You may have heard of the allegations of excessive use of force by Israeli police on Coptic monks, but what I just came to discover is my family’s role in securing the Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 1971 justifying their peaceful protest of the Israeli government’s execution of an order that contravenes that standing Supreme Court decision. As I read through various sources (see below) to understand the historical context of this news and saw that the Coptic Metropolitan of Jerusalem initiated the legal action which led to that decision, I immediately called my dad and sought to confirm my hunch: “Was my great uncle, your uncle, Metropolitan of Jerusalem around the 1970s?” Immediately my dad affirmed, “Yes … Abba Basilios,” and then all the pieces began to fall in place as our ensuing dialogue over the course of several phone calls revealed details of my family history I hadn’t known, and ashamedly (I must admit) I never got around to pursuing more thoroughly until now.
After our initial conversation, to my surprise I found my father had sent me photos of himself serving in a Coptic liturgical service officiated by a bishop who I didn’t recognize, but (as I confirmed the obvious) turned out to be Metropolitan Basilios. I felt a swell of emotion fueling my intrigue to delve deeper into my family’s past, and how the person I am today is a reflection of those who came before me.
Yes, at an early age I had previously been told, and proudly recalled from time-to-time, that my great uncle was Metropolitan of Jerusalem, but I didn’t know much else. Here is what I came to discover:
Historical Context Leading to the Clash: the Coptic Church’s ownership rights in the Monastery of the Sultan in Jerusalem undermined
Without going into too much detail, the history behind the recent news events turns simply on one pivotal question: who owns the Monastery of the Sultan (Arabic: Deir al-Sultan, as it is more commonly referred to)? From the Coptic Church’s perspective, the reason this monastery bears this title also answers the above-noted question.
The Coptic Monastery of the Sultan in Jerusalem dates back to the reign of Sultan Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (684-705 AD), who, as legend purports, gave it to the Copts as a generous reward in return for his Coptic clerk’s long years of service. It is said that in memory of this, it was named Deir El-Sultan (i.e. Monastery of the Sultan). Therefore Deir El-Sultan is believed to be part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. The monastery is located on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and has an entrance leading into the Church. It covers an area of 1,800 square meters. Particularly in the last few hundred years, there have been several attempts through a variety of (often strange and conniving) means from other factions to claim ownership of the monastery, and often the Israeli government were sought to ratify that claim.1
As tensions heightened in 1970, the Metropolitan of Jerusalem brought his claim of ownership before the Israeli Supreme Court, and on March 16, 1971, the court decreed in favor of the Coptic Church’s right of ownership and possession of the monastery.
My great uncle Metropolitan Basilios IV’s role in securing the Israeli Supreme Court decision confirming Coptic ownership of the monastery
I asked my father directly: “Was Metropolitan Basilios IV involved in securing the Israeli Supreme Court decision in 1971?” I thought to myself surely such a momentous event would have led to memorable discussions among the family regarding it. His emphatic reply was laced with details and context that assured me this was the case, and after learning more, I set out to find other sources of information to corroborate what I was hearing.
Surely enough, I stumbled upon an article said to be written by a “Basilios, Archbishop” on “Dayr al-Sultan,” which was published in Volume 3 of The Coptic Encyclopedia.2 There I confirmed that my great uncle was known as Metropolitan Basilios IV, and I discovered that he was a significant contributor to The Coptic Encylopedia, which was the fruit of years of effort compiled during the same timeframe my great uncle was alive. As I searched even further, I found “Basilios IV, Archbishop” listed among the editors in the first few pages of one of the volumes I found online.
Learning more from my family about Metropolitan Basilios IV
I called my dad and asked him if he knew about Abba Basilios’s role in The Coptic Encyclopedia, and to tell me more about His Eminence. Apparently his involvement in its publication was quite well known, and so I eagerly gleaned a number of additional details about his life:
- Samy (the birth name of Metropolitan Basilios IV), my grandfather’s brother, was accepted as a novice in the monastery of St. Anthony the Great (an achievement all on its own, especially at the time) and eventually became a monk, and was given the name “Kerolos El-Antony.” Once I heard this, I was a bit in shock as I realized I had just been blessed with the opportunity to visit the St. Anthony Monastery for my first time in 2017, and that unbeknown to me, I was walking in a place where His Eminence once had lived.
- When he went to the monastery, my father’s grandfather (on his mother’s side) tried to convince him not to go to the monastery; Kerolos el-Antony replied with Christ’s teaching: “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
- Kerolos El-Antony was sent out from the monastery to Greece to receive a doctorate in Theology, which he concluded successfully. Apparently, not only was he interested in this subject, he also excelled at a number of languages.
- After receiving his degree, he went to visit his brother (my grandfather), Habib Tadros, in Tanta, Egypt. “What? Our family is from Tanta?” I asked my dad, as he laughed… “Where are we from?” Turns out, originally my father’s side of the family was from Al Minya, Egypt (the same place where most of the recent 21 beheaded martyrs came from), and eventually moved to Tanta (then finally landed in Cairo in a city known as Ein Shams, where to this day I’m told there is a street named after my grandfather there).
