Monastery of Saint Fana

The Monastery of Saint Fana is a Coptic Orthodox monastery. It gained its name after Saint Fana, also known as Bane (c. 354–395), a Coptic Christian hermit. The monastery is also called Abu Fanah and the Cross Monastery for the many beautifully decorated crosses inside its church.

Location

The monastery is situated in the Western Desert, not far from the cultivated land of the Nile. The monastery is located in Minya Governorate, about 300 km south of Cairo, northwest of Hermopolis, around 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from the village of Qasr Hur and east of the village of Beni Khaled.

Foundation and history

The monastery was most likely built around the burial site of Saint Fana. His tomb was found during excavations of an international team representing seven European academic institutions and led by Austrian scholar Prof. Dr Helmut Buschhausen in 1992.

The 12th-century historian Abu al-Makarim mentions the church of Saint Fana, which al-Rashid Abu Fadl restored. Egyptian historian of the 14th–15th-century al-Maqrizi wrote about the monastery’s refined architecture.

The history of the Patriarchs of Alexandria mentions the monastery of Saint Fana twice, first concerning the election of Pope Theodosius III of Alexandria of the Coptic Orthodox Church, 1294–1300 and second to the childhood of Pope Matthew I of Alexandria, 1378–1408.

In pre-Islamic times, the monastery reportedly numbered some 1000 monks. The monastery’s numbers had drastically dwindled before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. Al-Maqrizi reports that during his day, the monastery held only two monks. The French Jesuit priest Father Michel Marie Jullien (1827–1911) reported that the priest of the neighbouring village Qasr Hur had cleared the church of debris and used the church for the Divine Liturgy.

When German scholar Otto Friedrich August Meinardus visited the monastery in the 1960s, the place was in ruins, with remains stretching over a wide area. Only the historical church survived. Pieces of grey granite were also found, suggesting that the monastery may have been built on the location where an ancient temple once stood. On a small hill stand the ruins of a qasr, or tower, which ancient monasteries had. Approximately 80 meters from the ruined monastery, one finds the cave of Saint Fana, where he reportedly lived. Meinardus does not report on the monastery being inhabited.

The surviving old monastic building consists of an ancient basilica, deeply sunk into the sand in the centre of a vast mound that, according to the Coptic Encyclopedia, “no doubt” conceals the ruins of the monastery. The neighbouring mounds perhaps conceal isolated cells or hermitages.

Modern history

The modern history of the monastery starts with a renewed interest shown by the Coptic Orthodox Church in this monastery after the excavations of the team of Dr Helmut Buschhausen in 1987–1993. Following these excavations, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture decided in 2002 to declare an area of 1 km by 2 km as the monastery archaeological periphery. The Department of Antiquities suspects that this land may hold buried historical remains.

After the Department of Antiquities decision, the Coptic Orthodox Church built new cells, a new entrance, a reception and a large cathedral just outside the boundaries of the archaeological periphery – monastic buildings built from 2000 onwards. Prior to 1999, no monks resided permanently in the monastery. Five monks came to the monastery in 1999, and in 2003, Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, consecrated an additional 12 monks, followed later by one more monk. From 2003 onwards, there have repeatedly been conflicts over land with neighbours of the monastery. In July 2008, 18 monks and nine novices resided in the monastery, assisted by many laypeople.

Tensions

On 31 May 2008, monks and Christians close to the Monastery of Saint Fana reported that monks’ cells and a church belonging to the monastery had been attacked by a group of roughly sixty armed Arabs, a name commonly used in Egypt for Bedouins, settled in villages bordering the desert. The attacks damaged this section of the monastery and its surrounding property. They show an outpost of the monastery with monastic cells and a chapel dedicated to Cyril of Alexandria.

The subsequent attack left one Muslim killed, four Christians wounded, and three monks being briefly kidnapped, requiring hospital treatment upon their return. The three kidnapped monks were tortured by the Arabs, who tried unsuccessfully to force them to spit on crosses and pronounce the Islamic Shahada. In addition, the Arabs burned Bibles and church altars inside the monastery. The clashes were followed one day later by a demonstration of around 300 Coptic youth in Mallawi who blamed the government for “inaction in the face of repeated attacks by Muslims against their community.”

