There was a rich merchant in Alexandria named Ibrahim Ibn Bishr, who had befriended all the state’s rulers. He made use of his wealth to obtain his demands from them. When his grandiosity grew, he longed to be the new pope. He planned to use his wealth, political influence and the support of all the rulers to acquire this position. The bishops rejected his request and gathered at St. Mark’s church in Alexandria for consultation. Fr. Zacharias welcomed them at his church during their stay, and personally served them as the priests and the congregation helped.
No one thought to nominate Fr. Zacharias for the papacy; but the Lord, who chose the young David to be king, chose, miraculously, this humble priest to be the shepherd for His people. How did this happen? As Fr. Zacharias was serving, he fell off a ladder, while carrying a large jar of vinegar. Although it was a traumatic fall, neither he nor the jar were harmed. This accident attracted the bishops’ attention to his righteousness and his divine protection. Both the priests and the congregation affirmed his faithfulness to his ministry, his grace and love, and his willingness to help all. They all agreed and decided to ordain him the next day as Pope. They took him in a great procession to St. Mark’s Cathedral where they celebrated his ordination as the 64th successor of St. Mark.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim Ibn Bishr was busy plotting with the governor in Cairo the acquisition of the papal seat. The decree written ordaining him as patriarch reached Alexandria just a few hours after Pope Zacharias’ divine choice.
The first seven years of his papacy:
Pope Zacharias started his papacy in the beginning of the reign of El Hakim Be-Amr Allah. The first seven years were characterized by peace and stability, like the seven years which were filled with satisfaction followed by another seven years of famine in Joseph’s dream(Gen24:17-31). During those years, the governor showed great care for the Egyptians, to the point that commerce and industry flourished, and the wealth of the country increased. He used to walk at night to communicate with his people. He gave much attention to spreading knowledge by establishing a great library called “The house of sciences and wisdom.” He also encouraged studying different subjects and attending debates on various topics, rewarding the debaters.
Pope Zacharias continued the plan of his righteous fathers, by choosing the bishops for ordination carefully, and fighting Simony (named after Simon the sorcerer who wanted to buy the gift of the spirit (Act8:18-24); referring to buying the ecclesiastical offices). His character was full of purity and meekness.
After those prosperous seven years, misery and darkness started. The personality of El Hakim was an incomprehensible mystery. It was a mix of contradicting desires and inattentiveness all together. His deeds expressed an unexpected insanity, fanaticism, and foolishness; but other deeds indicated marvelous wisdom.
Years of suffering:
The care he showed his people changed to torture and discrimination without motive. Initially, it was not against certain groups, but rather against the whole nation. After about three years he began to direct his terrible decrees against certain groups, first the Copts then other groups. To the Copts he demanded each person to carry a five pound wooden cross, one cubit in length, around his neck. They were to wear only black rough cloths. He wouldn’t allow any Christian to hire a Moslem servant, and to prevent any mediation or support to the Copts, he executed the Coptic minister, Fahd Ibn Ibrahim, who had served loyally for seven years and nine months. He amended his decrees allowing for church destruction, acquisition of both private and devoted church properties. After the terrifying effect of these decrees, he published another decree stating that whoever converts to Islam, will be exempt from his verdict.
It seemed that El Hakim, at that time, was like a wild beast. In him was the desire to destroy his preys, as he smiled at fresh blood. Not only did he torture and kill famous Copts but he also jailed the honored elder, Pope Zacharias, for three months. He threatened him with burning him alive if he didn’t reject his religion. But the Pope remained stead fast in his faith. When the fear tactic failed, he promised to make him the chief judge. This too did not faze the pope. Finally his frustrations flared, and he threw the beloved pope into a den of hungry lions. The Lord who shut the lions’ mouths at Daniel’s time (Dan6:22) did the same with Pope Zacharias. The lions were seen sitting at his feet without harming him. El Hakim thought that the guards had fed the lions earlier. Thus he ordered to put the lions under certain supervision for three days without any food. Then he ordered to stain the pope’s garment with blood from a slain lamb and put him back into the den. In spite of all these attempts to have the pope devoured alive, the lions continued to behave as domesticated cats.
It is amazing that wild animals sometimes seem saner than people, in the sense that they could submit to God’s will and command while humans, who were created in His image behave like wild untamed animals.
Finally, through the Lord’s dispensation, El Hakim released Pope Zacharias and those who were imprisoned with him by way of mediation from one of the princes. The pope stayed at St. Makarious monastery, where he found a calm and stable atmosphere to excel in his prayers and supplications. He spent his days and nights in prayers full of tears asking the Lord that He may have compassion on His people.
El Hakim continued his torture policy, and didn’t allow the general celebrations of Epiphany and Palm Sunday. He sent a written decree to his rulers’ throughout Egypt allowing them to steel the church vessels and properties. This attitude soon led to polluting and vandalizing the churches. The persecution extended for nine years, during which time the suffering weighed heavily on the people’s faith. Many denied their Christianity; but many of these also returned later on and repented. Many also suffered from epidemics, famines and inflation. But the people didn’t care so much about these inflictions as they did the tyrannical treatment they suffered under the hand of El Hakim. They were especially cut to heart for those who died because of him.