainly, we are so blessed in our Church to have two major factors that prevent these kinds of crimes among the priesthood.

The first is that our priests, with a few notable exceptions, are married and have families of their own. This allows the priest to live the natural family life and to have personal experience of parenthood. I cannot imagine any sane parent, who has seen how innocent and vulnerable childhood is, not being enraged by paedophilia.

The second is the fact that no one chooses the priesthood for himself in our Church. This is in obedience to Hebrews 5:4: “And no man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was”. His Holiness Pope Shenouda often summarises this policy by remarking upon his dilemma in finding suitable parish priests: “those who are fit for the priesthood do not want to be priests, and those who want to be priests are not fit for the priesthood”.

There is little doubt that some of the Catholic paedophile priests chose the path of priesthood because of their predilection for paedophilia, because it offered an ideal setup for them to satisfy their lusts. The priest is trusted and respected in the community; he is trusted to take people’s children on trips; and if ever he is found out (so they would think) the whole authority of the Church will protect him because it has a vested interest in protecting its own reputation.

In the Coptic Church, such a person would never even be considered for the priesthood. The nomination comes usually from the people, people who have lived with the person and his family, who have seen him in a wide variety of situations and gotten to know his character very well. The same is true of the monks who are sent out to serve in parishes, although in this case, their character is stringently tested in their monastery by the whole monastic community, and by an experienced spiritual Father. The least hint of a man manoeuvring to be ordained usually starts the alarm bells ringing and disqualifies that man from ordination.

That said, I believe that one of the lessons we the Coptic Church need to learn from this whole horrible matter is that our Christian values and principles MUST always come before the good of the Church as a mere institution. What good is a Church with an excellent reputation but that is filled with dark evil corruption inside? Where has the Church’s commitment to Truth gone? Will people really respect a Church that covers up its faults more than a Church that is up front and open about its faults? And which is more likely to result in people getting to be close to God and entering the kingdom of heaven; covering up our faults and pretending they don’t exist, or honestly acknowledging them and working together to repent from them?

And we need to be diligent in praying for our Church and for its leaders. The devil prowls around us like a roaring lion, seeking whom to devour…

Fr Ant

A Long, Long Time Ago…

Sure it’s long, but is there any other experience like a Coptic liturgy in this whole world? OK, I’m a bit biased: I admit that. But the more I pray our beautiful liturgy the more does it steal away my heart.

 Here’s a little exercise you might like to try to see a little of what I mean:

 Imagine what it might have been like to have been an Alexandrian Christian in the First Century AD. Most likely, you would not have attended the liturgy in a purpose built church building. It would have been at someone’s house, or in a cave or underground tomb in times of severe persecution. No electricity or microphones – only candles and lamps and the human voices emanating from human hearts and minds; sharing together with their voices he experience of the presence of God among them…

 Before the liturgy, the gathered people would ask someone to read out the beautiful message in the copy of one of the apostolic letters that had reached Alexandria. One of the deacons respectfully pulls out a parchment and excitedly announces that he has gotten hold of a copy of a new letter from Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul. The gathering murmurs with anticipation – he has quite a reputation, this Paul!

 After absorbing the exhortations of the apostle, the call is made to bring out the group’s chief treasure: a complete parchment of the Gospel left behind by the Apostle Mark, so recently and horribly martyred. A hush falls upon the little gathering as the elder slowly reads out words uttered only a few decades ago from the mouth of God incarnate. At the end of the reading, someone asks a question, and the elder takes a little time to explain, drawing upon all that he eagerly absorbed as he sat at the feet of Mark … in happier times. Then the Eucharist begins.

 Those who have offerings bring them out now, mostly offerings of money or clothing for the poor, or food for the Aghape feast that will follow the Eucharist. The designated deacons collect everything and carefully store it away, but two offerings they place on a special table: bread and wine. The elder prays, blessing the offerings and entreating God to accept them from the humble group. Then he turns to the people and exhorts them to lift up their hearts now to God, in prayer and contemplation. He re-enacts that fateful Supper, uttering the very words spoken by the Lamb of God on His way to being sacrificed for the sins of the world, repeating His very actions in blessing the bread and wine and breaking the bread. He winces as the fibres of bread split apart, thinking of how the fibres of Christ’s muscles tore apart as He was brutally stretched out upon that cross. Mark had been there…

 And now, the re-enactment is finished. They pray for their daily needs from God who gives all good things, and they remember not only the needs of the living, but also the souls of the dead who have departed in the hope of the resurrection. Finally, the elder turns to the people and invite them to come forward one by one to receive this most precious gift of God. They sing a hymn of joy, a hymn of victory, even though they are but a small and persecuted sector of Egyptian society. But they leave behind their worldly troubles and cares as for a few hours they are transported, first back to Palestine in the last hours of the life of the Christ, and then to heaven itself as the Kings of Kings comes to unite with them and to dwell within their bodies and souls.

 This joy they keep within them as they share the Love meal when the prayers are over. It is a joy that sustains them through the harsh reality of their lives, and brings them together as one community, one family, one body. With this joy in their hearts, they say their goodbyes to each other and disperse in little groups and knots to return to their daily lives.

 Can you recognise our liturgy in that little story above? That is exactly what the liturgy is, with a few embellishments and additions. How beautiful the experience becomes when one looks at it through the eyes of the first Church…

 Fr Ant