- While in Tanta, around mid-day, an unexpected visitor was sent to the house by none other than the famed miracle-worker and saint Pope Cyril [Kyrillos] VI, 116th Pope ad Patriarch of Alexandria. It was His Holiness’s personal driver who directed Kerolos El-Antony to come with him, informing him that Pope Kyrillos wanted him right away. My grandmother begged the driver to wait until my grandfather could return from work (he was a teacher in Tanta), but the driver refused, impressing upon everyone that he had to fulfill the Pope’s directive.
- Kerolos el-Antony complied and went with the driver to Cairo. A few days later news came back to the family that he was chosen by Pope Kyrillos to serve as Metropolitan of Jerusalem. (Interestingly, “the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem is the only Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan who is consecrated as a Metropolitan Archbishop without being consecrated a bishop first then elevated to the Metropolitan rank.”).2
- Soon afterward, in 1959, my grandfather attended the liturgical service during which Kerolos el-Antony was ordained as Metropolitan of Jerusalem, His Eminence Basilios IV. Apparently he was the first Metropolitan that Pope Kyrillos ordained during his papacy.
- With the help of the former president of Egypt, Anwar el-Sadat, due to the regard which he held for Metropolitan Basilios, my grandfather Habib Tadros was aided in gaining approval and finding a means (passing through Jordan) to travel to Israel.
- In addition to government permission to travel to Israel, it was necessary to also gain permission from the Coptic Patriarch, and so my grandfather went to visit Pope Kyrillos to do just that. As Habib Tadros made his way to greet the Pope, before my grandfather uttered a word to introduce himself and the reason for his visit, Pope Kyrillos looked at him and said (something to the effect of), “Habib, go to Jerusalem. God is with you.” This type of divinely-inspired insight expressed in such a way was a common occurrence for the miracle-working saint Pope Kyrillos.
- With permission from both the Egyptian government and the Pope of the Coptic Church, Habib Tadros would visit his brother ever year, staying with him for extended periods (about 9 months) at a time. During my grandfather’s stays in Jerusalem, whatever gifts he accumulated which he wanted to bring back to Egypt would always be placed at the sepulcher of Christ to receive a blessing before giving those items to his family and others.
- When my grandfather passed away in 1990, my father was the one who called Metropolitan Basilios to inform him of his brother’s passing. Upon hearing this, Metropolitan Basilios shut himself up in a cell for a few days, praying and fasting.
- The following year, in 1991, Metropolitan Basilios IV departed.
Learning more about myself through my past
After learning all of this, I felt compelled to embark on a hunt to learn more about my family, and with each new insight I felt as if I was being given some grand reveal of the results of some DNA test kit:
- Apparently, Metropolitan Basilios IV was a very articulate, engaging, and passionate speaker.
- He was also known to be quite disciplined and serious about important matters. For example, he was known for, whenever anyone would ask him for prayer, regardless of age (young children or whomever), he would always pray for them while standing up.
- Metropolitan Basilios IV was regarded highly also for his prowess and enthusiasm in theology.
I was flattered when my father gave me the gracious (but highly undeserving) complement that he felt a lot of things he sees in me, and particularly the way I speak, reminded him of Metropolitan Basilios. Out of curiosity, I asked if anyone else in my family’s history reminded him of me, to which he responded by informing me of something else I do not recall ever knowing: my great grandfather (my father’s, mother’s, dad), was an attorney in Egypt (a rarity, at least among my family), and was known for his ability to speak well and was quite animated when doing so. People used to refer to him by appending his name with the title “El-Mohamy” (which means “the lawyer” in Egypt). I heard once that a couple paid him to assist them in getting a divorce, and during his consultation he spent hours talking them out of it; after they were finally persuaded to remain together, he handed them their money and bid them farewell.
As I gazed more deeply at my recent ancestry, I felt that what motivates and inspires me today, and whatever positive characteristics I may have, are just fruits for which I must recognize came in-part from my family tree. The many examples and sacrifices and role models throughout my past spread seeds that found their way to me somehow, and for that I’m grateful, and thank God for any gifts He has graciously given. How true it is when we read the apostle Paul tell us, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
1 – this paragraph was taken mostly from the change.org petition in response to these recent events, which seems to have replicated Wikipedia’s information on the monastery as well as the “Dayr al-Sultan” entry in Volume 3 of the Coptic Encyclopedia (Aziz S. Atiya, ed. NY: Macmillan, 1991), with rights to develop and update the material online was acquired by Claremont Graduate University (CGU) in 2009.
MORE ON THE HISTORY BEHIND THE RECENT NEWS EVENTS
- From the Coptic Encylopedia (by digital publisher Caremont Graduate University, School or Religion)
- Change.Org petition regarding the recent clash, which provides a historical perspective
- “Deir Sultan, Ethiopia and the Black World” article from “An Ethiopian Journal” blog post by Negussay Ayele, published November 8, 2002 (another side to the story from one Ethiopian’s [Negussay Ayele] perspective )
- Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States News email, dated Oct 24, 2018