Thursday June 2, 2005

Another rival for Coptic Church

By Magdy Samaan

Maxie Michele

Wannabe Patriarch Maximum Yohanna, aka Maxie Michele

Courtesy Maxie Michele



The Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian institutions in the world, has a new competitor in the form of the recently established Church of St. Athansius, a branch of an existing denomination founded in the United States.

Maxie Michele, an Egyptian Copt, succeeded in obtaining a license to establish a church from the state in mid-April. He has added his voice to a growing number of Copts who are displeased with the Church’s handling of personal matters and accuse it of being rigid, authoritarian and unwilling to modernize. The church’s handling of personal status matters such as divorce is widely seen as the primary cause of conversions to Islam and to Protestant Coptic Evangelical Christianity.

Bishop Moussa, a prominent member of the Coptic Church, countered by saying that the church is very responsive to the needs of the community, as seen by how priests are actually chosen. “We have a democratic system in choosing priests, the people must accept their priests and nominate them. There is direct communication between them to solve any problems.”

Michele has made himself the patriarch of the new church under the name Bishop Maximus Yohanna. The church was registered with the help of a Coptic immigrant to the United States, who established it in the United States as an interdenominational church. Michele used documents from the U.S. government’s register of churches to establish his case before the Egyptian government.

“The new church is open for all Christian denominations and it will conduct prayers according to Orthodox, Roman Catholic and all Christian denominations in the same building,” Michele told Cairo.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has refused to recognize Michele’s breakaway group. “There aren’t independent churches in Christianity, and anybody who says they are a patriarch, who appointed him? When somebody receives a religious title, one receives it from a higher power. Who has the authority to make him a patriarch?” asked Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, in a conversation with journalists on 24 May following his return from a medical trip to the United States.

“Our people will reject something like this, and it will not succeed,” he predicted.

Michele was a lay worker in the Church from the Gharbiya governorate and had a conflict with Church leaders in the 1970s over an article he wrote for a local paper about the Holy Spirit. He was expelled after refusing to repent.

“They refused to discuss it with me and found it easier just to say, ‘Leave!’” said Michele.

In 1991 Michele created the St. Athanasius Foundation to do charity work in Muqattam, and his ideas developed over the course of the work. His followers today largely come from this base, although he refuses to disclose their total numbers.

“We have two fundamental principles,” Michele said of the new church. “The first principle is theological, and stems from the teachings of the Church fathers in the age before the division in the 4th century, and this is that we believe the creed of Christian faith is a common ground for everyone to join. The second principle is weightier, and depends on acceptance of the other and unity from our variety.”

Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine


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