WADI NATRUN, Egypt — Christian monks living in the solitude of Egypt’s deserts have always faced the threat of attack from outside. In the early centuries, they built drawbridges and windowless towers to repel marauding nomads.
More recently, barricades and armed police officers ring the monasteries to guard against Islamic State suicide bombers, who target Christians.
But now, to the shock of the faithful, it turns out that danger also lurks inside the monastery walls.
The death of Bishop Epiphanius, the abbot of the fourth century Monastery of St. Macarius, last month has set off an ecclesiastical murder mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel. More than a simple whodunit, the case has exposed simmering tensions of a theological, if not personal, nature in an influential corner of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
A scholar of ancient manuscripts with a frizzy beard typical of Orthodox clerics, Bishop Epiphanius, 64, was found at dawn on July 29, lying in a pool of blood outside his monastic cell. Injuries to his skull indicated he had been hit on the head with a blunt object, possibly a pipe, the police said.
The intrigue deepened days later when the Coptic authorities defrocked a younger monk, Isaiah, who had clashed with the bishop in the weeks before his death. Soon after that, another monk, Faltaous, 33, slashed his wrists and tried to throw himself from a four-story building.
Faltaous was hospitalized and treated for his injuries. On Aug. 11, Egyptian prosecutors said Isaiah had been charged with the murder of Bishop Epiphanius after confessing to the crime. Two days later they said that they had detained Faltaous for questioning.
Beyond that, not much more is known. The police have sealed off the monastery to interview 150 people, including staff members, monks and bishops. The Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, has issued orders apparently aimed at tightening discipline among the country’s 2,000 monks.
New admissions to the monasteries have been suspended for a year; monks require permission to travel outside; and they have been given a month to close their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“In the light of what has happened, we need to give the monks their space and let them return to a focus on monastic life,” said ArchbishopAngaelos of London, a prominent Coptic leader, speaking by phone. “They do not need social media accounts.”
The bishop’s death has become the subject of feverish news coverage in Egypt and, in private among Copts, much speculation. What would motivate two monks to plot against their bishop in a remote desert monastery, presuming they are the culprits? Possibilities floated by Coptic officials, experts and monks in interviews include theological disputes, financial misdeeds and even talk that the two monks had a close personal relationship they feared might be exposed.
One senior church official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that, during a search of the monastery, Egyptian police officers had uncovered compromising material on a cellphone that could offer a motive. He declined to provide details.
“This is about more than just the death of a bishop,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an expert on the Coptic faith at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an advocacy group. “It’s a shock to the entire church.”
At the nearby Monastery of St. Pishoy, seven miles from the scene of the bishop’s death, monks declined to comment, citing orders from superiors. But like everyone else they were eager to discuss the rumors privately. “It’s is very unfortunate. I see these as two men who have been touched by the tongue of Satan,” said a deacon providing a tour of the monastery. But he added, “we cannot judge them.”
“All of us are weak,” the deacon went on. “And if they repent, Jesus will accept them.”
Acknowledging the intense public interest, church leaders say they are trying to strike a balance between transparency and allowing the investigation to take its course. “It’s difficult because this is entirely unprecedented,” said Archbishop Angaelos, who had a brief moment of global celebrity when he delivered a prayer at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May. “We need to pray for wisdom, peace and an exposition of the truth.”
The Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s roughly 97 million people, are more usually in the headlines as victims of persecution. Since December 2016, Islamic State suicide bombers have attacked several Coptic churches. In May 2017 gunmen killed at least 28 Coptic pilgrims as they traveled by bus to a monastery.
A failed suicide bombing at a church in northern Cairo last weekend left just the bomber dead but was a reminder of the threat.
Bishop Epiphanius’s death opens a window on the cloistered world of the desert monasteries, which have enjoyed a major revival in the past 50 years and have come to occupy a central place in the Coptic faith. Four of the most famous monasteries are in Wadi Natrun, north of Cairo, an area once known for the salty lakes that provide the sodium carbonate used by the ancient Egyptians for mummification, now dotted with farmland reclaimed from the desert.
Bishop Epiphanius was viewed as a senior figure in a reformist Coptic movement that has been gaining momentum inside the church under Pope Tawadros, said Samuel Tadros, an expert on the Coptic Church at the Hudson Institute in Washington. His appointment, in May, to position in which he would work as a liaison with the Catholic Church was seen as a sign that conservatives were being sidelined, Mr. Tadros said.
But Bishop Epiphanius also faced opposition inside his own monastery. Earlier this summer the bishop considered expelling Isaiah, the monk now in custody, for “ongoing violations,” Archbishop Angaelos said.
“He had been given several opportunities to cease what he was doing and to stop those violations,” said the archbishop, declining to specify the nature of the violations. After the bishop was killed, the monk was defrocked, he added.
The scandal has shattered the image of the monks as austere servants of God, devoted to prayer and solitude, that is held by many Copts in Egypt. Some question whether Copts are ready for the full truth about why the bishop was killed.
“I had no doubt from the beginning that this was personal,” said Mr. Tadros, citing confidential information he received from Coptic officials about the case. “Yet the ramifications of the murder are likely to continue with the church for a long time.”
Pope Tawadros promised in a sermon last week that the truth about the murder would come out, no matter how difficult.
The last time Coptic clerics featured in such a sensational story in Egypt was in 2001, when a tabloid newspaper published pictures of a naked former monk with a woman, alongside accusations that the man had had sex with the woman on a church altar. The article led to rowdy street protests by outraged Copts who saw it as a slur on their faith.
The uproar led to the newspaper being pulled from news stands, and its publisher being sentenced to three years in prison.
For now, the St. Macarius monastery is closed to outsiders. One monk, speaking by phone from the monastery, said the police were still questioning witnesses. He acknowledged there had been tensions before the killing, but declined to say much more.
“We have problems,” he said. “But we do not want to speak about it.”
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