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October 11, 2017

Jirjis Habib 1

Saint Archdeacon Jirjis Habib with Pope Cyril V (1874 – 1927)

Jirjis Habib (1876 – 1951) is known as the Reformer of Religious Education in the Coptic Church. His lasting achievement for the Coptic Church was his establishing the Sunday Schools movement which has been influential in giving most Coptic children a basic understanding of their faith. The Coptic Encyclpedia has this about him:

[Jirjis Habib] was born at Azbakiyyah, Cairo, and joined the Coptic School at Harit al-Saqqayin. He was one of the earliest students enrolled in the Clerical College after its inception in 1892. He graduated in 1898, became a teacher of theology at the College, and then dean in 1918.

He became an outstanding preacher and played a key role in the organization of the Sunday School movement. Until his death he acted as adviser to various patriarchs, particularly Cyril V. He was the author of many compilations and meditations on the church service, and wrote hymns, books for children, and prayers suitable for all occasions. He founded the weekly periodical al-Karmah (1906-1923), which served as a channel for his teachings.

Because of his scholarship, his experience as archdeacon, and his long service as a member of the Community Council, Cyril V invited Habib Jirjis to attend the Holy Synod sessions. All these factors helped to inspire his book, al-Islahat al‘Amaliyyah lil-Kanisah al-Urthudhuksiyyah (Practical Reforms in the Orthodox Church). He succeeded in introducing the study of the Christian religion to Coptic students in government schools, and wrote a two-volume manual as a teacher’s guidebook. He also was instrumental in persuading Cyril V to issue a special directive to metropolitans to limit the ordination of priests in their dioceses to graduates of the Clerical College.[1]

During his active life, Habib served mainly at the Church of St. Mary Orthodox Church in Mahmasha, al-Sharabiya, Cairo.[2] Habib died in 1951, and was buried in his family’s burial site at al-Jabal al-Ahmar Cemetery in Cairo. On 20 June 2013, the Coptic Holy Synod declared Jirjis Habib a saint; and in the same year his body was moved from the cemetery to the Church of St. Mary in Mahmasha, where it was kept in the church covered and protected by a glass box.

So far, all was good; but on 20 August 2017 the cover of the casket of the relics of Habib was removed; the remains of the body shown to the world with the media present; perfumed paste added to them, and the body was dressed in a phelonion (burnus بُرْنُس).[3] Now, I don’t know what the point of that was. In previous article, we have seen that St. Anthony the Great was against displaying the bodies of martyrs and saints. We have also seen in another article that from the first days of the Coptic Church, saints and martyrs were buried, rather than displayed, in Coptic churches, in a crypt below the altar. Contrary to that, present day Copts are fascinated by displaying the relics of their saints and martyrs.

I don’t think such practice is wise or preserves the dignity of the reposed saints and martyrs. I sincerely hope that all relics of saints and martyrs displayed in all our churches are buried in a crypt underneath the altar. That is where the Early Church placed them; and that is where they should be kept according to the apocalyptic vision: “And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.”[4]

I hate to do this, including a photo of the remains of St. Jirjis Habib when they were displayed last August to the world, but I do it to advance my point:

Jirjis Habeeb

The remains of St. Jirjis Habib as displayed on 20 August 2017

I wonder if the Saint himself would be happy with the idea of displaying his remains to the public. As you can see the body, contrary to what we have been told, is degraded. But that does not mean anything and shouldn’t. Amongst the Copts a body that is not degraded – usually means being kept in a mummified shape – is taken as a sign of sainthood. It is a ridiculous belief that is not supported by the scriptures or reality. The bodies of great saints, even martyrs, patriarchs and prophets, have disappeared, and naturally returned unto dust. If anything good could come out of the incident above, I hope it would be a lesson to the Copts that the degradation or not of the body after death has got nothing to do with the sainthood or sinfulness of the individual when alive.


[1] Suliman Nasim: Habib Jirjis, in The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz Suryal  Atiya, V. IV (New York, Macmillan, 1991).

[2] It is located east of Cairo Train Station.

[3] Also called, supervestment. See A. J. Buler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. Two (Oxford, 1970); pp. 173-200.

[4] Rev. 6: 9.

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