Pope Benjamin I
and the Islamic Conquest
This era is particularly special for the Christian Egyptians because it marks the beginning of the Arab Conquest, which continues until today. In many incidents, the Copts were prevented from practicing their religion freely, and were denied the right to build new churches or even renovate old ones.
Nowadays, the Moslem fundamentalists are pushing hard for the application of Islamic Sharia (the law of the Quran) on all Egyptians, Moslems and Christians alike.
Naturally, the Copts are worried about their future particularly if the fundamentalists come to power.
Benjamin was one of those spiritually sensitive youths who in his early life felt a strong urge to renounce worldly pleasures and dedicate himself to the service of God.
Responding to this urge, he went to one of the monasteries near Alexandria where he became a disciple of a wise old man called Theonas. Theonas guided him in the study of the Scriptures and in striving toward Christian perfection. One day Theonas accompanied Benjamin to Alexandria to visit Abba Andronicus the Patriarch. The Patriarch was impressed with the young man's personality and asked Theonas to leave him by his side. The Patriarch later ordained him a priest and appointed him to be his personal secretary. So when Abba Andronicus passed away, the clergy and the Coptic dignitaries unanimously elected Benjamin to be the 38th Pope of the Church of Alexandria.
Pope Benjamin lived through three different eras: The Persian occupation (623 - 628)
Under the yoke of the Byzantine empire -- a continuation of the Roman empire in the east Mediterranean -- the Copts were treated very badly. The Byzantines imposed on them an alien patriarch who was sent to Egypt from Constantinople. But in 623 A.D. the Persians captured Egypt as a result of the immense chaos all over the country. The Copts were prevented from practicing their religion, and their human and national rights were denied. Nevertheless, some Copts felt relief because alien Patriarchs were no longer appointed by Byzantium to oppress the Egyptian church. However, we find that during that era the Persians ruined and destroyed many churches and monasteries.
The return of the Byzantine rule (628 - 640)
This was a bitter period in which Emperor Heraclius' only concern was to oppose and shatter the church. He gave orders to transfer Bishop Visas of Asia Minor to Alexandria with power to exercise both ecclesiastical and civil authority. During that period, Pope Benjamin was forced to flee to Scetis. He was particularly saddened by the devastation that took place during the occupation of the Persians. From there, he fled to Upper Egypt where he disappeared in one of the monasteries near Thebes.
When Cyrus the alien patriarch came to Alexandria, and did not find Pope Benjamin, he arrested his brother Minas. The soldiers tortured him by burning his sides to force him to reveal his brother's hiding place. He endured all that pain in silence. Then Cyrus commanded his men to place him in a bag full of sand and throw him in the sea. Minas became the first martyr at the hands of that alien patriarch.
The Arab conquest in 640:
In that tense atmosphere the Arabs were advancing. They conquered Persia, then headed towards syria and Palestine, while Heraclius was motionless in Constantinople.
The Arabs marched under Amr Ibn Elaas, reached Egypt at Al Farama on the Red Sea. After a month of fighting they conquered the city and headed west. They occupied Belbais then headed to Babylon, what is now Old Cairo. They surrounded it for seven months, then Al-Muqauqus - a name synonym of the Byzantine governor -negotiated with them to surrender the land. After that they marched on Alexandria, where they fought for months before they could conquer the city.
The historian Alfred J. Butler thinks that there was not a single Copt in the battlefields, and that it is wrong to assume that the Copts were at that time capable of assembling their strength. Indeed they were suffering from the Byzantine rule, but never considered liberating themselves by negotiating with the Arabs.
The Return of Pope Benjamin:
Amr Ibn Elaas settled in the "Fustat" and when everything stabilized, dialogue started between him and the Copts about the return of the Pope and his bishops to their seats. Sanathius, who was a religious person, spoke to Amr Ibn Elaas about the matter. He asked him to send a message to the Pope to return to his see in peace. It was Sanathius who carried the message and delivered it to the Pope in Upper Egypt.
Amr cancelled the heavy Byzantine taxes and did not ask the Egyptians to pay more than the tribute. He opted to collect reasonably moderate sums of money and differed on this matter with Omar Ibn Al-Khattab (his commander the caliph). He also gave the Egyptians freedom to worship and freely exercise their legal and administrative matters. He appointed some Copts as directors in various districts, yet he exempted them from the military service. In an amicable atmosphere, the Pope met with Amr who showed him esteem and veneration.
The Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab was not happy with Amr because he was expecting him to provide larger amounts of money than he actually did. In one of his fits of anger at Amr, he appointed Abdallah Ibn Said governor of Upper Egypt and limited Amr's authority to Lower Egypt. Amr didn't accept that and resigned from his position as governor of Egypt.
Before his departure, Byzantium sent her navy to attack Egypt. A fierce battle occurred and both sides suffered immense losses in lives. Amr was victorious and he vowed to destroy the walls of Alexandria and burn the city.
With regards to burning the library of Alexandria, the historians found that Amr used its contents as fuel in public baths at the orders of Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab who said that if the contents of the library agreed with the Quran, they were unnecessary but if they disagreed, let them be burned. Today, this opinion provokes discontentedness among the Islamic circles which think that it never happened.
May the Lord guard and protect His Coptic Church and our people in Egypt, and surround them with His holy angels through the intercession of St. Mary and Pope Benjamin. Amen.