Facing the World…

Fr Zakaria Botros in his controversial satellite TV role. His engagement with Muslims has stirred great unrest. How do Copts engage with the western societies into which they have been transplanted?

As the Coptic Church has spread into the Diaspora of Western nations it has experienced an ever growing interaction with non-Copts. The sheer breadth of this interaction is rarely appreciated by Copts I think. To list just a few situations:

  • Employees and clients in Coptic organisations like Child Care Centres, Vacation Care Centres, Coptic Schools, Aged Care Facilities and the Theological Colleges.
  • Interested visitors to Coptic monasteries.
  • Marriages of Copts to non-Copts, or rather to converts to Coptic Orthodoxy.
  • Dialogues with other Churches and religions through organisations like the World Council of Churches and its branches and Interfaith events.
  • Participation in Government sponsored initiatives as well as those organised by civil society to deal with various pressing social issues.
  • Coptic sporting teams participating in local competitions.
  • Copts who run for political office.
  • Missionary and outreach services.
  • Services for the homeless and those in prison.
  • Apologetics dialogues with non-believers.
  • Kimi radio program and the Coptic satellite TV channels.
  • Visitors to Coptic websites of all kinds.
  • FOCUS – university campus societies.
  • Copts who volunteer to teach religion in public schools.
  • Interest from the media following the many massacres of Copts in Egypt and regarding the future of Christians in the Egypt of the Arab Spring.

All of these of course are in addition to the many thousands of commonplace interactions that take place daily in schools, tertiary institutions, workplaces and over the back fence with the neighbours.

In majority Muslim Egypt, there has often been strife, but relatively little actual theological debate or dialogue between the two Abrahamic faiths. One of the rare records of such debates precedes the miracle of the mountain of Mukattum, and that debate ended with the Christians being threatened with harsh punishments if they could not fulfil the Bible’s promise and literally move a mountain (which thank God, they did). In recent times, Fr Zakaria Botros has been strident in his criticism of Muslim beliefs. Although he has reportedly won thousands of converts to Christ, he now lives his life in hiding for fear of assassination. It is not hard to understand why the Church in Egypt has tended to avoid direct debate or dialogue with Muslims on the pros and cons of our relevant beliefs!

For a Church that has spent most of its existence just struggling just to survive in an often hostile climate in Egypt, the opening up of the Coptic Church to the western world has brought with it both challenges and opportunities. There are no such hindrances in the tolerant and liberal west, and our ancient faith has been questioned like never before. Whereas the young Copt could fast all her life in Egypt without ever being questioned why (Muslims fast too) revealing one’s fast to one’s western friends often results in a polite interrogation as to why one would do that to oneself. Not to mention the many strident attacks on religious faith itself which have become fashionable in the last couple of decades. The Copts find themselves thrust unready into the marketplace of ideas that is modern liberal democratic society.

Yet I believe that we should not view this new challenge to our faith as a bad thing, but as a great opportunity. After all, to practice one’s faith with understanding and confidence is surely better than practicing it blindly, and ending up with deep subconscious doubts that it might all turn out to be wrong. I believe the right approach to one’s faith is fearless robust honesty. If our faith is true, then it will stand up to any and all scrutiny, and we will only hold it even more strongly for learning that. And if it is false, then surely it is better to know than to live a lie? So far, in this perilous journey of discovery I have found that our faith is far better founded and supported than most Christians realise.

It is also far more beautiful than most Christians realise. I wonder how many Copts are little more than ‘cultural Copts’, holding to the faith, attending Church, even praying and reading their Bibles just because they were told to, just because they were brought up that way. For them, practices that should be the very sweetness of life become boring and dull routines and duties to be performed to please an angry God or else suffer the consequences. It is these Copts who, when challenged seriously, run the risk of falling to pieces and perhaps even losing their faith. I have seen it happen all too often.

