In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

An Open Letter To His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church

From Fr. Tekle Haymanot of Saint Mary & Saint Moses Coptic Orthodox Monastery

“Please let us remember in this and in all things, that whatever influence the government may be able to exert upon the Synod and Church of Eritrea, as St. Peter and the other Holy Apostles declared boldly and without fear, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29). It has always been the practice of the Orthodox faithful throughout history to stand for Christ and for the canonical integrity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church that He Himself established, even to the point of martyrdom and the shedding of our blood. We must ask ourselves – as St. Paul asked – “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). For indeed, if we are trying to please people – no matter how powerful or highly placed – then we have no right to call ourselves servants of Christ.”

–      May, 13, 2021, Letter from the Standing Conference of the Oriental Orthodox Churches to the Orthodox faithful of the canonical Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Part 1

 “Who Administers the Church [Eritrean Orthodox Church]?” 

Why I Wrote this Open Letter & Identifying the Crux of the Crisis

Your Holiness Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark,

I kiss your holy hands asking for your prayers and blessings. Beloved Father, many attempts, by both the canonical Eritrean Orthodox Church and concerned laity, to reach out to the leadership of the Coptic Orthodox Church, have been unsuccessful. I, for one, have tried to sound the alarm within the Coptic Orthodox Church as early as March 11, 2022, and have even appealed to Your Holiness through my immediate hierarch, His Eminence Metropolitan Youssef.

Therefore, I ask Your Holiness to indulge me with a boldness with which I may address the spiraling crisis. This is a boldness with which one can speak to another candidly, not out of brash irreverence, but rather out of the intimacy a given relationship affords. As we chant in the Coptic hymn in praise of Saint Mary, the Adam Aspasmos:

We have no boldness (Greco-Coptic, parrhesia),

Before our Lord Jesus Christ,

Apart from your prayers and intercessions,

O our Lady the Lady of us all the Theotokos (Greek, God-bearer).

Therefore, what follows is born out of the intimacy between a father and son, i.e., Your Holiness and my weak self. How else can a simple monk dare to address Your Holiness, the 118th successor of Saint Mark, the thirteenth of the Apostles, Bishop of the great city of Alexandria, and Patriarch of the whole Coptic Orthodox Church?

Beloved Father, I do not argue that an open letter is the ideal medium to discuss the topic at hand. It is only after exhausting all possible channels that I have resorted to communicate with Your Holiness through this less than ideal medium.

Three main reasons compel me to speak and not remain silent.

Firstly, silence is a luxury we cannot indulge in given the gravity of the crisis, the cost the canonical Eritrean Orthodox Church is incurring, and the ripple effect on inter-church relations. 

Secondly, through the years I have spent in the Coptic Orthodox Church and under the proverbial feet of her revered fathers, a high moral standard has been inculcated in me. I can list quotes and lessons by the late Pope Shenouda III, Your Holiness Pope Tawadros II, His Eminence Metropolitan Youssef, His Grace Bishop David, Fr. Shenouda Maher, my Coptic confession fathers, both in the world and the monastery, and many others from whom I have learned much over the years. For now, suffice it to say, these lessons handed down to us (Traditioned, sic.) are now ringing in my ears, engraved in my heart, etched in my memories, always before my eyes and resonate through my whole being. It is this moral conviction that I have been discipled (sic.) into which now, after months of prayer and deliberation, compels me to take a clear stand.

Thirdly, I truly miss those days of innocent love between Copts and Eritreans, now that we have eaten of the fruit. Now, even the innocent are abashed, mortified through second-hand shame and embarrassment. We are at risk of losing a love that took thirty years to build through the mishaps of a few months. Your Holiness’ predecessor, the late Pope Shenouda III birthed the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Eritreans have fond memories of Pope Shenouda III; he spared no effort in establishing the Church, and he stood with us when persecution broke out. Your Holiness has been an heir of this legacy of love and also worked to ensure its continuations.

Now this love is endangered.

This is particularly painful for many Eritreans who have fled to Coptic Orthodox churches as religious refugees when persecution broke out in their own Church. Even in the lands of immigration the Communist regime’s long reach is felt through its local apparatchiks. I am a case study of such religious refugees that joined the Coptic Orthodox Church at the onset of the persecution. I have now spent almost half my life in her bosom. The relationships that have been built over the past sixteen years are not merely “ecumenical” but deeply personal. Hence, the predicament is also not simply “ecumenical” but even more personal. In my soul, there is only what I can describe as a custody battle as my parents (Coptic and Eritrean Orthodox Churches) are going through a “divorce proceeding”. This is even more painful because the problems we face can be solved through dialogue and compromise.      

