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True to Themselves, Building on Their Faith

Coptic Catholics might be a minority anywhere, but they know themselves and fervently express their faith through their communities.

by Thomas Riley

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From Alexandria, Egypt, the ancient seat of the Coptic Catholic Church, Patriarch Stephanos II is working to develop, strengthen, and, in some instances, reestablish the connections between Egyptians around the globe and the faith of their homeland.

It is a difficult labor. Priests from Egypt have been sent to such faraway places as Montreal, Canada; Sydney, Australia; and Brooklyn, New York. In June 1989, the new Coptic Catholic community of Los Angeles will receive its first full-time priest. Besides the daunting and unavoidable challenges of loneliness and overwork, these missionaries necessarily act as religious, cultural, and psychological bridges to the old country for hundreds of people of all ages. To all the emigrants, they are a bit of Egypt in the new world; to the older folk, a welcome extension of home.

But the eyes of the patriarch and his church are not set solely on the horizon. In a country where they are a minority within a minority – Egypt is a predominantly Islamic nation, and the Coptic Orthodox church is the larger of the two main Christian churches – there is a small but thriving community to be cared for.

As in most nations with a Catholic presence, the Church spends large amounts of time, money, and effort – both religious and lay – on education and medicine. Though religious and cultural division is emphatic in Egypt, in the Catholic schools there are few problems because of a student’s particular religion. Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic children study and play together in a rare display of cultural unity in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Coptic churches have been strained since the 1700s. They hold different theological views as to the true nature of Christ. Also, the Orthodox do not recognize the primacy of Rome and now deny the Eucharist to Catholics before they accept re-baptism in the Orthodox Church.

Hope for ecumenical relations improved in 1986, when Stephanos II invited the Orthodox pope to join him in opening discussions which had been dead for many years. The Orthodox church agreed to the establishment of an ecumenical council to study disagreements facing the two institutions. A year later, representatives of both faiths signed an agreement outlining common beliefs. Now they are discussing differences in dogma.

Ironically, there are few problems today between Egyptian Muslims and the Coptic Catholics. According to Church officials, the Egyptian government has worked hard to quell instances of discord, in the past sown by foreign-sponsored fundamentalists or fanatic fringe elements. The government acknowledges the importance of the services provided by Church-operated schools and hospitals, and, short of providing state capital, assures them respectful treatment.

This outside concern enables the Church to remain strong and vital. Internal changes, specifically in certain parts of its Eastern Liturgy have also contributed to its vitality. In 1986 it adopted a newer, shorter version of its traditional Coptic Mass.

“The changes were not undertaken simply to be modern or liberal,” Father John Farag says. “At Vatican II it was said that there is a danger that people may get attached to certain rituals in an almost idolatrous fashion, forgetting the substantive importance of the Sacrament. One way to avoid this is by occasional changes in Liturgy.”

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Tags: Egypt Unity Coptic Orthodox Church Coptic Catholic Church