The forty-sixth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (744-767).
Kha’il, or Michael, was a simple monk and presbyter of the Monastery of Saint Macarius (DAYR ANBA MAQAR) in WADI AL-NATRUN. When THEODORUS, his predecessor, died, the congregating bishops together with the clergy of Alexandria and the archons of the Coptic community selected an episcopal delegation to go to the governor at al-Fustat (Old Cairo) to ask permission to select a new patriarch. This was granted by Hafs ibn al-Walid al- Hadrami on the condition that they bring the candidate for an audience before the consecration. The delegates seized this opportunity to complain of the harshness of Hafs’s predecessor, Abu al-Qasim, who doubled the KHARAJ tax and extorted a lot of money from the people at a time when the country’s resources were depleted by famine and pestilence and the Nile was low. The delegation left for Alexandria with Hafs’s approval, but without securing relief from Abu al-Qasim’s imposts.
For several days, deliberations in Alexandria could not procure unanimity on a name until, following a dream, a deacon came forth with the suggestion of Kha’il, the monk of Saint Macarius, as the worthy candidate. So the bishops proceeded to Wadi Habib and came back with Kha’il, whose consecration took place after his introduction to the governor. In the meantime, the benign caliph Hisham (724-743) was succeeded by al-Walid ibn Yazid (743-744), who abused his power in Egypt by recruiting slave labor to build a new city in his name. But he was killed by his successor, Ibrahim (744), who released the enslaved workmen and, in anticipation of introducing new reforms, appointed a rival governor better acquainted with the administration of the country. But Ibrahim was forced to flee to Damascus, and Hafs resumed the governorship with the promise of relieving the Copts who embraced Islam from the poll tax or JIZYAH. Tempted by this proposition, 24,000 Copts abjured their faith and apostatized to Islam, and some of them became Islamic soldiers, while Kha’il, the patriarch, helplessly watched this calamitous event.
Hafs was pursued by a new governor, Hawtharah, who burned him alive and killed most of his supporters and confiscated all their property. This cruel action gave the people of Egypt a breathing space. According to the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, “he loved the Orthodox; and as he resided at Wasim with all his army for three years he used to consult the Father Abba Moses about the salvation of his soul.”
In the meantime, fighting continued among the Muslims everywhere until Marwan II (744-750) seized the reins of the caliphate. In his household he had a Chalcedonian by the name of Theophylact, a goldsmith by profession, who prevailed upon the caliph to make him Chalcedonian patriarch of the Greeks, in opposition to the Coptic Orthodox Kha’il. Though relative peace persisted in Egypt for five years, a new governor, of Islamized Jewish extraction, ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Musa ibn Nasir, overran part of western Egypt and entertained much hatred for the Copts. He encouraged Theophylact, now Chalcedonian patriarch under the name of Cosmas, to reclaim some Byzantine churches that had been appropriated by the Copts after the Arab conquest of Egypt, including the famous cathedral of Saint Menas (Abu Mina), built by Emperor Arcadius in Mareotis. This led to a heated debate between Kha’il and Cosmas. Saint Menas was an Egyptian martyr of the third century, and though the Chalcedonians tried to prevail by bribery, apparently the eloquence and the logic of the Coptic patriarch in the end won this battle of wits. During the time the Chalcedonians tried to restore the unity of the two churches, with subsequent prolonged discussions between the two parties, general attention was drawn away from religious dialogue by a pestilence. But the government resumed its quest for extraordinary financial imposts from both patriarchs. The Coptic patriarch was constrained to ask permission to go to Upper Egypt to collect funds, with which he could quench the thirst of the rulers for gold.
Another incident of international character seems to have worsened the situation of Kha’il. He was led to interfere in a conflict between the king of Nubia and his bishop. After a long exchange of letters between the king and the Patriarch, the governor of Egypt became aware of the situation and seized Kha’il and placed him in prison. He was charged with going beyond his jurisdiction in meddling with international matters over the head of the governor. The king, Cyriacus, took arms and invaded Egypt with a hundred thousand horsemen, as well as a hundred thousand camels. The Nubians are said to have reached the precincts of Misr, and the governor was constrained to free the captive patriarch and urge him to go to the king and induce him to withdraw from Egypt. This he did, and for the time being the patriarchal conflict with the administration was ameliorated.
Later, the governor laid a heavy hand on Lower Egypt, extorting extraordinary imposts from the people, so that the Bashmurites rebelled against the Muslims and slew many of them (see BASHMURIC REVOLTS). Consequently, in 749 Marwan II arrived in Egypt with a tremendous army to chastise the rebels, but he could not reach them for they were safely entrenched behind the marshes of the delta. Thus, he seized the patriarch, accusing him of complicity with the Bashmurites and imprisoning him with “a mass of iron to his feet” (History of the Patriarchs). Numerous members of the clergy were put to flight. The patriarch was abused and flogged by his captors, who threatened him with decapitation. But he was saved from murder by the feeling among the Muslims that this would bring no good. It was a time when the Umayyads were fighting the Abbasids, who are called Khurasanians in the History of the Patriarchs, and they entertained the idea of flight to Nubia, where the Coptic patriarch was highly honored. So, if they hurt Kha’il, that might make them unwelcome in their southern refuge. Marwan was cornered in Egypt and decided to burn Misr to deprive the Abbasid invaders of a shelter. He also sent his men to destroy the fields that might supply his enemies with provisions. But the Abbasids managed to reach al-Fustat before this and ultimately were able to cross the Nile, whereupon Marwan and his company took flight, leaving behind them Patriarch Kha’il and his bishops, whom they had incarcerated. With Marwan’s disappearance, the persecuted Coptic clergy and the patriarch regained their freedom from the new masters.
A new governor, Abu ‘Awn, took the reigns of power in Egypt. He seemed to be more sympathetic toward applying only the just kharaj tax to the Copts. The patriarch spent the remainder of his reign in relative peace under Abu ‘Awn. The History of the Patriarchs (Vol. 1, part 3, pp. 402-403) describes his character in the following terms: “Now our father Abba Kha’il was sweet in speech, beautiful in countenance, perfect in stature, decent in his attire, well-formed and dignified; and his words were like a sword against the rebellion, and his teaching was like salt to people of virtue and modesty. And the hand of God was with him in those hardships which he endured through ‘Abd al-Malik.” After a reign of nearly twenty-four years, he died, and his body was interred with the bodies of the holy fathers buried in Alexandria.
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- Cambridge History of Islam, 2 vols., ed. P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis. Cambridge, 1970. Hitti, P. K. History of the Arabs. London, 1946.
- Lane-Poole, S. History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. Paris, 1925.