MENA Consultant Dr Harry Hagopian pays tribute to the late Metropolitan Abraham of the Coptic Orthodox Church who died after a long battle with illness on 25 November 2015. He was ordained Archbishop of Jerusalem on 17 November 1991.
I confess that my body is finally beginning to creak under the weight of my longstanding association with faith-based issues.
After all, it is a stubborn fact that I have now been working with church leaders and organisations for well over two decades. My ‘conversion’ from someone who kept his faith private to a person who is happy to share his faith – respectfully and not zealously – began with the Middle East Council of Churches where I took my first tentative steps in this regional ecumenical movement. Wow, a private churchgoer who was introduced overnight to a dazzling array of traditions, prayers, thoughts, theologies… and apparels! After all, the headgear of some of those Orthodox denominations is quite impressive if not a tad daunting too.
My deus ex machina persisted with a further broadening of the mind (and I suppose spirit too) when I was headhunted to represent the various churches in the second-track negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians during the then halcyon Oslo years. I set up the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee whose members became a reference point for my ecumenical let alone political endeavours. Mind you, this was also a time when I became a confidant to a few church hierarchs. And one of my biggest joys was to become friends with the then Apostolic Nuncio in Jerusalem who introduced me to Pope John-Paul II – a man who, not unlike our late PM Margaret Thatcher in some uncanny way, was larger than life for his time. JPII was also a man who over the years maintained that I was an Armenian (correct!) who hailed from Bethlehem (incorrect!). But I suppose that getting to respect, love and understand (just a tiny bit) this media-friendly man also helped chart my future steps.
But why am I – horror of horrors, a lawyer too – using this precious time and space here to reminisce about my ecumenical experiences and peccadilloes? Much as I do not wish to bore you all to tears, I would nonetheless wish to highlight two key reasons.
The major lesson for me over the years is that religion and faith cannot pretend to be comfortable synonyms, and that those professing to be oh-so-religious are not necessarily also faith-driven in the way that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (the Beatitudes for the sake of Catholicity) would expect of them. Moreover, I learnt over the years that there is a fine line dividing those who are genuinely pious from those who are tiringly pietistic, just as there is an equally fine line between those who collaborate with their fellow believers from different traditions and those who believe they must have the upper – commanding – hand and utter the final word. Sadly, it is often easier to peddle good will and exhibit good faith than it is to apply it diligently in practice.
But there is a second minor reason why I pen those inchoate thoughts – and in the process probably risk ending up annoying some clerics who would perhaps feel slighted by my effrontery!
The reason is that I learnt with deep sadness last week of the death in Jerusalem of Metropolitan Abraham of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This holy man was based in Jerusalem although his remit covered the Near East (Gulf) region too. But his vital importance for me was that he chaired my Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee. So he and I used to have our regular private chats once or twice every month over an Arabic coffee. He listened to me, offered practical advice whenever possible, chuckled whenever he could not assist me in my eclectic projects and guided my ecumenical work in its broadest sense despite the fact that he was not one of the political movers and shakers within the forum of thirteen traditional churches in Jerusalem. Always self-effacing, he nonetheless had two distinct attributes that endeared him immeasurably to me. For one, he had a wonderful sense of humour and for another he was remarkably humble. Now I have come across many church leaders over the years who are gifted with a sharp sense of humour, but it is much harder to find one who is humble, acts humbly and – the litmus test – truly believes in his humbleness too. No wonder that Pope Tawadros II, whose seat is located in the Abbassia district of Cairo in Egypt, flew to Jerusalem in order to attend the funeral.
My readers will have surmised by now that this article is not merely a posthumous reflection on a precious man. It is a panegyric of a grateful student who will always remember one of his sage teachers.
Sayedna, you fought the good fight and so rest in peace now!