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A Coptic Church with an All-English Service

A Coptic church in Manhattan rents a Swedenborgian church every Saturday for a weekly service – done entirely in English.

By Neha Tara Mehta

It’s a Saturday morning but the hymns are Sunday’s. The Lord’s name is being invoked to the clap of cymbals and the rhythmic clanging of triangles. The music has its roots in the days of the Pharaohs in Egypt, but the prayers are in English.

Eighty men and women are in their Sunday best. The women have draped delicately woven white lace scarves over their heads, and as they kneel forward in prayer, one side of the church is sea of white. No one seems to mind that they are out at 8 a.m. on what is Biblically designated their day of rest.

Sunday comes a day early for this congregation of Orthodox Coptics at the New Church on East 35th Street between Fifth Avenue and Lexington. They are here because they don’t have a church of their own in the city — and this is the only day they can rent the New Church, a Swedenborgian church.

There are 20 Coptic Orthodox churches in the tri-state area, but what sets the Manhattan one part apart is that it is the only one with a service entirely in English. Most parishioners here are second or third generation Egyptian Americans who have tenuous ties with Egypt and the Arabic tongue.

The Rev. Antonious Tanious, who comes to the New Church every week from his New Jersey home church, St. Mary and St. Athanasius, says following God isn’t about following a language. “If you have kids here who want English that is going to help their walk with God, then so be it,” said Tanious.

The congregation shifted to the New Church only a year and a half ago. It started out by renting an Armenian church just a few blocks away, but had to move because the church had only one sanctuary. They Manhattan parishioners are looking for a place of their own, but as of now, prospects are bleak.

“To have real estate in Manhattan is an impossibility, unless we found a way of getting a stream of outside resources,” said Tanious. The congregation is supported by the home church in New Jersey, but finances are tight. Of the $3,000 total income of the church, rental alone takes up about $1,200. Then, there are salaries for Tanious and Rev. John Rizkalla, who started off as a parishioner and was later handpicked to be a priest by Tanious.

A tight budget means everyone multi-tasks. Tanious goes the extra mile by using the trunk of his Buick as a storeroom. Every Saturday, he carts candle stands, the incense chest, the bokhour (the incense), the Holy tablet, tunics for the deacons, the chalice, liturgy books, scarves for the ladies, pamphlets for weekly readings, the offertory box – and several other articles for the Manhattan service from New Jersey.

But coming to church on Saturdays has its benefits. It’s a great way to start the weekend — and the fact that the service is in English also helps non-Egyptian spouses to fit in.

“We are living in a very international city, and English is what everybody speaks people here,” said the German spouse of an Egyptian-American, who didn’t wish to be named. What also appeals to him is the slice of community life on Saturdays. “It’s an opening into the soul and an opening into the Egyptian way of life,” he added.

Friendships struck at the Saturday church spill over to the rest of the week as well. Three weeks ago, a deacon married a devotee he met at the church. Nada Badie, a manager at American Express came here seven years ago from New York. She has found a home away from home at the church.

“It’s a very unique demographic here —  we are all mostly young professionals. I hang out with a lot of people from here outside church as well… It’s a very tight-knit community,” said Badie, who is in her twenties, after receiving her communion.

Surprisingly, the Arab Spring isn’t the talking point at this church’s brunch-hour. Iskander says it’s because families of most parishioners were persecuted in Egypt and forced to leave in the 1950s.

“When you experienced the most extreme forms of religious discrimination, you try to forget that part of your life and start anew,” said Iskander, pointing out that Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution and forthcoming elections are discussed much more in churches at Queens and New Jersey, which have more Arabic-speaking, recent migrants from Egypt.

Tanious sees the role of the Manhattan church as that of a resource for those Coptics who need help. “We have lost touch with Egypt and we try to support fellow Egyptians whenever we are called on to support them. But we don’t know enough about what’s going on in Egypt to make it part of our conversation,” he said.

Even so, the continuing persecution of Coptics in Egypt has cast a shadow over the Manhattan church. A bomb blast at the midnight mass at the al-Qiddissin Church in Alexandria last Christmas led to security threats to the Free Church.

“In the previous years, we were worried about whether it might be raining or snowing when we came out of the church. This year, we were worried about bullets and attacks,” said Iskander. Many didn’t make it to the Christmas mass at the Free Church. This Christmas, they pray, would be a peaceful one.

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