CAIRO—Bishop Epiphanius was found lying in a pool of his own blood, his brain spilling out of his crushed skull. The 64-year-old Coptic abbot was discovered near his cell at the Monastery of St. Macarius, in the desert northwest of Cairo, just before dawn on a July morning. He had been on his way to prayers, but before he could perform that final act of devotion, he was murdered—apparently by his own disciples. He was beaten three times on the head with a metal object, possibly a pipe, according to the general prosecutor’s investigation files I obtained.
The ongoing inquiry has captured the imagination of ordinary Egyptians, who are clamoring for answers about who’s behind this real-life murder mystery. They are intensely interested not only because the murder took place in a monastery, but because the death of Epiphanius, a learned man with a wispy white beard and a serene smile, represents a new challenge for an already beleaguered Christian community.
Copts, a religious minority in Egypt numbering at least 10 million, make up around one-tenth of the country’s population, though reliable figures are hard to find. Adhering to a form of Christianity that began with Saint Mark in the first century, Copts have suffered centuries of religious persecution, including at the hands of militant groups such as Islamic State. Most recently, reports have emerged that at least seven Copts were killed when gunmen opened fire on their bus Friday. In the case of the monastery, however, the violence appears to have come from within.