The Rev Professor Otto Meinardus

Coptologist devoted to the Church in Egypt
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The Independent Online

The largest church in the Middle East is the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and for the last 50 years the leading expert in Coptic Studies (Coptology) was Otto Meinardus, the author of a dozen important books and of many hundreds of academic papers. The majority of his works were published in English, French and, more rarely, in his native tongue, German. For two decades he lived and worked in the Arab Republic of Egypt with an extraordinary range of educational, spiritual and administrative duties.

Otto Friedrich August Meinardus was born in Hamburg in 1925. He attended the County High School in his home city and then studied philosophy at the Metropolitan University. Between 1947 and 1956 he was a successful doctoral candidate in Theology at London University (at King's and Richmond colleges) and Harvard, and was ordained, first, a Methodist minister, then a Lutheran pastor. Specialist studies in religious education, the psychology of religion, social ethics and Coptic monasticism were pursued in American universities and in the Middle East. At the same time he engaged in pastoral work as a devoted ecumenical clergyman, serving in churches in New Zealand, Australia, Greece, the United States and Germany. From 1956 to 1968 he ministered at the Maadi Community Church in Cairo.

Meinardus was devoted to the Church in Egypt. He wrote much about the Copts - about the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Coptic Christians. He served as a full-time Professor in the American University in Cairo for more than a decade. His Christian Egypt: faith and life (1970) outlines basic theological issues concerning the institutional and the folk religion of the Copts, and includes phenomenological and historical studies of the best-known religious miracles in Coptic Egypt. His magnificent Christian Egypt: ancient and modern (1977) recounts the highs and lows of Christian life in the Nile valley.

He also served as a visiting professor in seven countries, and contributed prolifically, in German, to Kemet, and in English to the Coptic Church Review (in the US), to Coptologia (Canada) and to innumerable international journals, including Orientalia Suecana (Sweden) and Medieval and Middle Eastern Studies (Holland). His supplementary academic pieces on classical and historical Orthodoxy - Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Byzantine and Russian - run into the hundreds.

Meinardus had visited Egypt and travelled extensively in the Middle East almost every year since his retirement from Cairo University in 1968. His Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (1999) celebrated the history of the second Christian millennium, surveying 20 centuries of Egyptian Christianity, Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox:

The vast numbers of their martyrs are a testimony to their unshaken faith. During the Middle Ages, the Coptic Church kept the lamp of their faith burning amid trials and tribulations of all kinds.

Perhaps his most popular publication is The Holy Family in Egypt (1986, originally published as In the Steps of the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Upper Egypt, 1963). It is immensely popular with tourists, providing them with a straightforward guide to the pilgrim sites in the Nile Valley. Patriarchen unter Nasser und Sadat ("The Patriarchs under Nasser and Sadat", 1998) and The Copts in Jerusalem (1960) remain standard works of reference. But the most popular academic text, still in print in English and Arabic, is Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts (1961, revised 1989).

Otto Meinardus served on the advisory board of the Egypt-based Religious News Service from the Arab World, renamed Arab West Report in 2003, since its inception over a decade ago, and had was exceptionally knowledgeable about Christian-Muslim politics. Just before his death he finished editing Christians in Egypt, which is to be published next spring.

This distinguished scholar invariably concluded his academic works with some sharp and immediate comment. Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages (2002) concludes with Meinardian frankness:

The Coptic Church has responded to the fact that hundreds of thousands of the faithful have left the banks of the Nile. Hundreds of churches have been established in the Western world with the intent to provide a spiritual home for emigrants. The Coptic Church has clearly decided to preserve at least its theological identity in the emigration, even if the ethnic identity may somehow evaporate over the years.

John H. Watson