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    Patriarch’s visit awes worshipers

    More than 1,300 Coptic Orthodox Christians gather as their leader consecrates a new church's altar.

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Fragrant incense, jubilant cymbals and prayerful chants soared heavenward past the glittering new domes of St. Mary and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church that rise off an obscure, tree-lined road.

    photo
    [Times photo: Jill Sagers]
    Pope Shenouda III speaks during the service Sunday at St. Mary and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Clearwater.
    More than 1,300 people had come to worship with their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III. Head of Coptic Orthodox Christians everywhere, he had traveled from Egypt to consecrate the new church's altar. The gathering at the large cross-shaped church lasted four hours.

    As is customary, women, many with lace-draped heads, sat on one side of the aisle. Men sat across from them. Throughout the service, cameras clicked ceaselessly as members of the congregation took photographs of the pope in an ornate chair and even as he celebrated Divine Liturgy. Many approached him to be blessed or carried their children for the honor during the service.

    "Why do they do that? . . . Love is above every formality," said Victor Beshir, a church deacon.

    "Spirituality means love. . . . They love the pope. They love to take a blessing," he said.

    Vivian Farid, who lives in Safety Harbor, agreed.

    "Many people knew Pope Shenouda from when they were in Egypt. They didn't get to see him often there, coming from small towns. Having him in Clearwater was a great honor and a blessing," Mrs. Farid said.

    "It's incredible. There aren't any words that can describe it, because you are in awe. I don't know if elated is the right word to use. It was just such an honor to have him right there, blessing our joy and our hard work. To me, when we were there on Sunday, it almost felt as though it was a wedding."

    St. Mary and St. Mina, which belongs to the Egyptian-based denomination that tradition says was founded by St. Mark the Apostle, was completed last year. The only Coptic Orthodox Church in Pinellas County, it is the spiritual home of 120 families, who until a year ago worshiped in a cramped makeshift building on the church's 5-acre property off Sunset Point Road.

    Sunday they basked in the praise of their pontiff.

    "I wish to congratulate you for constructing this altar and also for building this church," he told a rapt congregation, whose ranks had been swollen by Coptic Orthodox faithful from throughout the Tampa Bay area and beyond.

    He reminded them that the first house of God was mentioned in the Book of Genesis, when Jacob declared that the place where he lay was holy. That also was the first time that oil had been consecrated for God's house, the pope added.

    The Egyptian patriarch drew laughter when, in response to the temperamental intercom system, he quipped, "We ought to anoint this microphone."

    He also told the congregation that since their altar has now been consecrated, no one but the "servants of the altar," the church's priests and deacons, can enter its sacred area.

    Born Nazeer Gayed in 1923, the University of Cairo graduate was enthroned the 117th pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St. Mark in 1971. He was put under house arrest by the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat for protesting against Islamic fundamentalists who had begun attacking Copts, their businesses and churches.

    The pope is said to work tirelessly for improved relations between Christians and Muslims and for Christian unity. He also is credited with the growth of the Coptic Orthodox Church outside Egypt. When he became head of the denomination, there were just seven Coptic churches in Canada, the United States, Australia and England. Today there are hundreds of Coptic Orthodox churches outside Egypt.

    According to tradition, the denomination was started when the apostle Mark introduced Christianity to Egypt during the first century. Its followers, a minority in Egypt, have at times had an uneasy relationship with the country's Muslim majority.

    On Sunday, Pinellas County sheriff's officers and their cruisers provided security both outside and inside St. Mary and St. Mina. But their presence did not dampen the festive air.

    Monica Heinen, who grew up as a Roman Catholic and converted to the Coptic Orthodox Church when she married her husband, Marcos, spoke of her younger daughter's elation.

    Merveille Heinen, 10, was among those who received the pope's personal blessing Sunday.

    "She went to the altar right after communion," said Mrs. Heinen, who is from Argentina. "She was really excited. She came back with a really happy face."

    Two years ago when the pope visited St. Mary and St. Mina, Mrs. Heinen's other daughter, Soleil, 15, was chosen to welcome him.

    "She felt really blessed. She said that she wished that everybody could have the same experience," Mrs. Heinen recalled.

    "She said he's the closest thing to God we have on this earth. Those are her words."

    For information

    To learn more about the Coptic Orthodox Church or to attend Bible study, call (813) 973-8001 or e-mail vbeshir@hotmail.com.

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