In a Coptic Monastery, Murder Most Foul

Where’s Hercule Poirot when we need him?

The death of Bishop Epiphanius, the abbot of the fourth century Monastery of St. Macarius, last month has set off an ecclesiastical murder mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel. More than a simple whodunit, the case has exposed simmering tensions of a theological, if not personal, nature in an influential corner of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

A scholar of ancient manuscripts with a frizzy beard typical of Orthodox clerics, Bishop Epiphanius, 64, was found at dawn on July 29, lying in a pool of blood outside his monastic cell. Injuries to his skull indicated he had been hit on the head with a blunt object, possibly a pipe, the police said.

The intrigue deepened days later when the Coptic authorities defrocked a younger monk, Isaiah, who had clashed with the bishop in the weeks before his death. Soon after that, another monk, Faltaous, 33, slashed his wrists and tried to throw himself from a four-story building. Faltaous was hospitalized and treated for his injuries. On Aug. 11, Egyptian prosecutors said Isaiah had been charged with the murder of Bishop Epiphanius after confessing to the crime. Two days later they said that they had detained Faltaous for questioning.

Beyond that, not much more is known. The police have sealed off the monastery to interview 150 people, including staff members, monks and bishops. The Coptic patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, has issued orders apparently aimed at tightening discipline among the country’s 2,000 monks.

New admissions to the monasteries have been suspended for a year; monks require permission to travel outside; and they have been given a month to close their Facebook and Twitter accounts. “In the light of what has happened, we need to give the monks their space and let them return to a focus on monastic life,” said Archbishop Angaelos of London, a prominent Coptic leader, speaking by phone. “They do not need social media accounts.”

I should think not. The developing story has opened a brief window into the world of Copts, an ancient Christian sect native to pre-Muslim Egypt, who comprise about 10 percent of the current population and who are also found in Libya and the Sudan.

The bishop’s death has become the subject of feverish news coverage in Egypt and, in private among Copts, much speculation. What would motivate two monks to plot against their bishop in a remote desert monastery, presuming they are the culprits? Possibilities floated by Coptic officials, experts and monks in interviews include theological disputes, financial misdeeds and even talk that the two monks had a close personal relationship they feared might be exposed.

One senior church official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that, during a search of the monastery, Egyptian police officers had uncovered compromising material on a cellphone that could offer a motive. He declined to provide details.

“This is about more than just the death of a bishop,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an expert on the Coptic faith at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an advocacy group. “It’s a shock to the entire church.”

The solution will probably turn out to be exactly what we might expect, especially in light of the sex scandals currently roiling the American Catholic Church. But they’re more than a scandal: they’re a wake-up call to the bishops and pontiffs to take firm control of their auxiliaries and restore the moral authority of their institutions by actually living the faith, instead of just preaching it.