A life time experience - 10 days in Cairo Pan-Oriental Orthodox Conference by Rioj Thomas (Calgary Canada )
“Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” St. Mathew 28:19
St. Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo, hosted the First Pan-Oriental Orthodox Youth Conference on the topic “How to be an Orthodox Evangelist?” from November 24th to December 4th 2013. This conference was first of its kind amongst the Oriental Orthodox Family and witnessed participation of 80 youth delegate’s from different Oriental Orthodox Churches such as Armenian Orthodox Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, Coptic Orthodox Church and Malankara Orthodox Church at the invitation of HH Tawadros II Patriarch and Pope of Coptic Orthodox Church
Details of the invitation and the delegates from Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church who attended the conference are available at the following websites:
As one of the representatives of our Diocese, I was blessed to attend and sharing the experience through our Diocesan newsletter “The Stream” with the prayer that through it the Church as a whole will be edified.
The 10 day conference was an equal balance of sessions and visits to Historic and Spiritual centres of Coptic Orthodox World.
*Egyptian Museum, Cairo: The Museum is located on the Tahrir Square (the very square that witnessed the 2011 revolution and 2013 demonstrations). The Museum gave us an idea about the pre-dynasty, Old Kingdoms, intermediate periods, middle kingdom and modern kingdom, leading to the Greek and Roman periods
*Saint Mercurius Church and Convent: Saint Mercurius Church in Coptic Cairo is one of the churches situated just to the north of the Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo among a group of important churches, and within the area known as the Abu Sayfayn Cloister is to be found three churches and a convent. One of these churches, dedicated to Saint Mercurius. The Church of Saint Mercurius served as the Seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria between 1300 and 1500 AD. The Church of Saint Mercurius itself was demolished and turned into a sugarcane warehouse, but was rebuilt by Patriarch Abraham (974-979). Afterwards, in 1080, 47 bishops met in the church by order of the Fatimid vizier Badr Al-Gamal to establish the Coptic canons. It is also said that Tamay Irene (Mother Superior of the convent till 2006) always had visions of Mother Mary and was asked to build a church in their garden as Mary and Joseph stayed there with baby Jesus during their visit to Egypt.
* St. Mary’s Orthodox Church- Hanging Church: It is called the Hanging Church because it is built over the stone gate of the Roman Fortress with support from just logs of palms and stones. The wooden roof is made in the shape of Noah’s ark. The church was also the residence of Coptic Pope from 7th to 13th century. Just like all the other churches St. Mary’s church has a lot of historic icons. Most precious of them all is the Painting of St. Mary printed on one of the pillars, it was used by the people of Egypt to pray when the king challenged Patriarch Abraham quoting Mat 17:20(“Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”)to move Moqattam Mountain which was located in the center of Egypt to prove their faith.
*Abu Sarga: Oldest Church in Egypt dating back to the 5th Century AD. This church was built over the crypt where Holy Family stayed for three weeks during their stay in Egypt. Abu Sarga is dedicated to the two Saints Sergius and Becchus who served as soldiers in the Roman Army. They were faithful followers of the Lord Jesus and refused to worship the Roman gods. For their Christian belief, Sergus and Bacchus eventfully suffered martyrdom in Syria in 296 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Maximinus.
*Saint George Nunnery:
Monastery of St. George in Old Cairo, Egypt is a monastery for women. It is adjacent to the Church of St. George. According to tradition contains the chains that were placed on St. George as part of the tortures to which he was sentenced after his trial under the Persian King Dadianos. The nuns who now occupy the monastery live on the upper floors of the monastery building. They received us with much grace, and laid out a sumptuous meal. Our Coptic student friends assured us that we had entered into portions of the convent they had never been to in all their life! In this convent the Mother Superior was very definite that no photos could be taken showing any of the nuns.
From old Cairo or the Coptic Cairo we went to river Nile for a ride on felluca to the Virgin Mary Church.
*Virgin Mary Church:
The site of Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, maadi is closely associated with the Holy Family when they came to Egypt. At Maudi, they boarded a sailing-boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. This Church is built upon that spot. The stone steps leading down to the River’s bank, and believed to have been used by the Holy Family, are accessible to pilgrims through the Church courtyard.
An event of miraculous importance occurred on Friday the 3rd of the Coptic month of Baramhat - the 12th of March - in 1976. A Holy Bible of unknown origin was carried by the lapping ripples of the Nile to the bank below the Church. When found it was open to the page of Isaiah 19:25 in which is declared: "Blessed be Egypt My People".
Personally this was the most awaited day as we got to visit the Monasteries of the Great Monastic fathers of the Church - St. Anthony and St. Paul.
