Last month, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church lost one of its most recognized and charismatic priests. Abouna (“Father”) Makary Younan (1934–2022), a well-known figure on Arabic Christian satellite television, died on January 11 of complications from COVID-19.
Just a few miles from where his funeral services were held at the historic St. Mark’s Cathedral, Abouna Makary’s good friend and Christian television megastar Sameh Maurice convened a heartfelt commemoration at downtown Cairo’s Kasr el-Dobara Church, where he pastors the Arab world’s largest evangelical congregation. Together, these two ceremonies affirmed that the late priest’s legacy of praise, miracles, and ecumenism will endure among Egypt’s Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike.
“Abouna Makary influenced the lives of millions in this generation,” said Maurice. “I know of no other person who touched so many people.”
For nearly two decades, Arabic Christian television introduced both Abouna Makary and “Pastor Sameh” to wider audiences, educating viewers in novel ways about Coptic Orthodoxy and Protestantism. At times both sides have been wary of the medium, especially the Orthodox hierarchy.
Representing the overwhelming majority of Christians in Egypt, in recent years Coptic Orthodox leaders have taken contradictory positions on evangelicals. Some are open to dialogue and friendship, while others lead campaigns not only against popular evangelical leaders like Pastor Sameh but also charismatic priests like Abouna Makary. Stylizing themselves as protectors of indigenous church heritage and of the Copts’ place as the Middle East’s largest Christian sect, they doled out their polemics in newspapers, social media, and on satellite channels.
In this unpredictable environment, Abouna Makary stood firm, insisting on developing a Cairo-based ministry rich in traditional dogmas and teachings but also focused on commonalities, bridge-building, and the power of the Holy Spirit to unify Egypt’s Christian believers.
Sabry Younan Abd al-Malik was born in the Upper Egyptian town of El Maragha, about 300 miles south of Cairo. After completing his studies and working as a government civil servant, he turned to devote his life to the church.
In the 1970s, he served with Zakaria Botros, priest at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Heliopolis, Cairo. Zakaria—a towering if controversial persona in his own right—organized weekly meetings marked by exorcisms and exuberant singing, attended by hundreds. It is said that Sabry honed his talents for leading praise and worship during these sessions.
In 1977, Sabry was ordained a priest, taking the name Makary from the fourth-century Egyptian saint and hermit. From his earliest years of service, he was accused by Orthodox leadership of “Protestant-inflected” teachings. Interpretations of Orthodox doctrines narrowed during the first decade of Pope Shenouda III’s patriarchy (1971–2012), with less tolerance shown toward seemingly wayward practices.
Still, Abouna Makary kept promoting a diverse Orthodoxy that embraced miraculous signs and joyous worship. Across Egypt’s Christian denominations—and religions—he gained fame for offering hope and health to the disabled, blind, deaf, and wheelchair-using. These rituals have long been embedded within his church’s teachings, but Orthodox leaders grew concerned with the spectacle as popular attention grew to what appeared to be a mimicry of Western charismatic Christianity.
His ministry received further notoriety with the proliferation of Arabic Christian satellite television, which launched in the mid 1990s but flourished in the early 2000s. On Al-Shifaa (The Healing Channel), a now-defunct subsidiary of Paul Crouch’s Southern California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, his program was shown alongside Arabic-dubbed American fare like that of faith healer Benny Hinn and several charismatic Orthodox, Catholic, and evangelical programs. He also regularly appeared on Cyprus-based SAT-7 Arabic and on Al-Karma, up till his recent illness and passing.
Television as a vessel for performing miracles was perfected by the likes of Oral Roberts (1918–2009) and by his Middle Eastern correlate, the Lebanese-American Pentecostal preacher Elias Malki (1931–2015), both of whom had invited audiences to play an active role in their own healing by touching their television screens. Like Roberts and Malki, Abouna Makary fully harnessed this medium, at times instructing viewers to place a container of water close to their television sets during live airings of his programs. That container, he told them, would become blessed, holy, and capable of the miraculous.
But whatever one believes about the Western and Arab forerunners, the evangelical funeral service honored the priest’s humility.
“Abouna Makary never cared much for titles, nor status, nor popularity,” said Pastor Sameh during his eulogy. “He lived only to glorify God.”
Socially, Arabic Christian satellite television created a space for both new traditions and the expression of practices long concealed behind church walls. While Christian programming on Arab state channels had been limited to a few hours each year, satellite television generated opportunities for indigenous Christian voices.
Inside the privacy of their homes, Arabic-speaking Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox now learned of each other’s creeds. Some found more commonalities than they had imagined. Others became more entrenched in their traditional ways. Pastors and non-clergy alike expanded their influence, their message reaching viewers across denominations and geographic boundaries.
And while it often heightened tensions between Egypt’s Christian sects, television also facilitated profound moments of collaboration, such as between Abouna Makary and Pastor Sameh. With their common aspirations of Christian unity and revivalism, the two men became quick friends. In recent years, they often appeared together at televised major gatherings not just in Egypt but also in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan, the latter airing on the Maronite Catholic channel Noursat. Their joint, genuine belief in the power of collective worship, mass prayer, and public miracles won the admiration of millions.
At his funeral service in Cairo’s Azbakiyya district, mourners honored Abouna Makary at the parish he served for 44 years. With live cameras rolling, Orthodox Bishop Raphael spoke somewhat impersonally about Coptic priesthood and its obligations. But at Kasr el-Dobara, just off Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, with the deceased’s family sitting in the front row, Pastor Sameh captivated the audience with touching stories delivered in his dynamic style.
Drawing from Hebrews 13:7 to encourage and console the mourners, he affirmed Abouna Makary’s remarkable legacy—one that succeeded in inspiring faithfulness within two very diverse traditions.
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you,” Pastor Sameh quoted. “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
Febe Armanios is a professor of history at Middlebury College and a distinguished visiting professor at Williams College. She is currently completing a book titled Satellite Ministries: The Rise of Christian Television in the Middle East.