CAIRO — It reads like a murder mystery set in an exotic locale: an abbot found dead in a desert monastery; a monk defrocked and arrested; another held by police and hospitalized after trying to kill himself — or did his fellow monks stage a revenge attack?
The killing of Bishop Epiphanius, who was found dead on July 29, has opened a window into the cloistered world of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and the one that introduced monasticism to the faith.
Authorities investigating the killing at the 4th century St. Macarious Monastery north of Cairo have questioned nearly 150 people, including monks and bishops, and news of the investigation has been splashed across front pages and discussed on TV talk shows.
The case has exposed a side of the church that few in Egypt — Muslim or Christian — knew existed, including the growing power and independence of monks in remote monasteries who appear to be at odds with Pope Tawadros II and the church’s central leadership.
Among these monks are “isolationists” who see themselves as guardians of the true faith. They are pitted against a more mainstream faction that favors building bridges with other churches and lending political support to the government.
“Some monasteries have for long enjoyed relative independence from the church. The Monastery of St. Macarious is one of them,” said Shady Lewis Botros, a London-based researcher. “The killing will be taken advantage of by the church to extend full control over the monasteries.”
The church already appears to be doing just that.
In a statement last week, it suspended admission of novices to its monasteries for a year, threatened to expel monks found to have established “illegal” monasteries and gave monks a month to shut down social media accounts. No media interviews without prior permission, it decreed.
Adding to the intrigue, the church’s statement appealed to lay Christians not to enter into any financial deals with monks, suggesting that corruption exists in some monasteries. It urged the monks to strictly observe the church’s ancient rules of asceticism or face expulsion.
“These decisions are meant to streamline monastic life and there will be more measures in the future in this regard,” Pope Tawadros said in a sermon last week. “There is a need to safeguard monastic life and the monasteries.”
Orthodox monasteries can be found across Egypt, but those located in remote desert areas, like St. Macarious, have traditionally enjoyed an elevated status because they revived the ascetic traditions of early monasticism. They witnessed a renaissance over the past century after hundreds of years of neglect that saw many of them abandoned.
They now attract university graduates and professionals who have energized the faith and, in some cases, turned the larger monasteries into farming and dairy enterprises, giving them financial independence.
The monasteries are now at the center of the identity of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, whose followers constitute the large majority of Egypt’s Christians. Christians make up about 10 percent of the Muslim-majority country’s population of 100 million.
That a respected senior member of the clergy could be killed inside a monastery — apparently at the hands of his own monks — has shaken the community.
“The crisis is about much more than just a murder ... it’s now about monks and the monastic system,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a leading expert on the church from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights, a Cairo-based research center.
The abbot was killed in the middle of the night in a part of the vast monastery not covered by security cameras, according to security and judicial officials involved in the investigation. They said he was killed with a single blow to the head by an iron bar.
Suspicion immediately fell on a monk known by his monastic name of Isaiah, who was defrocked by Pope Tawadros a week later. The church said he had a record of behavior “unbecoming” a monk, according to the officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters on the case.
A second monk, identified as Faltaous, was formally placed under arrest over the weekend while hospitalized for injuries sustained from a fall off a four-story building inside the monastery. The other monks told prosecutors he tried to kill himself, but the officials said they now suspect he may have been victim to a revenge attack by those angered by the killing of the abbot.
Church spokesman Boulis Halim declined to comment on the officials’ suspicion.
Both men joined the monastery as novices in 2010. The officials said they were close friends who led a rogue faction within the monastery that undermined the abbot’s authority.
Kamal Zakher, an expert on the church, said the killing has shattered the deep reverence in which monks are held by many lay Christians.
“We are dealing with an incident that shocked and angered many. Those who revere monks too much, on the other hand, are refusing to believe it,” he said. “This crime restores the human side of life in monasteries that many appear to have forgotten.”