*St. Anthony’s Monastery: All of us must have studied or at least heard of St. Anthony and having a chance to visit his monastery was a true blessing to us. At St. Anthony’s Monastery we got to know about basic architecture of the monastery and importance of fortress and other buildings inside the monastery during the olden days. From there we were lead to the Oldest Church in the Monastery and also the resting place of St. Anthony. Here we came to know of the basic sections in their church, which is very similar to that of ours. The walls of the church were covered by Paintings by different Monks and Priests who have stayed or visited the monastery from time to time. Then we had time for reflection near the eternal resting place of St. Anthony and all the delegates lighted candles and prayed for his intercession. After this we visited the new church and the aisle where the monks meet every morning for vespers. From here we visited the water spring which St. Anthony found in the desert after praying. This spring still keeps flowing and even after scientific studies the source of this water is not known. It is found on a higher ground above the sea level. We also had fouwl ( the only food monks have, main component of the food is Beans).
*St. Paul’s Monastery: St. Paul the First Hermit (Anba Boula) lived in the 4th century AD on the other side of the mountain where St. Anthony lived. Here he dug a deep cave and lived inside the cave praying and fasting. Here at this monastery we got the privilege to meet Bishop Daniel and also the oldest monk alive in the Coptic Church Abouna Fanous. Hospitality of Bishop Daniel is worth mentioning as he took care of us as his own children and gave us gifts to take back home with us. This monastery is built on the sides of a mountain with different churches along the walls of the mountain.
We visited the Pyramids at Gaza and also the Pharaonic village which gave us a deeper meaning of their history and their basic wealth which was gold. The Pharaonic village also had the Coptic history well maintained where we saw the serial view of Old Cairo or the Coptic Cairo that we visited on the first day. After a long day we went to our conference center at El Kattarbah.
We officially started the conference event though we had few highlights in between the trips by Abouna (Fr.) Dauod Lamei who is the vicar of St. Marks Cathedral and also leading and training the Evangelists from the Coptic Church. To give a brief understanding about the evangelist team, It was formed about 4 years back by Abouna. It now has 800 participants from Cairo and 46 from Alexandria. He offers a 12 month course with 8 months training and then full time service for about 6 months. The 8 month course can be taken in person or online course but the 6 months the person should leave everything and go for mission trip to anywhere the church sends you.
In his classes he always tried to explain from his experiences what evangelism is and what the most effective way to do it is. And the best way to evangelize is the way how Jesus Christ taught us. Preaching the message of salvation to all by
1. Living Calmly (Christ for 30 years and also like Mother Mary)
2. Being amongst the people and preaching with parables (St. John 2:1-2)
3. Doing Miracles Silently (St. Luke 4:38)
4. Touching the pain of people (St. John 8:8, St. Mark 1:40-41, St. Mark 7:33)
5. Caring for the Lonely (St. Luke 13:11-12)
6. Sharing the poor life (St. John 4:6)
7. Enjoying the quiet time (St. Mark 1:35, St. Matthew 14:22-23)
8. Suffering Silently (Isaiah 53:7)
9. Silent Evangelism, Perfect Role Model, Humility and attractive personality, Love and giving, Bear fatigue for the sake of others
A session by Bishop Thomas followed which reflected on how important it is for evangelists to see things and people through the eyes of Christ rather than through the eyes of a human. And also to do things for Christ and not for the person you might end up helping.
The day started with reflection hour by Abouna Daoud Lamei on the value of Quality Time. Everybody defined quality time from their aspects while Abouna gave a broader aspect which can be coupled with all to actually bring value and they were Togetherness, Active Listening and Quality conversation. We also viewed a video on how mobile phone has taken away Quality Time away from our lives. We spend more time on mobile phone than with people around us. Families lack quality time spend between kids and parents, between husband and wife, even amongst friends all we think of is movie or fun time rather than sitting with each other and discussing of matters we would like to share. And spending Quality Time with people around is one of the major features of being a true Evangelist.
Later in the evening we had a session lead by one of our Clergy Delegate Fr. Philip Kuruvila on being an Orthodox Leader. He differentiated the qualities of a Secular & Christian Leader. Emphasized on the challenges faced by a Christian Leader such as Friends, Peers, TV Videos, Internet, Fear, and one’s Sexuality. He also explained how the living and practicing of our Orthodox faith using sacraments, signs and symbols, holy traditions assist Leadership.
We met His Holiness Pope Tawadros II at St. Bishoys’s Monastery after visiting the Syrian Monastery in the morning.
