John of Phanidjoit
|Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonian) perspective, which may differ from an Eastern Orthodox (Chalcedonian) understanding.|
Conversion to Islam and subsequent repentance
John, son of Markos, was a deacon and a linen-merchant who lived in the village of Phanidjoit (El-Zaitoun) in the province of Poushin in Upper Egypt. His profession took him to Cairo where he dealt mostly with women, in particular Muslim ones. Such association eventually led to his falling into sin and consequently he was forced to abandon Christianity in favour of Islam.
This happened sometime during the reign of Osman the Ayyubite (1193-1198 AD) . The resultant unholy union brought forth children. John eventually repented and returned back to his Christian faith. He apparently took the children with him and took refuge in a village nearby his own, called Pepleu. This village, due to the benevolence of its ruler, was a haven for Christians who returned to their faith.
John stayed in Pepleu for a number of years until he felt within himself that it was time to confess his faith in our Lord Jesus Christ publicly by petitioning the Ayyubite king to grant him a pardon to officially return to his Christian faith. So he sold what he had and gave it to his children, whom he entrusted to the care of people from his village before leaving for Cairo.
On his way to Cairo, he visited a priest who advised him to first confer with the Coptic Pope. But John instead went to Abu-Shaker, the Coptic physician of the King, El-Kamel (1218-1238 AD) , son of King El-Adel (1200-1218 AD) . Abu-Shaker tried to persuade him not to go to the king, but rather flee to another country where he can practise his faith freely. He told the saint, "these people are very evil and if you reveal a word in this manner before them and perhaps you did not endure in some trials, then we shall be in shames."
But our saint quietly continued on his way with the same determination. He stayed in Cairo, writing letters to the king, asking for his pardon or the sword's blade if he would not grant such pardon. Of course, no one answered his letters. He later attended a festival for St. George outside of Cairo in a village called Ponmonros. Upon meeting the priest of the church, he received the first encouragement for what he was about to do.
On the following day he met the king as he was riding his horse in public. He asked El-Kamel publicly for the pardon or to be purified by the edge of the sword. Such words at that age seemed to the king to be those of a drunkard. So he ordered him to be jailed for three days to sober up. The news of his petition and arrest spread in the countryside like wild fire. The Coptic government officials were alarmed and asked Abu-Shaker to meet the saint. This second meeting with Abu-Shaker occurred on the first day of his detainment. A similar conversation took place, with Abu-Shaker offering the possibility of a conditional pardon from the king, but St. John quietly persisted in his determination. As Abu-Shaker was leaving, he gave his guards some money to protect the saint. On that first night, John was also summoned by the king. There he was offered riches and safe conduct out of the country where he could freely practise Christianity. All this was contingent on him confessing publicly that he was a Muslim. This was also not acceptable to the saint. So he was put back in jail for the remainder of the three days.
On the morning of the fourth day, he was summoned before the king in the marketplace. There he was to be tried for the "sin" of wanting to be a Christian again. The day of the trial coincided with a major event. A naval parade was underway which brought people from nearly every known nation, rank, and profession. John was brought before the king amid the customary noise that one would expect from such a gathering. There, the king made another attempt to dissuade the saint from his intentions by such lucrative offers as royal gifts, money, and high government appointment. The reponse was made in the same polite way that the saint had done before: either to give him back his faith or purify him by the edge of the sword.
The king took the advice of his chief justice and his Elder of Elders, the chief religious cleric. The latter suggested, on religious grounds according to Islamic Shari'a law, the punishment of beheading; and the king agreed. However he drafted the services of a Mamluke  knight, named Philim, to use undeadly force to persuade the saint to abandon his firm stand. This Philim, a European Christian who had converted to Islam, failed in his mission. He eventually was ordered by the king to carry on the Elder of Elders' sentence. The gallantry of the saint apparently made Philim nervous enough to fail to completey sever the head from the body.
The execution of the sentence unleashed the mob feelings that were brewing throughout the trial. They directed their actions toward stoning the body of the saint, which the king ordered to be hung upon a wood column just north of where the saint was martyred. Then their anger turned toward any Christian they could find in the area. Some non-Coptic Christians were also subjected to severe beating when they petioned the king for the body of the saint.
That night an intense light was viewed coming from the hung body of the saint. This was witnessed by Christians as well as Muslims who actually went to investigate and were shocked by the light's miraculous origin. One of them even testified to the glorious scene of the ascending to heaven of the saint's soul.
The body was hung from the day the saint was martyred on Thursday, Pashons 4, night until early Monday, when the king ordered the discreet disposition of the body. This was accomplished by throwing it into the River Nile, wrapped in a sack filled with the stones with which the saint had been stoned. The king's rather nervous edict was carried on as a result of the nightmares that he had experienced the previous two nights, when the saint appeared gloriously to him and threateningly ordered him to lower the body from where it was hanged.
- Adapted from a report by Hany N. Takla of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society on the Encomium of St. John of Phanidjoit, written in Bohairic and dated 1210 AD (manuscript from Vatican Coptic Codex 69, the Vatican Apostolic Library; acquired by the Vatican from the Coptic Monastery of Abu-Maqar in the 18th century) ,