This is sad, and unnecessary. We need to revive the reality, the power and the beauty of Orthodox Christianity in the hearts of our own members before we can seriously share it with others or defend it against criticism. I am being perhaps a little too pessimistic in the picture I have painted, for there are indeed many shining examples in our parishes today who live the fullness of the life with Christ and have done wonderful things to share our precious faith with others. But such remain a minority, I fear, and I dream of the day when every member of the Church is a living, breathing, daily witness of the power of Christ to transform humans into heavenly creatures walking this earth.

I am in the process of writing a book to introduce the Coptic faith and church to non-Copts and hope to complete the manuscript by the end of February. I welcome any suggestions you might have from your own experiences as to what needs to be in such a book, what would make it useful for the non-Copts you have met. Feel free to make your suggestions publicly via a comment on this post, or privately by email via the “Contact Me” link at the top of this page. All suggestions will be much appreciated!

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15 Replies to “Facing the World…”

  1. Hi Fr Ant,

    If I could help with anything let me know, i would love to engulf the non Copts into our fiery and true of true faiths, through my personal journey of being born a Copt and leaving the faith at the age of 15 years old, I set out to live life with instinct and solely according to experience the pleasures of this so called world, I performed every deed you could experience, I lived with as much pleasure one could receive but all to my blindness, I was forever being told that I had it all but succeeded to never be happy, this blindness took a total of 15 years to regain, a part vision of what life was supposed to look look from a different perspective, I always felt one can get more out of life and surely life was not meant to be a 9 to 5 job with the wife and kids and driving a nice car, fine dinning and all these sensual pleasures that one could either obtain or acquire, after exhausting the 15 year long journey I set out to search for what I call the ultimate truth, things so far did not seem to be as they appeared to be, understanding why things tick the way they do, and why things are the way they are always was on my mind, the next step for me was to learn and change the way I looked at things, one was my faith, What is it I asked, what is faith and why was I born with this faith that had managed to shrivel but was to some degree there like a skinny person with little muscles. it appealed to me to begin building this so called scrony body of faith, at the age of 28 years old weighing in at 110 kg of muscle I managed to feel like this scrony guy who needed a different type of muscle, a muscle that did not go away when I stopped lifting weights, this muscle was my faith, the faith of a Coptic Orthodox Christian, the search began where I knew best, the car. I had always talked to myself in the car on long drives to work, this lead me to seeking the reason behind the Coptic Orthodox Church, first I began to dissect what is this all about, first what is Coptic, what is Orthodox and final what is Church, the process of learning was never a strength of mine, not in this department any way, I had always found it very poor to concentrate and often forgot what I read or studied within 10 minutes of leaving it, any how a thirst and hunger for the truth forced me to learn and read often, I often found myself reading and researching for 12 hours at times and without getting tired and losing concentration, I often regarded my level of energy as a guide to if what I was doing was beneficial or not, I believe in focusing in on what comes naturally, do as most as possible, with at least effort as possible, what costs you nothing in energy and money, go ahead and continue doing. living 26 years of my life in the Western world led me to seeking the truth once and for all, something told me to ensure I learned enough about all religions to some degree so I could make the right choice, there were a lot of lies within the christian faith, that I was convinced of growing up that led me to delve into and correct, I found that I tried to learn anything that was non christian I would lose concentration and refocus on something else, eventually I got to the topic of “Copt”, what is this term ? one thing led to another and the term Copt led me to Orthodox which led me to church which led me to faith. I found my thirst for knowledge would not go away and what was once a very difficult task in learning was beginning to be very easy, I leared about who I was not on the Church or faith, I realized this is what I was born to be, and not live for 15 years of being something I was not. Being a Copt in a western society appealed to me and in my personal experience found that I could not find fault with the teachings and traditions of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but I certainly found many faults in the inherited cultural and cultural-traditional customs of being an Egyptians, this I did not like, also I found that this was one of the root cause of my departure of the faith and the Church, I found that although our faith was immovable our culture and way of life was appalling, this did not stop my continuing search for the ultimate truth but increased all the more the zeal to help change this view and change others view of our beautiful faith,The first place that needed this attention was right in the heart of the Church, I felt that the people were so cold, lacked heat and fervor, through my passing of reading the bible I found a passage in the bible in revelations that said there was a church of the 7 churches in Asia which made God spew, for they were neither hot or cold, This really clung to me and did not like that one bit, So Fr Antonius I want to help make us hot, Fiery and continually learn, teach and live in the heat of the spirit and pass that on to as many other non Copts, or non Believers by any means possible, and through the power of prayer I believe that the heat will be contagious for it is not a means of anything other than to Glorifying God in name and spirit through strengthening our faith which leads us to be more action orientated and therefore performing the will of God.

