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Athanasius el-Assuity

Athanasius el-Assiuty ("Tanassa")
1825 to 1916
Coptic Orthodox / Presbyterian / Episcopal (Anglican)
Egypt

The evangelization of Upper Egypt depended not only upon the efforts of Westerners but also upon local Coptic leaders. One of them was a gifted apologist and humble carpenter specializing in waterwheels, Athanasius "Tanassa" Ghobrial El-Assiuty. Born in 1825 in Assiut, he began his service to the Coptic community as a Coptic Orthodox deacon and ended his life serving the Episcopal (Anglican) Church in Egypt. He spent most of his time promoting the revival of the Coptic Orthodox church and building good relations between Christian groups in Egypt; and secondly, evangelizing among his Muslim co-citizens.

Tanassa was greatly influenced by the pioneering missionary efforts of Scottish Presbyterian John Hogg who arrived in Assiut in 1868. After Hogg began working in the area, the local Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Assuit issued an edict to all Orthodox villagers prohibiting them from cooperating with the Presbyterian missionaries. In response to this edict, Hogg publicly explained that he was only aiming to serve the Coptic Orthodox church and not to compete with it. Tanassa, at that time, had acquired a reputation for his gifted preaching abilities. In order to respond to Hogg's defense, the villagers cheered, "Bring out Tanassa! Tanassa!" [1] Tanassa then engaged in a public dialogue with Hogg that was gentle and cordial, much to the surprise of the onlookers.

After this event, Tanassa and Hogg became friends, enjoying each others' company. Tanassa became an active participant of Hogg's Bible studies; hosting roughly twenty-five other Orthodox men in his house for organized teachings led by the Scottish missionary. [2] Tanassa's decision to support Hogg was courageous in that he was refused communion and participation in the church where he was once a well-revered deacon and teacher. As a result of his affiliation with Hogg, Tanassa was one of the first Copts to be excommunicated from the Orthodox Church, along with a group of other Bible study participants.

John Hogg and Tanassa founded the First Evangelical Church in Assiut on March 6, 1870. Tanassa and his brother, Abadeer Ghobriel, were elected as governing elders on April 10, 1870. Members of this Evangelical church of Assuit would eventually become famous for the iconoclastic scandals in which Orthodox icons were destroyed and Coptic Presbyterians subsequently incriminated, escaping to Aswan. However, Tanassa was not involved in these incidents. He continued to preach, developing his reputation as a gifted speaker, and helping to establish Evangelical churches all around Assiut, as he continued to live off of his work building waterwheels. Because of his good reputation, he was welcomed everywhere by Egyptians. [3]

Eventually, Tanassa left Assiut for Cairo, abandoning his work as a carpenter for a job with the Anglican Church. To this day, the reason for his decision to switch from the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile to the Anglican Church remains unknown. Though he was encouraged to go to the Synod of the Nile seminary in Cairo, he ended up working with foreign Anglicans while still attending a Presbyterian Church in Cairo. As an Anglican employee, he was affiliated with a church which cherished principles of non-intervention when it came to relating to the local Orthodox hierarchy. Perhaps for this reason, he sought to mend his relationship with his parent church. And thus, Tanassa opted to serve the Anglicans rather than the Presbyterians.

Another notable accomplishment of Tanassa was his co-founding of the Anglican Mission Hospital in Old Cairo with the American physician, and CMS missionary, Dr. Harper. This service enabled him to fulfill his two goals--to preach to Muslim patients before they received medical treatment, and to offer much needed services to indigenous Copts.

Tanassa was a highly respected man in all of the province of Assiut. He was married twice, his first wife and first daughter Rifka having both died early. When he was around fifty years of age, he remarried and fathered six boys and two girls. Among them was Atallah, the oldest son, who was one of the founders of the Evangelical Church in Ain Shams, which currently has over 350 members. When he was only a child, Atallah helped his father and other Western missionaries evangelize on the streets of Cairo, in the Sayyida Zeinab section of Cairo. Atallah played the violin while the others sang hymns as a musical prelude to Tanassa's sermon. They would raise flags periodically through their presentation, a black flag representing sin and a red flag representing the blood of Christ. The flags provoked police intervention, the police misidentifying the flags as elements of an incipient political revolution. Atallah continued the courageous execution of his father's vision, developing several textbooks in the Arabic language to train Western missionaries and encouraging the growth of the Ain Shams Presbyterian church. [4] Atallah was the father of Asma, who married Ibrahim Saïd, the president of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt in the sixties, and was the mother of Dr. Mofied Ibrahim Saïd, a famous surgeon and one of the greatest Egyptian evangelists in Egypt. In addition, Tanassa was the paternal great-grandfather of Ramez Atallah, current director of the Bible Society of Egypt. Thus, Athanasius Tanassa Ghobrial el-Assuity still has a living legacy in the Evangelical Church of Egypt.

Nashat Megalaa



Notes:

1. Rena L. Hogg, A Master-Builder On The Nile (New York : Fleming H. Revell Company, 1914), p. 130.
2. Adeeb Naguib Salama, Al -Kinīssa al-ingiliyya fI masr (Cairo, Egypt: Dar al-Thaqafa, n.d, 1854-1980), p. 71.
3. Hogg, p. 172.
4. Interviews conducted by Nashat Megalaa with Madam Arnesta Ibrahim Fam, wife of Mr. Ibrahim Fam, the Deacon of First Evangelical Church in Assiut, April 24, 2007, and with Mr. Ramez Atallah, Director of Bible Society of Egypt, on April 26, 2007.


This story, received in 2007, was researched and written by Nashat Megalaa, a student in the M.A.T.S. Program at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo as a requirement for a class on Middle East Christianity (III) under the supervision of Dr. David Grafton, DACB Liaison coordinator.