Preserving ancient Coptic heritage in the East Bay
While the majority of the world’s Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th, a number of Orthodox sects follow an older-than-Gregorian calendar. They celebrate every year on January 7th.
One of the smaller Orthodox groups is Copts. They are the original Christians of Egypt and Sudan. In the past decade, there’s been an influx of Copts fleeing discrimination and violence back home. Just as they’re a minority in their homeland, when they emigrate to the US, they find they’re a minority here, too. For one, they follow a different calendar than most American Christians, hold many special vegan fasts, and overall are more conservative. So, in the diaspora, the church becomes more than a place of worship - it’s a crucial part of preserving the Coptic heritage, as immigrants raise new generations of American kids.
The majority of Coptic churches in the country are in California. One of the oldest - St Antonius Coptic Church - is nestled in the Hayward hills. Egyptian Coptic immigrants established it in 1976.
On a Sunday morning inside the church, about 150 people are standing in prayer behind red velvet pews. Men on one side, women on the other- some covering their heads with white lace scarves. All heads are bowed, as the priest leads them in a hymn.
They start in English. Then they switch to Arabic, their spoken language back home in Egypt. And then comes a switch even further back - to Coptic. That’s the language spoken by Egyptians until the 7th century. It evolved from Greek and Demotic, which goes back to 2000 BC, and traces its roots to the Egyptian language of the Pharaonic era that was written in hieroglyphics. Head Deacon George Bassilios says the language is a cornerstone of a heritage they’re trying hard to preserve.
“It’s the very, very ancient language of the Egyptians,” Bassilios says. “The Copts are those original inhabitants of Egypt that have used this language for many years before the conquest of the Arabs, and now we converted to Arabic language.”
Arabic became the official language with the advent of the Islamic Empire in 640 AD. Coptic is not spoken today - it’s now more of a liturgical language preserved within the walls of churches around Egypt. And this is one of the few places in America you’d hear it.
The ancient hymns echo off walls adorned in gold and red drapery, with life size paintings of Coptic Saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. Altar servers stand chanting in the front of the room, facing one another in two lines, swaying while playing finger cymbals, and tambourines
Meanwhile, the bishops wear white embellished robes and tall white papal head coverings with crosses. Bishop Bishoy Ray, the head of the church, and one of its original founders, addresses the congregation in interchangeable English and Arabic. Everyone calls him ‘Aboona’ -- ‘our father’ in Arabic.
After receiving communion, everyone goes out to the hall for some coffee and cake- vegan cake, because they are in days of fasting. For when they’re not fasting, there’s a little shop where they can buy Egyptian sausages, and cheeses from back home.
Sharing food is a big part of Coptic culture. Mary Allen has been coming here for 33 years, and drives over every week from Redwood City. She hands me a round piece of bread, about the size of my hand, and says this is a special bread, the priests prayed on it last night.
As I bite into it, I ask her what significance it has.
“You’re being blessed!” she says excitedly.
The church has grown from the 20 families that established it in 1975, to a congregation today of 450 families. Back in the 1970s, Bishop Ray says, things in Egypt were peaceful. Muslims and Christians lived side by side as neighbors. He recalls one day in college when he was over at a Muslim friend’s house, studying.
“His mom knew that I’m fasting, so she started to do fasting vegetarian food especially for me,” he says. “ And, while we're studying he excused himself to pray, and I excused myself to pray or read in Bible.”
Things were harmonious.
But the recent influx of Copts is a sign of darker times. Following the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, Coptic churches and homes were attacked by mobs. Bishop Ray says, the violence is foreign to them.
“It’s strange! It’s not a nature of Egypt or Egyptians. Something different. We heard about it in other countries but in Egypt, never ever!”
Over the past 3 years, he’s seen his congregation more than double. Whole families emigrated, all gravitating towards this church. Kids of all ages came as English language learners trying to fit in, including PavliFarag who emigrated with his family when he was 10. He’s a well spoken 16 year old, and says being a Coptic teen in America can be challenging. Egypt is a conservatively cultured society, and Orthodox Copts are even more conservative than the mainstream. Drinking is frowned upon even for adults. Much of the popular music is shunned as inappropriate. And no dating.
“Temptations are tough to deal with,” Farag says. “It’s not easy, I have a lot of stuff to still work on for sure.”
And then, there’s the fasting. There are 210 days of fasting in a year in the Coptic calendar. Like right now, as Farag observes the 43 day fast before Christmas.
“It’s hard when you go out with your friends to abstain from the dairy and all the dairy food, and just stick to the fast rules. I find that tough at times,” he says.
So when Bishop Ray was given the choice of growing the church into a cathedral, or building a Youth Center, he recalled words from the Church’s highest priest, in Egypt.
“Pope Shenouda always said - ‘church without youth is a church without future!’ And the youth reply ‘and youth without church is youth without future!’”
So in 2013, he opened the Coptic Youth Center in a building next to the church. It is a safe space where the kids can socialize within the community.
On this day, about 50 kids in colorful tees and shorts are playing basketball in the center’s gym.
Philopateer Sarofim is a bright eyed boy in blue shorts. I ask him what the best part is about coming here. The nine-year-old tells me having fun with friends and playing basketball, of course. But he adds too, “You pray to God and you’re just forgiven for all the bad things you did in your life!”
I walk up to some kids and break their huddle to ask why they come here. Nine-year-old Sofia Andrawess says, she likes being on a sports team where she can also talk about God and Coptic teachings at the same time. Ten year old Andrew Abuelsaad says he likes the opportunity to confess. To what, you may ask? “Sometimes when I say a bad word and I get in fights,” he says, “Aboona prays on you, and that means you don’t do it again.”
Oh, and about Christmas? Copts celebrate January 7th, not December 25th. So, do these kids feel alienated from their school peers? Confident eleven year old Brenna Banoub has the answer. She says, “my family … we celebrate on both days! We open gifts on the 25th but come to church and have family over on the seventh.”
Two Christmases. This is one of the things the church has decided to be flexible about. It’s a necessary part of living in America, says IsmatAbdelmalik, one of the founders of the church.
“The more the merrier!” Abdelmalik says. “We celebrate the birth of the Lord twice. As long as you’re remembering the reason for the season, that's what counts!”
I leave the kids to their game, the parents to their Sunday afternoon mingling. But I don’t leave without asking Deacon Bassilios for a quick language lesson in Coptic - to do my part in preserving this ancient language.
He teaches me to say “thank you.”
“Tee she pehmot entotk.”
Want to learn more? Here’s a Coptic lesson.