The Syrian Monastery was actually started by monks from St. Bishoy’s monastery who rejected the Julian heresy and called it the Monastery of Holy Virgin Theotokos. Later in 8th century this monastery was sold to few Syrian Merchants who gave to Syrian monks to make it a Syrian Monastery. This monastery and its churches are rich in painting made by the Syrian monks. It also consist of a chamber where St. Bishoy Prayed, it is a small cell in which there is an east facing Alter where St. Bishoy prayed. Due to his devoting he used to tie his hair to a hook on the ceiling to pull his head up if he ever fell asleep while praying. It is said he spend long hours kneeling and praying in front of this alter. This monastery also has a tamarind tree called St.Ephrems Tree; the story has it that St. Ephrem’s walking stick turned into the tree when St. Ephrem visited the St.Bishoy at the monastery. Pope Shenouda III belonged to this monastery even though he is buried in St. Bishoy’s Monastery.
St. Bishoy also known as the Star of the Desert is believed to have seen Jesus a number of times. It is said that the body of St. Bishoy has not corrupted even today. This monastery contains the well of the Martyrs where the Berbers washed their swords after killing 49 elders of Scetes. Their bodies are also buried here at this Monastery. We visited and prayed at the Tomb of Pope Shenouda III. Pope Shenouda III was the main person behind the expansion of St.Bishoy’s Monastery. His Holiness Pope Tawadros II is member of this monastery and comes here for his spiritual retreats. We were blessed to meet him during retreat at the Monastery.
Rev. Fr. Thomas Ninan, Advisor and Founder Vice President Indian Orthodox Diaspora Secretariat Delhi Diocese read out the Kalpana from our Bava thirumeni on his behalf. Fr. Ashwin Fernandes, the Protocol Officer to our Catholicose and Mr.Rijo Geevargheese presented His Holiness with Icons made by each of them. Malankara Orthodox Delegates also presented His Holiness with other gifts as a token of our gratitude. All the delegates also got chance to get blessings from His Holiness personally. It was an auspicious moment for all of us.
In the evening we had a session on “How to prepare for Evangelism” based on St. Luke 10:1-12. Abouna Daoud pointed out that to be a good Evangelist we should all be united in one body of Christ. We should focus on being Christ Centered, and keep our difference apart in working for Christ. We are all one in The Body and Blood of Christ and so we are called the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Day 7 and 8:
These two days covered the crux of the conference on evangelism
Session 1 “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. “ Col 2:8
So what are the major reasons that we lose focus on our missions? Is it the new Philosophies, vain deceits, our traditions, our Pride or are we simply following the world? Whatever it is we are going away from mission that is to spread the word of salvation to the whole nation.
How would we re-focus on our missions?
To get back to our trail-our mission we must
- be bold enough to be different,
- be prepared to be rejected,
- be preserved and Exist for Christ and not the world
- The Basic of them all is TO KNOW YOUR MISSION.
Session 2- ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ – Fr. Daoud Lamei
1. Being Proactive: Your actions should be different from the expected actions, Be aware that you are responsible for your actions, Forgive forget an let go of past injustices.
2. Christ Centric in Church, Pleasure, Work, Possessions, Self, Friendships, Money, Enemies, and Family
3. Putting first things first, Schedule the major activities first and surround smaller activities with it
4. Think win-win: Mentality of Abundance, Spirit of Corporation, Understand others, Treat other Kindly, Clarify Expectations
5. Understand before being Understood: Through Perspective observations, Emphatic Listening, and by not being judgmental.
6. Synergize: Understand that whole is greater than some, Value benefits and differences.
7. Sharpen you Spiritual, Mental, Physical and Social Saws: Self Renewal, Self-Improvement of Physical, Spiritual, Emotional and Social aspects of one’s life.
Session 3- How to Evangelize to Children?
The Mind of a Child is free from lust and ill thoughts. It is easy to create an impression on a child’s mind. Their creativity and imagination can be used to teach them about Christ through songs, games and arts.
We spend the last two days in Alexandria understanding more about the History of Egypt, its ecumenical outreach with other churches and life’s of monastic fathers.
Our first stop was the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Built under the name of the four evangelists St Mathew, St Mark, St Luke, St John, it is also known as St Mary’s Church. There are paintings and writing on the wall and ceiling which has not been modified since the church was built. We also visited the museum besides the church.
From there we visited the St. Catherine Roman Church. It was named after St Catherine who was martyred in 4th century AD at the hands of the pagan Emperor Maxentius. She converted hundreds of people to Christianity and she also converted the wife of Maxentius to Christian. Over 1,100 years following her martyrdom, St. Joan of Arc identified Catherine as one of the Saints who appeared to her and counseled her. Her body was later taken away and was discovered by the monks in 800 AD at Sinai. In the church we also found the fully waxed body of St Sabina who was also a pagan converted to Christian and later martyred for not converting back from Christianity.
