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December 31, 2019


Death Crowning Innocence by the British painter, George Frederic Watts (1886–7)

Patriarch Michael/Khail I (743 – 767) is one of the greatest patriarchs of the Coptic Church. None of the patriarchs suffered as much as he suffered. During his patriarchate which spanned over 23 years, he witnessed great changes in the history of Egypt and the Middle East: the demise of the Umayyad Dynasty and the rise of the Abbasid Dynasty in 750 AD, and also the First Coptic Bashmuric Revolt against the oppression and injustices of the Islamic rule.

He was arrested and tortured by the Muslim authorities several times, accused of siding with the Coptic rebels, with whose great suffering he indeed sympathised. As the war was raging between the advancing Abbasid troops in the east against the Umayyad last caliph, Marwan ibn Muhammad ibn Abdel Hakam (744 – 750), his financial agent in Egypt, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ibn Musa bin Nusayr, who is later in February 750 was to become the last Umayyad governor of Egypt, intensified his extortions from the Copts and the Church. As Michael I was not able to meet his excessive demands, he threw him, with other brave bishops, in prison between 8 September and 9 October 749, and exposed them to inhumane and degrading conditions. Imprisoned with him was Yohannis, the clerk of Apa Moses the Bishop of Wasim, and the writer of the patriarch’s biography. There, in prison, Yohannis had the opportunity of learning from Michael I, asking him difficult questions and receiving answers from him. One of the questions was about the death of innocent suckling babes who perished in an epidemic that year. Yohannis wanted to know if the death of the infants was a punishment from God for the sins of their parents, to which Michael I gave a negative answer. Michael I saw in the death of the innocent infants an act of mercy of God, since they were taken out of the world in purity, from amongst a generation that was imbued with thin and missing salvation, and since their lot would be Heaven rather than Hell which might have awaited them if they lived.

And that year there had been a great pestilence among young infants at Misr, so that they all died. And while I was lying at the feet of the patriarch one night, and he was teaching me from the Scriptures, and answering all my questions about them, I asked him concerning the death of the infants. And I said to him, “Thinkest thou, Father, that God takes them on account of the sins of their parents or for some other cause?” Then he answered, “Do not suppose, my son, that this is the cause. But God beholds the human race, and sees that most of them do the will of Satan by their vain devices, and that Hell is full and Paradise empty; and so he takes the infants who are without sin to Paradise, the place of mercy.”[1]


[1] Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria  (1910) Part 3: Agathon – Michael I (766 AD), in Patrologia Orientalis, Tome 5 (Paris, 1910), pp. 136-137.

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