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Ancient faith, new year

The Coptic Orthodox Church, founded by the apostle Mark around 50 A.D., marked the coming of 1717 on its calendar with reflection and prayers at one of the few Coptic churches in the state.

By JOHN PETRIMOULX

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001


NORTH TAMPA -- Despite the cataclysmic events around the United States on Tuesday, the year 1717 began quietly at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church.

Even in quiet times, the Coptic New Year passes with little notice outside the walls of this church at 2125 Busch Blvd. W. Instead of fireworks or gala parties, the occasion is marked by quiet reflection and a solemn Orthodox Mass.

Believers say this Christian Orthodox church was founded in Alexandria, Egypt, around 50 A.D. by St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the 12 original apostles of Jesus and author of the gospel that bears his name. Coptic also is the name of the ancient Egyptian language used in parts of the church services.

For St. George's church member Ashraf Ayoub, the new year is a time for quiet contemplation. The Tampa Palms resident says he joined the church when he moved to Tampa in January to feel connected to his home in Egypt. "This is our society," he says of the church. "It is where our beliefs are."

At St. George's, services include deacons chanting hymns in Coptic to the rhythm of small cymbals and a triangle. The smell of incense fills the church. The priests are visible through the smoky haze praying at the altar. They are framed by an opening in the iconostasis, a screen covered with icons, or sacred paintings, of Jesus, the apostles and St. George, which separates the altar from the nave of the church. The atmosphere, so rich to the senses, is one many church members treasure.

Ayoub, who attended a Catholic school in Cairo, prefers the Orthodox service. "For me it feels more serious," he said. "It's deeper and more focused."

Coptic tradition shares many of the basic beliefs and practice of other Christian churches, such as the importance of scripture and the divinity of Christ, but there are plenty of differences too. The church is led by the pope, but not the one who lives in Rome. Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Coptic pope, is referred to as the Pope of Alexandria, although Coptic popes nowadays live in Cairo.

Coptic priests normally marry unless they are monks. The monastic tradition, often associated with Medieval Roman Catholicism, actually began with Coptic believers in the fourth century who began to live as hermits in the Egyptian desert. That tradition continues to this day, serving as a source and preparation for all Coptic popes. It is a rigorous preparation.

The prior Coptic pope, Kyrillous VI, spent four years as a hermit in the desert, then 13 more years in a mountain cave outside of Cairo. St. George deacon Victor Beshir, who served as an altar boy for him during the 1960s, says so many people had sought his spiritual advice that eventually he was selected to lead the church.

"He was a contemporary saint," Beshir said. "In his presence you felt like you were the only person with him. You could feel his spiritual power and love."

The present-day Coptic Orthodox Church remains concentrated in Egypt, where estimates of the number of adherents range from 6-million to 10-million, out of the total Egyptian population of 66-million. However, Coptic churches have been established by the faithful throughout the world. Membership in the U.S is estimated at 600,000 to 800,000.

Beshir says St. George was the first Coptic church in Florida. It began 20 years ago in Plant City, sited there because it was more convenient to members from Orlando and Jacksonville. As more believers moved to those locales and opened churches, the Plant City location became less convenient for the remaining members. The church moved to its present site on Busch Boulevard two years ago. St. George's priest Moussa Saleh says 130 families now belong to the church.

Like so much associated with the Coptic tradition, even the Tampa church's name brings a history lesson. While St. George is often associated with England, where he is the patron saint, Father Moussa says he is also revered in Egypt as a martyr who lived and died in the Middle East.

Coptic tradition includes some practices that predate Christianity. For one, the Coptic calendar is based on the old Egyptian one. It has 13 months -- 12 months of 30 days and one month of five days, or six in leap years.

According to the Rev. Kyrillous Makar, an authority on Coptic language and tradition who lives in Clearwater, the new year 1717 results from another ancient Egyptian practice.

"They named years according to the kings and queens," he said. "And they went back to year one with each new ruler." Father Kyrillous says the practice continued under Roman rule until the beginning of the reign of Diocletian in 284 A.D. "He was so brutal in his persecution of Christians in Egypt," Father Kyrillous said, "that it was decided to forever honor the thousands of martyrs by numbering years from the beginning of his rule."

At St. George, services are in English, but hymns are in Coptic, a derivation of the language of ancient Egypt spoken until Arabic began to replace it in the seventh century. Father Kyrillous says the language is now spoken by only a handful of people around the world, but continues to be used in church services. Originally written in various hieroglyphs, Coptic later came to be written using the Greek alphabet and seven Egyptian letters for Coptic sounds that didn't exist in Greek. Church documents today continue to be written in Coptic.

A few Coptic words have come into English. "Ekopta" was what Egypt was called under the pharaohs, hence the word "coptic." The Greeks changed "ekopta" to "egiptos," the source of "Egypt." Although dictionaries and scholars disagree, Makar believes "Christmas" is partly Coptic because "mas" is Coptic for "birth." "To me that makes more sense than "Mass of Christ,' " he says. "What does that have to do with Christ's birth?" More certain are "oasis" and the Coptic word "tobe," which means "brick," and became "adobe" by way of Arabic and Spanish.

Despite their reverence for the traditions of the Orthodox faith and a history that dates back to the pharaohs, church members are thoroughly modern. Beshir is a corporate computer systems analyst, while Father Moussa carries his laptop computer with him wherever he goes and keeps in touch with congregants through e-mail.

And, as with all communities, Tuesday's violence jarred the congregation back to the present.

"We are in a deep agony for what happened to our fellow American citizens," church officials said. "We all pray for all people who were impacted by these terrifying incidents."

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