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  2. I think I faced the following questions (from non-Coptic in general, including Orthodox Christians):
    + why do you fast/abstain from food when you fast/fast so many days?
    + why your patriarch is called a pope?
    + Coptic Orthodox! which religion is that/what God do you believe in?
    + do you have to go to church this Sat night?
    + what do you do all these hours (about: lengthy liturgy, feasts liturgies, Good Friday, Bright Sat. watch, ..) ?
    + You perform prostration? I never saw a Christian who does that… I always need to explain it to them / you have prayers? How many prayers do you *have* to do a day?
    + how is the situation with Muslims in Egypt?
    +

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  3. Hi Abouna,

    There were some great points made in your article and so I wish you every success with your book.
    I do wish to give you some insight to some of the things I have experienced and seen over the past decade as I have come to know God in a deeper way.

    I interact with people from many faiths and particularly like it when I interact with other Christian denominations as I always find myself learning something new from them. I have enjoyed discussions and liturgical services with Catholics, Protestants/Born Again and Greek Orthodox and each faith serves to point out unique features in experiencing God. I still hold true to my faith and am very proud to grow up in the Coptic faith but as we enter this world of multiculturalism and are more united than ever before, you realise that we are not the only people that God will accept.
    Catholics will embrace that the Church should evolve with the current generation and have stronger connection with the world around them, protestants will express that you just need to say the words “I believe in Jesus Christ” and you will be saved, and the Greek Orthodox argue their theology has not changed and is enriched with tradition. All of which is nice but who is right….this holds true for the Coptic faith.

    I honestly believe we should embrace all faiths and not argue over who Jesus likes more… every faith has a flaw but is also blessed with the Holy Spirit. We should not deny one’s Christian faith because it is different our own but embrace it for the good. This does make things complicated and un-systematic but we end up arguing anyway. I am sure God did not intend for us to argue about our faiths but to love him for who He is.

    As a suggestion, let us not enforce non-copts our ways but instead learn from them if they are a practicing Christian and continue on our way. If we truly reflect the light of Christ, it will be Christ that will draw others closer to the truth in whatever way is most suited for that person, so ultimately they can be saved in the end. As Copts, we should better our inner selves by accepting who we are and simply sharing it with others; not making someone understand this is how things should be done.

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  4. Just to add, maybe it would be good to share in examples such as biblical events, miracles and the lives of saints to shed some light to why some things should be done but let’s be smart about it and not argue the point. Again, it is the truth, honesty and Jesus with-in that will allow those who do not know Christ to see the benefit of a lifelong relationship with Him.

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  5. As an example Fr Zakaria Botros succeeded with many non-copts and non-Christians because he must of been speaking as though it was the truth (belief), he was honest when speaking and dealing with people and most importantly it was Jesus with-in that won hearts over to seek the truth.

