The self-proclaimed Patriarch of Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt has issued a historic initiative to include prayers for Muslims and expressed his love for Islam’s Prophet, stirring a heated argument among Copts, with some branding the overture hypocritical and others dismissing it as nonsense.
"Now that I am Archbishop, I have the right to add to the mass. We usually have a part where we pray for different things -- the Archbishop and the bishops, nature, the homeland…etc. I decided to add a prayer for Muslims in the homeland since we both share it,” Maximus I, founder of the St Athanasius Foundation headquartered in the east Cairo district of Muqattam told Al-Arabiya.net.
He added the motive behind his unprecedented move was to recognize Muslims since they always complain that they recognize Christianity, but Christianity doesn't recognize them.
"I wanted to bridge this gap and establish strong bonds between Christians and Muslims all over the world. This is a cultural and social recognition of Islam as well as reconciliation for the past."
However, Maximus argues, this is not a religious recognition, which he views as illusory: "Recognizing one religion means abolishing all the others and having just one doctrine for everyone."
He stressed that this does not only apply to Muslims and Christians, but also to Orthodox and Protestant, Sunnis and Shiites…etc.
"I was flying to Beirut, and three Muslim Nigerian preachers sat next to me. We started chatting, and I didn't know in the beginning who they were. One of them spoke Arabic, so I started talking to him about how Christianity promotes love and compassion. He listened to me attentively then asked me, 'After all this talk about love, do you love Mohamed?'"
"I found myself faced with a very strong conflict. I couldn't say yes because I was unconsciously burdened with a legacy of sectarianism, but I know that answering in the negative will be rude. I was ashamed of myself."
Maximus further added that he was disappointed at his own reaction: "I felt disillusioned with my credibility and the authenticity of my faith as well as the meaning of this 'love' I have always believed in. I knelt in front of God and prayed vehemently to be rid of all this legacy of hate and sectarianism and that my heart be filled will love for all Muslims and their prophet. God responded to me. It was a miracle."
The dissident Patriarch’s decision, however, sparked controversy amongst Orthodox Copts and all other Christian sects in Egypt.
Member of the Coptic Orthodox Ecumenical Council Reverend Salib Matta Sawiris declared that Maximus' statements are nonsensical: "He is not the Patriarch of the Copts, and no one appointed him archbishop. He has no right to change anything. The Orthodox mass goes back 2000 years ago before Islam even came to Egypt."
"But he will vanish like all heretics throughout history did. He will end up in history's trash bin," he told AlArabiya.net, adding Maximus only sought fame.
He also warned that what Maximus is doing will spark sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians and said he should be taken to court for that.
"Why doesn't he just convert to Islam?" Sawiris charged.
For Sawiris, Maximus did that to fawn on Muslims to get their support after his fakeness was exposed and he ran out of followers.
"There are some redlines that we cannot cross. Maximus is violating that," Sawiris snapped.
About the mass, Sawiris stated that they pray for everyone without naming specific sects or religions: "We even pray for our enemies to make sure we don't discriminate."
Political activist and Coptic intellectual Kamal Zakher, for his part, told AlArabiya.net that Maximus is playing with words since he only recognized Islam culturally, but not religiously.
"What does he mean by 'cultural recognition'? We all grew up in an Islamic culture. Does this mean we recognize Islam? What he is doing is basically political."
"He crossed the line," Zakher stated, "nobody recognizes him as a Patriarch, and lots of lawsuits are filed against him. He has nowhere to go."
In 2006, Max Michel, the lay name for Maximus I, deflected from the Coptic Orthodox Church and declared himself the Archbishop of True Orthodox Christians, allegedly taking advantage of Pope Shenouda III being out of the country. He was receiving medical treatment in the U.S. Michel obtained this rank from a dissident church in the U.S.
"I was ordained by receiving succession from the synod of America, which is affiliated to the See of Constantinople," he stated earlier
He has always been a harsh critic of Pope Shenouda who, he argues, has been the cause of much of the sectarian strife in Egypt. He also accused him of discriminating against those who disagreed with him.
(Interviews by Farrag Ismail and Mustafa Sulaiman; Translated by Sonia Farid)