by Febe Armanios
On January 11, renowned Coptic Orthodox priest Abouna Makary Younan (1934-2022) died in Cairo of complications from COVID-19. His death quickly followed that of his wife Mama Souna, who suffered from the same illness and passed away on January 7. Based in the old Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo’s Azbakiyya district, the oft-controversial preacher was famous for his charismatic style, for his miracles, singing, and capacity to perform exorcisms. Abouna Makary’s popularity grew exponentially since the mid-2000s, when his sermons and church services began to appear on Christian television channels in the Middle East. For more than fifteen years, he honed a particularly captivating televisual style that touched millions of viewers and influenced scores of preachers on Arabic Christian channels.
Sabry Younan ‘Abd al-Malik was born in the Upper Egyptian town of Maragha, near Sohag. He was educated to be a teacher and then worked as a government civil servant for several years, but after receiving a diploma from the Coptic Clerical College, his interest in devoting a life to the church intensified. While living in Cairo in the 1970s, he served with Abouna Zakaria Botros, priest at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Heliopolis. Then, Abouna Zakaria—a towering if controversial Christian media figure in his own right—was known for organizing a weekly meeting at St. Mark’s, attended by hundreds and marked by the practice of exorcisms and exuberant singing. It is said that Sabry honed his talents for leading praise and worship during these meetings.
In 1977, Sabry Younan was ordained a priest and headed to Asyut for his first assignment. However, one year later, the Coptic Orthodox clerical leadership suspended his parish duties due to accusations of “Protestant-inflected” teachings, claims often made against those who “meandered” from official Orthodox dogmas. Church doctrines had been interpretively narrowing during the first decade of Pope Shenouda III’s reign (1971-2012), and less tolerance was shown to seemingly wayward practices. Abouna Makary was questioned before the Coptic Holy Synod, but the matter was dropped after he was able to argue convincingly for his bona fide Orthodox credentials. Exonerated, he was given the assignment of pastor at the Cathedral of St. Mark, where he remained for forty-four years.
At his Azbakiyya parish, he organized a popular weekly Friday meeting, mostly centered on praise and on singing dozens of popular songs that he had written and composed. Moreover, and much like his friend Abouna Samaan Ibrahim of the St. Samaan the Tanner Monastery in Cairo’s Muqattam Hills, he became recognized for performing a series of dazzling miracles and healings at the end of his weekly gatherings. Admirers from all over Egypt and across all religions came to see Abouna Makary, and he quickly gained fame for offering hope and health to disabled people, to those who were blind, deaf, or wheelchair bound.
In the mid-2000s, Abouna Makary was invited to air his weekly services on a new Arabic Christian satellite channel called Al-Shifaa (The Healing Channel), a subsidiary of Paul Crouch’s Southern California based Trinity Broadcasting Network. Borrowing from its American media parent, that channel promoted an effusive form of Christianity, centered around spectacular miracles that dazzled audiences. Abouna Makary’s program was shown alongside Arabic-dubbed American fare like that of the famed preacher Benny Hinn and several Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic programs, all with a charismatic Christian bent. He also hosted some programs on the Cyprus-based SAT-7 Arabic, but after Al-Shifaa suddenly went off air in 2013, Abouna Makary found a more permanent home on Al-Karma, another California-based channel, where he regularly appeared up till his recent illness and passing.
Throughout his ministry, Abouna Makary received criticism from traditional factions in the Coptic Orthodox Church, some of whom felt that his televised showmanship overly mimicked a style common among charismatic Protestant Christians. And yet faith healing, the miraculous, and exorcisms are all embedded within ancient Christian and Coptic Orthodox traditions, both theological and popular. St. Antony, founder of monasticism in Egypt, battled demonic temptations in his pursuit of a spiritual hermetic life, while the concept of human’s triumph—through the Holy Spirit—over “evil spirits,” illnesses, and satanic possessions also figured prominently in Coptic hagiographical literature. Throughout history, too, Coptic exorcisms were often performed in public at various saints’ festivals, before large audiences or witnesses who vouched for a particular priest’s victory over the demonic.
Christian television in the Middle East, therefore, did not newly introduce these practices, as they were effectively rooted in teachings long familiar to Copts and other Middle Eastern Christians. But what television did for Abouna Makary and scores of other ministers, Coptic or otherwise, was to expand their influence, broaden their ministries to more viewers, transform such practices into a greater spectacle, and encourage at-home audience participation. The use of media in these ways had been perfected by the likes of Oral Roberts (1918-2009) in the United States and by the Lebanese American Pentecostal preacher Elias Malki (1931-2015) in the Middle East, both of whom had invited audiences to play an active role in their own healing by way of touching their television screens to invoke the miraculous.
Like Roberts and Malki, Abouna Makary Younan harnessed television as a vessel for creating intimate spiritual experiences, at times by instructing viewers to place a container of water in proximity of their television sets during live airings of his programs. That container, he told them, would become blessed, holy, and capable of infusing miracles on those who sought them. Holy water was central to traditional Coptic healing and exorcism rituals, but when asked in 2019 by the Coptic newspaper Watani about how television could impart miracles upon his viewers, he explained that
Those who believe that Jesus is present during [the broadcast of my] meeting and who stand up to pray, God will work within them. And if they take the water next to the television, they will be healed. Those who disagree with this view are free to think as they wish, but these matters need faith in He who works…it is Jesus who is present in every corner of the world, and I say to anyone who puts the water [next to the television], you are in Christ’s presence.
With this trademark style, Abouna Makary joined a cohort of Arabic-speaking Christian preachers who claimed to impart healing and spiritual nourishment on devotees at their local parishes but also reached global audiences through satellite technology.
Over the past two weeks, Abouna Makary has been eulogized by Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Traditional funeral services at his home parish in Azbakiyya aired live on the Coptic Orthodox channel MESat. But in another widely-viewed commemoration, his friend and Christian television mega-star Pastor Sameh Maurice, of the Coptic Evangelical Kasr al-Dobara Church in Cairo, passionately and tearfully spoke of Abouna Makary’s unwavering devotion to Coptic dogma, rituals, and liturgical traditions. Abouna Makary’s legacy will live within these multifaced interpretations of Coptic Orthodoxy: in his commitment to doctrine but also within his charismatic and effusive style of televised prayer, worship, and healing.
Febe Armanios is Professor of History at Middlebury College and Bennett Boskey Distinguished Professor of History at Williams College (2021-22). She is currently completing a book project titled Satellite Ministries: The Rise of Christian Television in the Middle East.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.