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  6. Dear father and all, i believe you raised a chronic issue of concern regarding the Coptic congregations every where and its relation with the Coptic Church leaders ,Pope .Bishops and Clergies . i believe like others the biggest challenge we must first fix our home and act as Christians before we look at other issues and debates . Simply our Coptic Church leaders lost the plot , the mission of our lord Jesus Christ and our great values of our Christian way of life . Christianity is a way of life with great values and we must act and live as real followers of Jesus Christ .We must learn to focus all the time in our lord and savior Jesus Christ . Most of the time the Pope did so and whatever and with the blessing of him and the bishops etc and we feel all the time that they are more important than Christ and our saints .Also we must get rid of this big hirachy empire of the mother church and we must put the right bishop or priest to look after the affairs of the congregation. Do not get an ignorant person about family affairs or ignorant in the system of education or marriage arrangements from a visitor bishop of unemployed Egyptians from our Aussie girls , this is not acceptable for our community and it will bring more disasters to our Australian Coptic community .also our Coptic community must be heard in their concerns and not to be ignored and cheated ????!!! We must learn the gift of giving ,giving and giving not only from our money but more than that from our time , love and care to others and specially those least . Giving is the secured key to heaven . our Church lack mercy and it is a church of of Sacrifice . our church lost direction . lost direction in mercy ,in trust ,in honesty , no more transparency , nil responsibility and nil accountability at the end of the day . Decisions are taken without the community approvals .buildings are purchased and souls need the effort and must be built . might be our church in the modern world became heavily institutionalised rather than the simple way our lord put the foundation 2000 years ago . Simply the church must practice what it is preached . The consequences of this big dilemma today people run and listen to the preachers of Christian TV stations every where and benefit spiritually more than the priests on Sunday mass sermon in which the priest take lightly the brains of the congregations and say a couple of words without any preparations ???!!in addition those priests ,we see them once a week in a mass ,so we come back to the point that Jesus wants mercy ,mercy and mercy . I hope those concerns would be taken constructively ???!! overhaul of our Coptic Orthodox Church is a MUST .Hope i did not waste my time and yours but i believe the situation is out of proportion???!!May the holy spirit guide us to praise his name every where, amen .

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  7. Thank you all for your comments, suggestions and for sharing your experiences. Thank you Mario especially for sharing a very personal journey.

    Your suggestions will certainly help me in my choice of what to include in the book. By the way, there is a Q&A section on our parish website where it is possible to submit questions. I haven’t answered questions on it for some time, but there are lots of answers already on there, and I think i might try to answer a few each week again. The link is: http://www.stbishoy.org.au/modules/smartfaq/

    Fr Ant

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  8. Abouna, forgive me, but…

    @Romani… REALLY?? Excuse what I’m about to say, but I haven’t read so much ignornant crap in a long time! I can go on and on about how wrong you are, but I don’t think it’s worth my time!!

    Anyway… Abouna, God bless your work!
    I’ve just got a question, do you know if the Coptic Church has an official catechism? Because if there is such a document I’d be very interested to get my hands on a copy.

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  9. yes , unfortunately a big mess of issues of concerns , arrogant , negative attitudes , not acting as Christians persons in our church leaderships and in our Australian Coptic Orthodox Church do exist and we must face it because it affects our spiritual Christian way of life and our Australian Coptic community . sadly a lot of members left for good to other non Coptic orthodox churches , some just turn up to get the holly communion and keep going ,others turn up in feasts . i wonder if any recent survey or statistics done by our churches ???!!!i believe our old Australian Coptic community positive attitude spirit who built our churches over 40 years did their bit . it is time now for our well educated and positive attitude new generation and new blood to look after our churches by maintaining our current church members and attracting as well new members . they have a big challenge and huge task in hand , just needs positive and responsible attitude as followers of Jesus . everything is possible in God .Focus in Jesus HE is the only way and life ,amen . 🙂

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  10. When I said ignorant, I was referring to you!
    Perhaps you should educate yourself on what the situation is really like before you make such offensive judgements…

    Anyway, I’ll keep my mouth shut I think…

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  11. I belong to an Eastern Catholic church and I have been introduced to the Coptic Orthodox church through my fiancée. I came to love the Coptic Church and I found it very similar to my church- to the point whereby it felt a lot more like home to me than the Roman Catholic Church. I particularly love the fellowship and the close-knit community.

