Pope Kyrillos IV transformed the Egyptian Church.
Politically, he asserted the absolute necessity of equal citizenship between Egyptians of all faiths. And as much as he demanded equal rights for all Egyptians, he insisted on equal responsibilities, which led, in the mid nineteenth century and for the first time since the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the early sixteenth century, to enrolling Egyptian Christians in the army.
Economically, Kyrillos IV accounted for and centralised the management of the diverse and at the time scattered assets of the Egyptian Church. This transcended good management, for this accounting and centralisation led to a significant increase in the resources available to the Church. Kyrillos put these resources to much more than Church-substance and charity. He led different educational and cultural initiatives, most notably introducing the first non-governmental printing house in Egypt. And although in its early years the press focused on religious books, it was later to translate multitudes of Western books into Arabic, and to spur around it a wave of writings and critiques that enriched Egypt’s liberal age in the first half of the twentieth century.
Pope Kyrillos IV was an exceptional theological thinker. His acuity and brilliance were recognised early on in his career, whether by fellow monks who had voted to have him lead one of Egypt’s oldest monasteries, or by his predecessor, Pope Boutous al-Gawli who had favoured him as successor. Kyrillos, indeed, penned brilliant treatises and led innovative work in different Egyptian monasteries, which were particularly valuable at the time since several Catholic missionary groups were attempting to convert Egyptian and other Orthodox communities in the region.
His acts and thought made Kyrillos IV a grand reformer in the Egyptian Church’s history. He was also a grand visionary. Kyrillos wanted to extend the influence of the Egyptian Church to the wider Christian Orthodox world. He understood the power of innovative thought on geopolitics. He recognised that the Egyptian Church’s old history and at the time special positioning in the Eastern Christian world could, with the right mindset and approach, give her strong influence in East Africa (especially in Ethiopia) and valuable reach in the Russian and Greek Orthodoxy. And so, through his impressive writings, active diplomacy, and what chroniclers at the time reported to have been suave and highly smart interactions with various interlocutors, including the Ethiopian emperor, Kyrillos launched an ambitious project to bring these Orthodox Churches together.
His ultimate objective might have been to unify Christian Orthodoxy under a single Church. It might have been mere coordination, especially in the face of the hyper active Catholic Church at the time. Either case, Kyrillos’s project was both timely, and crucially, in accordance with the march of modern Egyptian culture.
Timely because Kyrillos worked in the aftermath of the collapse, in the 1840s, of Mohammad Ali’s and his son Ibrahim Pasha’s attempt to create an Egyptian empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt’s defeat and withdrawal behind her borders left the Ottoman Empire both ambitious to reassert its old authority in the entire region, yet also weak, relying more on rhetoric rather than real resources. And although the defeat had been in the north (in the eastern Mediterranean), its impact resonated in the south throughout the Mohammad Ali dynasty’s domain in East Africa. Kyrillos’s religious reach in both the eastern Mediterranean and East Africa, was an Egyptian call and invoking of soft power at a time these were badly needed for the country’s positioning in her northern and southern neighbourhoods, and at a time when a soft power reach was able to yield returns.
Kyrillos’s project matched the march of Egypt’s cultural progress at the time because, like Mohammed Abdou (the subject of the previous article in this series), he embraced modernity as a given that religion must embrace, rather than as a novel phenomenon that must be shaped as per the doctrines of the religion.
This was particularly clear in Kyrillos’s insistence on creating schools for girls and on widening the scope of the press he created so as to translate widely, publish freely, and essentially to propagate knowledge rather than be a tool of mere indoctrination. His ideas often faced acute resistance within the Church. And so, Kyrillos calmly preached and tried to convince, but when faced with obstinacy, he softly but determinedly pushed through his reforms.
Kyrillos’s papacy was a moment of historic significance for the Egyptian Church. His internal reforms strengthened the Church. His educational and cultural efforts improved the conditions of Egyptian Christians. His attempts to widen and deepen the Egyptian Church’s reach beyond the country’s borders made the Church, for the first time in centuries, a valuable Egyptian strategic asset. But the most important impact was positioning the Church as a leader in Egypt’s social progress.
He faced an upward struggle, however. Khedive Saeed, Egypt’s ruler at the time, was not among the best the Mohammad Ali dynasty had produced. At best he did not appreciate Kyrillos’s project; at worst he worked against it. Some historians assume Kyrillos was killed. Kyrillos’s project, however, had a life of its own.
The new prominent public role that the Egyptian Church had undertaken in his papacy opened the door for successive Egyptian Christian groups to enter the country’s public space, not - as had been the case for centuries before - as functionaries working silently and far from the limelight in the courts of the ruling prince, but as Egyptian nationals actively and independently spearheading progress and development. This contributed subtly but significantly to Egypt’s slow emergence out of the Ottoman world and into secular modernity.
Kyrillos’s legacy - particularly his attempt to extend the reach of Egypt’s soft power in its northern and southern neighbourhoods - also lived on in Egyptian diplomacy. In the periods, in the next century and half, when that diplomacy operated with vision, wisdom and excellence, the results were of significant value to the country.
Importantly, Kyrillos’s project positioned the Egyptian Church inside Egypt as an engine of progress, rather than a hindrance, of the country’s development. Balancing the weight of traditions at an institution whose history extended to almost two millennia, with the demands of a modernity that Kyrillos correctly had seen as not only unavoidable but welcomed, secured this wise Pope his place as a pillar of modern Egyptian culture.