13 Muslims and two allegedly involved Christians were arrested and brought before the prosecutor-general. Governor Ahmed Dia el-Din found several police reports documenting disputes over land that span several years. Saint Fana’s Monastery had obtained a portion of their land by employing civil marriage contracts, resulting in the governor rejecting the monastery’s claim to possess valid land titles.

“Urfi” contracts are agreements between two parties that lack the proper registration with the government, contracts that are drafted without first obtaining the required governmental permits. Monks of the monastery criticized local police, stationed approximately 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) from the monastery, for arriving at the monastery several hours after being informed of the attack. During and following the attack, Coptic activists abroad were contacted by monks and laypeople close to the monastery. They posted angry responses on the Internet and held several North America and Europe demonstrations.

Many Copts, both those living in the diocese of Mallawi, the diocese the monastery belongs to, and Coptic activists in the West alleged that Muslims attempted to force the three kidnapped monks to convert to Islam by declaring the Shahada. Many YouTube productions followed statements were made, and press releases were published, all placing the conflict in a sectarian context, rarely making references to conflicting land claims. If this is done, it is often done to deny that a land conflict played a role explicitly.

Demonstrations of Christians in Egypt is a relatively new phenomenon. The responses from monks, Christian workers in the monastery, and Coptic activists in the West encouraged hundreds of Christians to demonstrate in Mallawi town. The previously mentioned Middle Egyptian town is the seat of the Bishop of Mallawi, who is also the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Fana. Christian protesters in Mallawi chanted, “With our blood and soul, we will defend the Cross.”.

The attack on the monastery and the ensuing Coptic response in and outside Egypt were prominently reported in Egypt. Heated discussions following the attack were published in the Egyptian media for many weeks.

Coptic monks and Copts close to the Monastery of Saint Fana placed the attack in a sectarian context which was echoed on several Coptic websites in the West. Coptic leader Pope Shenouda stated that the assailants did not want the monks to cultivate the desert land they legally possessed.

These assailants (referring to the Muslim Arab neighbours of the Monastery) do not have anyone to rule them.

Pope Shenouda said in a statement criticizing the Egyptian government for not being able to control the Monastery’s Arab neighbours. Pope Shenouda’s statement came close to calling the conflict “sectarian”.

The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church called on the Egyptian President Muhammad Husni Mubarak to intervene to prevent similar assaults. Egyptian media quoted Egyptian officials explicitly denying that this conflict was of a sectarian or religious nature.

Egyptian journalist Muhammad al-Baz reports in El Fagr that the attack against the Monastery of Saint Fana was not the first of its kind. In addition, he mentioned that attacks had been carried out since 2005. However, he denies that there was a sectarian element to the attacks. Instead, he believes that materialistic and financial motives (land ownership) were involved. Moreover, he criticized the monks’ allegations that they were targeted because they were Copts. Al-Baz claims that the monks pretended that the attacks were sectarian to obtain people’s compassion and prove persecuted.

Amr al-Shubaki stated on 12 June in Al-Masry Al-Youm that the absence of a state of law hurts both Muslims and Christians alike, in the same way, that other serious problems such as anarchy and unemployment do. Al-Shubaki referred to the widespread use of civil marriage agreements and the system of Wad al-Yad – a common practice to obtain land. One does not own the land but reclaims it, and after doing so for several years, the land becomes legally owned by the person cultivating it.

Coptic intellectual Dr Samir Morkos believes this is a land conflict with religious dimensions introduced to strengthen partisan positions. He worries about the effect that this dispute may potentially have on grassroots Muslim-Christian relations.

Many foreign media have reported the attack; “Egyptian Christians, Muslims clash, killing one” (Reuters/31 May), “One killed, four injured in Egypt monastery clash” (AFP/31 May). The Los Angeles Times placed the attack in the context of other violence directed against Copts on 11 June. The Washington Post on 7 July reported that attacks such as this one make the Christian Copts of Egypt turn inwards, strengthening a ghetto mentality. Christianity Today (23 July) focused on the growing pressure on land and water.