    And whilst technically speaking the woman is supposed to follow the man into his faith and he is meant to guide her to spirituality; I am happy to be a member of the Coptic Church. There is one thing that I have a problem understanding and no-one is able to explain this to me. Why is it that I need to take mayroun in order to be recognized as a member of the church?

    The church which I currently belong shares the same traditions, we have the 7 holy sacraments, and we are immersed when baptised- just like the orthodox church. By taking the mayroun, I feel as though the Coptic Church is basically denying my baptism as though it didn’t happen.

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  12. Hi Anonymous.

    It is lovely to hear that you are feeling comfortable in the Coptic Orthodox Church. And you are certainly right about the similarity in faith and practice between all the Eastern Christian Churches. Rest assured that the Coptic Church does not in any way deny your baptism. If that were the case, you would have needed to be re-baptised. This is what we do, say, for someone joining the Coptic Church who has only been baptised in a Protestant Church. In that situation, since Protestants do not see baptism as sacrament in the same way we understand it, but only as a symbolic gesture, they do of course need to be re-baptised, this time as a true sacramental baptism.

    It might interest you to know that until modern times, a Catholic joining the Coptic Church was neither baptised nor chrismated. Instead, after suitable preparation, they stood before the altar in Church and publicly recited a confession of the Coptic Orthodox faith, their free desire to join the Church, and their commitment to live by the Church’s ways. And that was it. I am not sure when exactly the change happened, but at some stage the idea of “confirming” the person with the Holy Chrism was introduced, no doubt as a blessing of some kind. At one time, it was even suggested that Catholics DID need to be rebaptised, I guess because of the slight differences in faith between the two Churches. However, the current practice in the Coptic Church is only to CONFIRM the person in the Coptic Church with the Holy Chrism.

    I would view this as being a kind of milestone, a point that demarcates when one has joined the Coptic communion, and see the Holy Chrism as being the blessing of the Holy Spirit upon the taking of that step.

    We should all pray for the eventual successful completion of the ecumenical efforts to lift the bans and anathemas between the sacramental Churches, the Orthodox and the Catholics. If we truly understood what a crime against the body of Christ this separation is, and how deeply it affects our young people who wish to intermarry, we would all be working ten times harder to achieve this. May God reward our beloved late Pope Shenouda III for his heroic and tireless efforts in this direction. We pray that others will now take up this mission and see it to completion in our lifetimes.

    Hope that helps a little.

    Fr Ant

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  13. Well said father, Jesus bless you , ,i believe all the followers of Christ within their different denominations and background are looking for that day that all of us to be intact as a” whole” in the body of our lord Jesus Christ without the current non beneficial, harmful division all over the place .Jesus love is UNCONDITIONAL for all of us and no set of rules “Religion ” will stop it .i thank the lord and i believe that as we Australian Coptic Orthodox community understand this issue of concern and its vital importance and we work hard towards its promotion and success . Hope we see the fruits of it in our lifetime as you mentioned . Every thing is possible in God ,amen .Focus in Jesus ,HE is the only way and life .

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  14. Thank you fr.
    That was very insightful.

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  15. I revisited this article because it is of great importance for the future of our local Coptic orthodox church in this part of the world ,i believe i addressed it before here in the blog and somewhere else ,in my humble personal experience in order to maintain congregation in our church and to attract more two basic issues must be addressed and promoted , first our identity is Australian Coptic orthodox community , those ethnicity things and organizations are entitled to it but out of our churches ; we thank our lord now our church is catering for a lot of Australians of different background ethnicity and i believe our backyard and country side has got so many ready to come to Jesus ; the other thing positive attitude and welcoming people to come with a bit of church flexibility, smile so they get in their comfort zone quickly, giving from time ,effort ,patience etc. and hope to be a uniform approach in ritual aspects for them by the whole diocese , hope our diocese will do some homework in this “i am not talking about must ritual orthodox sacraments to be done for them, might need also to be visited ??!!” just i thought to share in this vital issue of concern as our lord Jesus Christ is looking for the salvation of all his creatures amen .

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