After the spiritually enriching visit, we were to explore the historical sites of Alexandria. The Roman Amphitheatre of Alexandria is one of the main tourist attractions of the region. It was formed in the 4th century over a villa and this truth was discovered by mere coincidence in the year 1960s when an earthquake took place.
After the Roman Amphitheater, we next headed towards the St. Mark Cathedral. The cathedral is believed to be standing on the site of the by St. Mark the Evangelist in 60 AD. St. Mark the Evangelist has been connected with the city of Alexandria since earliest Christian tradition. Coptic Christians believe he arrived in Alexandria around 60 AD and stayed for about seven years.According to tradition, St. Mark was arrested during a festival of Serapis in 68 AD and martyred by being dragged through the streets. He was buried under the church he had founded. Many Popes were buried here in the churches underground section.
After a long day of travel, we decided a visit to the Montaza Palace and gardens would be a good way to unwind. The Montaza Palace and gardens were built on a low plateau east of central Alexandria overlooking a beach on the Mediterranean Sea. The larger Al-Haramlik Palace and royal gardens were added to the Montaza Palace grounds, being built by King Fuad I in 1932, as a summer palace.
The Khalid El Walid streets of Alexandria beckoned us, at night. The streets were buzzing with people and the shops were on the streets. We had a chance to visit the Saints Church, while exploring the streets. The Saints Church was the target of a bomb attack on the 1st of January, 2011. Twenty people died as a result of the attack, which occurred as Christian worshipers were leaving a new year service. Some 97 more were injured. The attack was the deadliest act of violence against Egypt's Christian minority in a decade, since the Kosheh massacre in 2000 left 21 Copts dead. We met Abuna Yuosef of the church and received his blessings
An early start to the day ensured that we missed the traffic jams of Alexandria. Our first stop for the day was the Citadel of Quitabay. It is a fortress build in the 14th century by Sultan Qaitbey along the cornice facing the Mediterranean Sea.
After the intoxicating beauty of the sea, we headed towards the grand Alexandrian Library. The Bibliotheca Alexandria (Alexandrian Library) in Alexandria is a wonderful reincarnation of the famed ancient library of Alexandria. The original library held the largest collection of manuscripts in the world and was a great center of learning for 600 years until it was burned down in the 3rd century. The dramatic new library, resembling an angled discus or a great sundial was designed by a Norwegian architect and cost about $200 million.
From there we went to our next destination and the last of our 10 days in Egypt which was the St. Mina Monastery. This is the old church or monastery of St Mina which was built in 5th century was invaded by the Arabs in the 7th century AD. Even though it was destructed to ground we could see the tomb of St Mina and also the baptismal pond, where 14 people can be baptized together.
The foundation for the new monastery of St Mina was laid by Pope Kyrillos 6th in 1969 who died on March 9th, 1971. It has 122 monks in it of which 53 are priest. Every day they have 22 mass liturgies.
During the conference we also got chance to attend different liturgies by the sister churches and partake in their Holy Communion. Malankara Orthodox Church got two chances to have our Holy Qurbana along with the Coptic Priest, Monk and Deacons. The conference was also filled with small fun packed workshops and sessions taken by the Evangelism teams of Cairo and Alexandria. Every evening after the conference we had cultural nights displayed by different sister church. Our church got the chance on the first evening of the conference and Rev. Fr. P.A Philip achen introduced MOSC to the delegates and displayed a documentary on our history. Mr.Rijo Geevarghese explained the history about our rich Mural art Painting found in different churches of MOSC. Lady delegates under the guidance of our dearest Kochammas did Margamkali. The Master of Ceremony for the night was Ms. Elizabeth from South West American Diocese. We also conducted Ice breaker session, taught the delegates an Action Song and played few fun games which was led by Rev. Fr. Philip Kuruvila and Mr. Jim Mathews.
In these 10 days that we spend in Egypt we were moved by the hospitality that the Coptic Brothers and Sister bestowed over us. We were also wonder struck by the active participation of women more than men in organizing the conference. They are in par with all the technology that is available to them, the whole conference was recorded and live notes were made by 3 prominent ladies, which were displayed on screens using projectors. We also got a CD that contained important presentations from the conference on our return. The stay that was organized at 3 different places were all owned by the Coptic church as retreat centers for its members, it had all the facilities of a star hotel and our stay was pleasant. The work and hardships taken by the youth of the Coptic Church to organize this conference amongst all the political problems faced by them is the best example to the value they give to their Mission as to unite the Youths of Oriental Orthodox to work together for the greater glory of Jesus Christ our Lord.
By Rioj Thomas,
St. Mary’s Malankara Orthodox Church