To quote the late Bishop Karas’ favorite Bible verse, “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Hence, I have chosen to speak, albeit at the eleventh hour, “hoping against hope” that the bond of love between Copts and Eritreans can still be rescued from imminent danger (Romans 4:18).

It is impossible to fully discuss in a single letter the multifaceted crisis between the Coptic and Eritrean Orthodox Churches. The crux of the matter can be boiled down to a single question. At the core of the crisis there is one and one question only. It is this question that Saint Antonios the Confessor, the late patriarch of Eritrea, personally asked Mr. Issias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea.

The question is: “Who administers the Church [Eritrean Orthodox Church]?”

Indeed that continues to be the central question: who makes decisions for the Eritrean Orthodox Church, whether directly or by proxy? Is it the Communist Eritrean regime, the president of Eritrea, the puppet bishops under his tutelage, or the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church? Or is it the canonical Eritrean Orthodox Church? There can be many advisors but there can only be a single body that can legitimately act as an administrator of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Only such a canonical body can make all final decisions concerning the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s affairs.

Inside Eritrea, those who say the Church should manage her own affairs have been subject to imprisonment, torture, exile and even the ultimate price – martyrdom. It is no secret that the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been under persecution since 2004 at the hands of the Communist Eritrean regime. The Eritrean Orthodox faithful chose martyrdom rather than tolerate the overtaking of their Church’s leadership, be it by force or stealth – directly or by proxy.        

Yet, there are some who suffer from a delusion that faithful Eritrean Orthodox Christians will simply roll over and hand over to the Communist Eritrean regime their Church for which many suffered and are suffering, most prominently the Patriarch Abune Antonios the Confessor who was imprisoned for sixteen years and died under house arrest. Again, some are deluded, still thinking that faithful Eritrean Orthodox Christians will simply recapitulate and allow a full takeover of their Church by the Communist Eritrean regime and his stooges. Such takeover attempts have been made under the guise of reconciliation in the absence of proper dialogue.    

Beloved Father, I am not one of those with such delusions.

Many Eritrean Orthodox Christians have paid dearly with blood, sweat and tears and continue to do so. Therefore, I know full well that faithful Eritrean Orthodox Christians will never surrender their Church to the Communist regime. To quote famous words spoken during similar dark hours, “If necessary for years, and if necessary alone, but we will never surrender!” 

This does not mean we will never negotiate, be flexible or even bend backward, forgiving and forgetting everything for the sake of love and reconciliation. Unwillingness to reconcile and the Christian spirit of love cannot coexist. But should not a reconciliation process be transparent, not shrouded in secrecy, and accountable, not fraught with conflict of interests?  

At present, there is much fanfare about peace and reconciliation but the details do not always square with these publicity stunts. As always, the devil is in the details. There is a merger, and then there is a takeover masquerading as a merger. 

Beloved father, in this introductory letter I have written to you in generalities and allusions. In subsequent letters, I will attempt to discuss matters in detail and head-on, substantiating claims with precise evidence. Again, the devil is in the details. For the sake of clarity, essential background in terms of the Eritrean context and the persecution the Eritrean Orthodox Church is undergoing will be provided first, before proceeding to delve deeper. On the deeper end of the pool, I wish to ask Your Holiness questions that explore the facts of the July 9th event, what took place during the months leading to the event, what followed afterwards, and what the new Coptic Orthodox Church stand vis-à-vis the canonical Eritrean Orthodox Church is? Beyond the technical minutiae of what happened there are the much more significant moral and canonical questions.

These and similar questions have become sources of personal angst and communal anguish. Through Your Holiness’s prayer and wisdom I hope you will answer my questions and assuage not only mine, but also the mental anguish and heartache of many.

I beseech Your Holiness to deliver us from the limbo we are in!

Asking for Your Holiness’s prayers,

Your son,

Fr. Tekle Haymanot Abba Moses, monk.

፳፯ ታኅሣሥ ፳፻፲፭ ዓመተ ምህረት (በዓለ መድኃኔ ዓለም)።

Koiahk 27, 1739 Year of the Martyrs.

January 5, 2023.

Feast day of the martyrdom of Anba Psote (Bisadi/ኣብሳዲ), Bishop of Psoi.

Fr. Tekle Haymanot Abba Moses is a monk at Saint Mary and Saint Moses Coptic Orthodox Monastery located in Sandia, Texas, under the auspices of His Eminence Metropolitan Youssef of the Southern United States Archdiocese of the Coptic Orthodox Church.