JOHN VII, seventy-seventh patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (1262-1268, 1271-1293). John had a rival in GABRIEL III, who replaced him by order of the sultan for a period, after which he recaptured the patriarchal seat for a second time. A native of Old Cairo, his full name was Yu’annis ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Sukkari.
During the first period of his tenure, John VII was a contemporary of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars al-Bunduqdari (1260-1277). During al-Zahir Baybars reign, the number of Copts reached the lowest level, owing to wholesale Islamization by pressure tactics and brutal persecution. Many Copts feigned conversion to save their lives. The Islamic sources indicate that Copts, who had been 40 percent of the population of Egypt, sank to a mere 10 percent under the Mamluks. The HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS contains little information on this subject and relates only that the Copts witnessed severe persecutions that were hard to describe. The Muslim historian of the Copts, al-MAQRIZI, has enumerated these persecutions. He says that the sultan once ordered the digging of a wide pit in the neighborhood of the citadel, filling it with wood and dumping Copts into it to burn them. This insane idea was deferred through the intercession of some members of the royal court, and the sultan imposed a penalty of 50,000 dinars on the Coptic community instead.
This period was marked by the emergence of BULUS AL-HABIS (Paul the Solitary), whose bewildering career is one of the problematic features of the time. A Coptic monk and a solitary, he is said to have discovered an immense treasure, presumably that of Caliph al- Hakim (996-1021), which he used to pay the said penalty and for the relief of many captives. He professed the principle of peaceful coexistence between Copts and Muslims, and he distributed immense charities to Copts and Muslims without distinction.
There is little information about the works of John VII, if any, in the Coptic sources. Presumably that age of great pressures and heavy persecutions left the patriarch no time to think of any reforms or to restore religious foundations. In his book Al-Khitat, al- MAQRIZI speaks of what he calls the "battle of the Christians" in the year 1283, the year during which the persecution and the humiliation of the Copts was most severe. Salih Salah al-Din's decrees that imposed certain dress requirements on the Copts and restricted them to donkey riding were resumed with brutal vehemence. Copts were dismissed, not only from the state offices, but also from the service of private princes. The Islamic sources, however, quote rare instances where an arrogant Copt invited such troubles. The example of a certain Copt named ‘Ayn al-Ghazal, who was in the service of a Khasiki Mamluk and who abused a Muslim broker, is cited as a reason for stirring mob action against the Copts and the burning of churches. It was decreed that a Copt who refused to apostatize to Islam would be decapitated. It is unclear whether this brutal legislation was carried into effect, but it is clear that those who converted to Islam were honored and reinstated in public office as a reward. It is no wonder that many Copts feigned conversion to Islam and were later accused of persecuting other Muslims in return.
Historically speaking, the most epoch-making event during John's reign was the total extermination of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with the fall of ‘Akka in 1291 to Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil (1290-1293). John died shortly after that momentous event. After his death, the throne of Saint Mark fell vacant for a little more than a year.
SUBHI Y. LABIB
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