Coptic monk Zeinoun al-Maqari had until recently served in a monastery northwest of Cairo where Bishop Epiphanius, abbot of St. Macarious monastery was killed in July. Picture: Coptic Orthodox Church via AP

Cairo - Egypt's Coptic church said Wednesday that prosecutors are investigating the death of a monk who had until recently served in a monastery northwest of Cairo where the abbot was killed in July.

In a brief statement, the Coptic Orthodox Church said the cause of monk Zeinoun al-Maqari's death, at the al-Muharraq monastery in southern Egypt, remained unknown.

It said he was transferred there following the July death of Bishop Epiphanius, abbot of St. Macarious monastery. That suggested Zeinoun may have been involved in a now-publicized disciplinary dispute between Epiphanius and several monks at St. Macarious.

Epiphanius' killing has shaken Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and opened a window onto its cloistered world. The church introduced monasticism to the faith, but its monastic desert traditions had largely vanished before being revived over the past century.

The July killing took on added significance because two monks — one of whom was defrocked — are the main suspects. Both are on trial for the killing of the abbot.

The case has exposed a side of the church that few in Egypt — Muslim or Christian — knew existed, including the growing power and independence of monks in remote monasteries who appear to be at odds with Pope Tawadros II, the church's spiritual leader, and its central leadership.

Security officials said Zeinoun was dying when monks went to his cell in the small hours to fetch him for vespers. He was rushed to the monastery's infirmary but died before he arrived there, they said. A photo of him released by the church suggests he was in his early 30s.

Investigators were looking into suspected foul play, including possible suicide, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

Zeinoun was among six monks who were transferred in August out of St. Macarious monastery as part of efforts to instill greater discipline.

At the time, the church suspended admission of novices to its monasteries for a year, threatened to expel monks found to have established "illegal" monasteries and gave monks a month to shut down social media accounts. It also forbade unauthorized media interviews.

AP