Middle East

Egypt monks defy their Church in road row

Saint Macarius Monastery
Image caption Monks at the monastery in Wadi Al-Rayan say a highway will make them vulnerable to attacks

In a compound in Egypt's Western Desert, a young monk clambers into a four-wheel drive before revving up to scale a sand dune.

We are on a tour of his monastery, a quiet retreat which has found itself at the centre of a stand-off with the Coptic Orthodox Church and the government.

Marteros Rayani is one of six monks who have been stripped of their priesthood. The Coptic Orthodox Church has distanced itself from the St Macarius monastery, saying it does not belong to them.

He and his colleagues are opposing the government's plans to build a highway through the land around their monastery - land whose ownership is disputed.

The highway would tear through a two-metre (6.5ft) wall they built illegally on the land which they annexed in Wadi Al-Rayan, a protected nature reserve.

The monks say the barrier protects them from attacks amid a rise in violence against churches in the past few years, and they are determined to stay.

The wall however has also angered local Bedouins as it prevents them from reaching springs, the only source of water in this deserted area.

With tensions rising, the monks have begun organising guard duties along the wall.

Monks injured

Paul Halim, the spokesperson for the Coptic Orthodox Church, criticised what he called the "stubbornness" of some monks. The Church "supports the government's development plans", he said.

Two of the monks inside the monastery dared to show their support for the Church's decision.

Image caption The wall around the monastery has been built without permission
Image caption The monastery is situated in a protected nature reserve

"The two Fathers were taken to a nearby governmental hospital, after they had been attacked by Fathers who are opposing the Church," Mr Halim said.

"We warn young people from joining unofficial monasteries."

The monastery said the monks were injured when they jumped from the wall.

Despite the problems faced by the Christian minority, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's historic visit to Coptic Christmas mass was warmly welcomed by the country's Christian community, who make up 10-15% of the population.

The visit was seen as show of solidarity with the Orthodox Christians, after several Christmases were overshadowed by attacks against them.

'Coptic insurgency'

It is not the first time a dispute has caused friction between Egypt's desert monasteries and the government - but it is the first time the Coptic Orthodox Church has taken the side of the government, according to Mina Thabet, a researcher in Coptic affairs.

Mr Thabet says that increasingly, Christians in Egypt feel unhappy with their own Church's decisions.

Image caption Marteros Rayani is one of six monks who have been stripped of their priesthood

They miss the former Pope Shenouda III's relationship with the congregation and government, he says, such as the Pope's visit to monks injured in clashes with locals in a similar land dispute at Abu Fana monastery in Minya governorate.

"Actually, the Coptic Church is facing what is probably the first known insurgence in its modern history," Mr Thabet told BBC Arabic.

Marteros Rayani has decided the Church's decisions no longer matter.

"All human statements can be thrown to the wind. I'm here for the obedience of Christ," he says.

As we toured the monastery grounds, Fr Rayani pointed out at least two archaeological sites in which 4th-Century monks used to worship.

Primitive drawings of Satan were still visible in the entrance to a cave in the vast desert area which the monastery recently annexed.

Satan symbolises things that scare monks, Fr Rayani said. "The government has many alternatives to build the highway away from the monastery. All we want is serenity."

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