Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria will make his first visit to Brazil in February. He is the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church and main Christian authority in Egypt.
"He will give his blessing to the whole of Brazil," said Aghason Anba Paul, priest of the only Coptic Church in the country, located in the Jabaquara neighborhood, in the southern region of the city of São Paulo (Southeast Brazil).
Indeed, the main reason for Shenouda’s visit is to consecrate the church, completed in September 2001, and which already works in practical terms with services on Wednesdays and Sundays.
The Egyptian patriarch is used to travelling to hold direct contact with the faithful around the world. Before arriving in São Paulo, on the 10th, he will pass through South Africa, then follows to Bolivia, the United States and London, in England.
"The Coptic Church is spread around the world, we came to Brazil quite late," said father Aghason.
Shenouda has headed the Coptic Church, which gathers the absolute majority of Egyptian Christians, for 34 years and is the 117th Pope in a line that, according to tradition, started with St Mark in the first century of the Christian era. In the same way as St Peter is considered the first Pope by Catholics, St Mark was the first Pope for the Coptics.
"The apostles of Christ set about on mission throughout the world and St Mark evangelist went to Egypt," stated Aghason. "At the time the Egyptians suffered a lot with roman domination," he added.
The Egyptian popes are chosen in quite a different manner to the Conclave of Vatican cardinals. Gathered at the Cairo Cathedral, bishops, members of churches’ councils and other religious authorities vote on a list of eligible popes.
After a service, the three names most voted for are written on pieces of paper and deposited in a jar. Then a child is called to take out one of the pieces of paper.
This is done three times and the name that is repeated becomes the chosen one. If there is a draw, the ritual is repeated. "The name of Pope Shenouda came out three times in a row," remarked Aghason.
Shenouda, aged 82, was born in Asyut, in the south of Egypt, and his baptism name is Nazeer Gayed. As in Catholicism, when named pope, the Egyptian orthodox patriarch adopts the name of a saint. According to Aghason, he has more than 50 years of monastic life and wrote more than 120 religious books.
Shenouda was the first Coptic pope to visit the Vatican in 1,500 years, in 1973, when he was hosted by Paul VI. The visit was returned on the year 2000 by John Paul II during a journey to Egypt.
"Pope Shenouda likes his land, Egypt, very much, and is considered a great political and religious authority," said Aghason.
"Every Wednesday he lectures at the Cairo Cathedral to about 5,000 people," he added.
The patriarch of Egyptian Christians arrives in Brazil on the 10th of February. The service to consecrate he church in Jabaquara will take place on the 12th at 8:30 a.m. and will be open to the public.
Saint Mark in Alexandria
In the mid first century, after preaching throughout Egypt, Mark established his church in Alexandria. That is why the city is considered the center of Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church. But in reality, nowadays the Coptic Cathedral is in Cairo and Shenouda shares his time between the Egyptian capital and the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, located in the desert about 100 kilometers northeast of Cairo, and every two weeks he travels to Alexandria. The Coptic Church has a long monastic tradition.
Only in the 5th Century A.D. did the Coptic Church become an autonomous institution. According to Aghason, although there is no great disagreement with regard to the Catholic Church, there are conceptual differences.
The Copts do not believe, for example, in the existence of Purgatory and they differ from the Catholics with regard to aspects of the nature of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.
One of the stretches of Christian history that is most revered by the Copts is the passage of the Holy Family through Egypt. According to tradition, Joseph, Mary and Jesus spent three and a half years in the country, after Herod the Great ordered the "Killing of the Innocents" in Bethlehem. There is also, in the Coptic neighborhood of Cairo, a crypt where Christ and his family are supposed to have lived.
Another difference is that the Coptic Church permits married priests, but only if they were married before being ordained. Those who opt for a monastic life, however, may not be married.
"Coptic" is a Westernized term for the Arabic word "qibt", which comes from the Greek "aigyptios", or simply "Egyptian". That is, "Coptic" means "Egyptian". And the Copts believe they descend from the ancient Egyptians.
They even have their own language, also called Coptic, and their writing is similar to Greek. The language, however, is only used in services. In their daily life, the Christian population speaks Arabic. "And some families from southern Egypt are still fluent in the language," stated Aghason.
Copts in São Paulo
In the church in São Paulo the service is in Portuguese. "Most of the people who come to the services are Brazilians and it would be hard to understand if it were not in Portuguese," stated the priest. Parts of the ceremony, however, are in Arabic and Coptic.
"This is to, at the same time, give the church its own climate," he said. The climate is also provided by the paintings and furniture brought from Egypt. The baptismal font is as large as a bathtub, large enough to bathe the whole body of the child, following the Coptic tradition.
Aghason arrived in Brazil in August 1993, just two months after having been ordained priest. "I was ordained with this mission," he said. But why Brazil?
"So as to provide a service to the Egyptians living in the country, we are a very ancient church and are present all around the world. In the United States, for example, there are over 100 churches, in Canada 20 or 30.
"There are also churches in France, London, Italy, where we even have two bishops, in all the countries in Africa, there is a new church in Mexico and one in Bolivia," he added.
Proving his thesis that the Copts are not that far from the Catholics, Aghason stated that when he arrived in Brazil, he spent a year and a half living in São Bento monastery, one of the most traditional catholic institutions of São Paulo.
He then worked in the Syrian Orthodox Church. Only in 1997 did they purchase a plot of land for the construction of their Saint Mark Church, in Jabaquara neighborhood. He also said that many of the people who go to the church are Catholic.
Aghason was also born in southern Egypt and his baptism name is Girgis Akhnoukh Sereig. Coptic priests adopt names of saints when they are ordained, in this case Anba Paul means Saint Paul.
Before becoming a monk in 1988, he graduated in Chemistry and spent four years living in the United States. Today, apart from speaking Portuguese, he has naturalized himself Brazilian. He lives behind the church with four Cocker Spaniel.
Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church
Rua São Borja, 201, Cidade Vargas, Jabaquara, São Paulo
Sundays at 09:00 am and Wednesdays at 06:30 pm
On the day of consecration, the service will begin at 08:30 am
Anba – www.anba.com.br