The ninety-fifth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (1525-1568). Gabriel VII was born about 1476 in Minshah or Manshiyyat Abu ‘A’ishah, near DAYR AL-MUHARRAQ, west of Al-Qusiyyah in the province of Asyut. He was known by the name of Ibn Muhanna.
His father, the hegumenos Jirjis ibn Rufa’il, was the parish priest of the famous church of Saint Mercurius (ABU SAYFAYN) in Old Cairo. At an unknown date, Ibn Muhanna entered DAYR AL- SURYAN in the desert of Scetis and took the name Rufa’il, like his grandfather. Shortly after he became a priest, then a HEGUMENOS.
A note in the manuscript of Saint Antony, numbered Theology 209, describes Gabriel VII as a tall, quiet man, strongly inclined toward an asceticism that included fasts, long prayers, and stringent austerity.
On 5 February 1524, JOHN XIII, the ninety-fourth patriarch, died. After deliberations that lasted nearly twenty months, the bishops and ARCHONS of the community chose Rufa’il as patriarch. He was consecrated on 1 October 1525.
One of the colophons in Coptic Vatican 9 notes that on 29 November 1525, just two months after his consecration, Gabriel acquired from master Barsum ibn Mikha’il Tayy Ibn Bisadah this manuscript, now in the Vatican, which contains the four gospels in Bohairic and Arabic (Hebbelynck and van Lantschoot, 1937).
Gabriel did much to restore a number of monasteries, especially those in the Eastern Desert near the Red Sea. They included Saint Antony’s (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS), Saint Paul’s (DAYR ANBA BULA), and DAYR AL-MAYMUN. He rebuilt entirely the monastery of Saint Antony, then called Dayr al-‘Arabah, which, although it had been destroyed by the bedouins, thereafter began to bloom. Unfortunately, the refurbished monastery of Saint Paul was again destroyed by the bedouins during Gabriel’s lifetime. To his credit, Gabriel also restored parts of Dayr al-Muharraq, the monastery near his native village.
These restorations required a great deal of money. Moreover, the taxes demanded by the state became increasingly heavy. For these two reasons, Gabriel sought to raise funds. But the faithful in Cairo subsequently accused him of being a materialist, a calumniation repudiated by the fact that at his death, his cell was found totally empty.
In 1561, Pope Paul IV (1559-1565) sent two Jesuits to Gabriel in the hope of reestablishing a union between the two churches. The two envoys, Fathers Christophore Rodriguez (Spanish) and GIAMBATTISTA ELIANO (a native of Egypt), were received by the patriarch in November 1561. Their ultimate goal was to join the Copts to the Church of Rome. In this connection, the pope was asking that the patriarch send a representative to the Council of Trent, that he delegate a group of young men to go to Rome to be instructed in the Catholic faith, and that he should write a letter of submission.
The idea for this mission had originated with a certain Ibrahim al-Suryani (alias Abram), who several years earlier had introduced himself in Rome as the envoy of Gabriel. He had submitted letters alleged to be from the patriarch, which indicated that Gabriel recognized the primacy of the Roman pope. It later became clear that the letter from the patriarch was nothing more than a letter of recommendation. The others had been forged by Abram.
Initially, the Jesuit fathers appeared to be attaining their goal. The patriarch promised to send someone to the Council of Trent. He avoided sending a group of young Copts to Rome by saying that the Turks would view such a move negatively. At first, he seemed disposed to offer allegiance to the Roman pope, but in the end he changed his mind on the unfavorable advice of the Coptic bishop of Cyprus.
The patriarch charged Abram and a certain George to discuss everything openly with the Jesuit fathers and to work out positions acceptable to both sides. When the patriarch was ready to sign, a young man named Gabriel, the future GABRIEL VIII (1586-1601), intervened, counseling the patriarch against signing a document he considered heretical. The young Gabriel, who exerted considerable influence on the eighty-five-year-old patriarch, was described by the two Latin delegates as being an intelligent but fanatically obstinate youth.
The patriarch was benevolently disposed toward the delegates. The proof is that he willingly allowed the two fathers to travel throughout the country, baptizing whomsoever they pleased among the faithful who, by and large, were much neglected by the native bishops and clergy. In fact, throughout their journey the two priests were astonished by the observation that baptismal fonts were empty and in disrepair.
Convinced of the uselessness of their efforts, the two delegates finally returned to Cairo and thence to Rome. According to them, the whole scheme was a mistake from the beginning, due not only to misinformation but also to the obstinate stand of the young Gabriel.
This first official Catholic mission to the Copts paved the way for a long series of pontifical missions to a number of successive patriarchs. All failed. Although at the beginning of the eighteenth century Rome renounced its attempts at global unions, some dialogue was established with small groups of Copts, thus giving birth to the Coptic Catholic community of today.
In 1568 the sultan taxed both Christians and Jews very heavily in order to defray costs of the army sent to conquer Yemen under the leadership of Sinan Pasha. Unable to gather the required sum, Gabriel decided to retire to his favorite monastery of Saint Antony. On arrival, however, he died surrounded by his monks, on 26 October 1568. He was transported to Cairo on 25 November and in the presence of eighty-five bishops and priests was buried in the Church of Saint Mercurius (Abu Sayfayn) in Old Cairo. These events are attested by two inscriptions: one, an inscription on the wall of the Chapel of Saint Antony; and another, the manuscript Liturgy 391 at the same monastery.
- Beshah, G., and M. W. Abergay. The Question of the Union of Churches in Luso-Ethiopian Relations (1500-1632), pp. 55ff. Lisbon, 1947.
- Cerulli, E. Ethiopi in Palestina. Storia della communità ethiopca di Gerusalemme, Vol. 2, pp. 419-21. Rome, 1947.
- Chaîne, M. La Chronologie des temps chrétiens de l’Egypte et de l’Ethiopie, p. 268, no. 23. Paris, 1925.
- Hebbelynck, A. and A. van Lantschoot. Codices Coptici Vaticani Barberiniani Borgiani Rossiani, Vol. 1, Codices Coptic Vaticani, pp. 32f. Vatican City, 1937.
- Kamil, M. “Letters to Ethiopia from the Coptic Patriarchs, Yo’annas XVIII (1770-1796) and Morqos VIII (1796-1809).” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie copte 8 (1942):89-143.
- Lozza, L. La Confessione di Claudio, Re d’Etiopia (1540-1559). Palermo, 1947.
- Rabbath, A., S.J. Documents inédits pour servir à l’histoire du Christianisme en Orient, Vol. 1, pp. 194-314. Paris, Leipzig, and London, 1901. (Assembles numerous documents, mostly in Italian or Latin, on the pontifical mission of 1561-1562.)
- Zotenberg, H. Catalogue des manuscrits éthiopiens (gheez et amharique) de la Bibliothèque nationale, pp. 84f. Paris, 1877.