CLARKSVILLE, Tenn.— What started out as a leisurely Saturday afternoon at Bethel Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Sango for Pastor Stewart Salyer ended with an opportunity to demonstrate the ecumenical spirit that Christian denominations speak of so often. For Salyer, though, this would not be something to talk about. It would be something that could be done.
A young man with his wife and child spotted Salyer in the church parking lot and pulled in to speak with him. The man, Matthew Japheth, inquired about the possibility of holding Christian worship services at Bethel once a month on a Saturday morning.
From that conversation came several more conversations, including Sayler talking with the church Session members. Sharing a church facility with another congregation is done all the time across America, even when the congregations are from differing traditions. But this was going to be different.
On Saturday, July 5, St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church held its first monthly worship service at Bethel. Coptic Christians are among the earliest Christians to form after the death of Jesus Christ.
The faith tradition traces its roots to the years between 42 and 62 A.D. It was the Apostle St. Mark who founded Coptic Christianity after going to Egypt following the death of Christ. Coptic means "Egypt." The name has survived and is no different than using the words American Christians or French Christians.
Copts, as they are referred to, are not part of Roman Catholicism. They split from Rome in 325 A.D., long before the split that created the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054. The tradition precedes the founding of Islam in 632.
The Rev. Youhanna Ghebranious serves as pastor of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, which is based in Nashville. There are six Coptic congregations in Nashville. Adel Salama serves as the Clarksville contact.
Ghebranious, affectionately called Father John, explained, "There are between 12,000 and 15,000 Coptic Christians in Nashville. The greatest number of Copts are in Egypt, where we are 10 percent of the total population of 85 million. We are a distinct minority, and we continue to be subjected to violent persecution and discrimination.
"We have 11 families in our congregation that add up to 55 members. Having a monthly worship service in Clarksville is something we have talked about for some time. Because of Pastor Stewart and his congregation, we now have a home here where we can worship."
Coptic worship and traditions
To a casual observer, a Coptic Christian worship service is similar to an Eastern Orthodox service. The priest wears vestments, there is incense used and Holy Communion is central to the service. Egyptian is the language used. All but one member of the congregation are Egyptian. The other member is from Eritrea.
Father John wants to educate people to Coptic traditions. "We are followers of Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and Savior and provides us with everything we need. Our style of worship reflects our culture and traditions," he stated.
"Copts are the forgotten part of the Christian story. Yet our founder was one of the original 12 apostles. Monastic traditions began in Egypt with St. Anthony and, from there, spread throughout the Middle East and into Europe."
Among church leaders and media representatives, it is generally agreed that today the Coptic Christians are the most persecuted Christians on earth.
"In Egypt, we are blamed for everything. The Muslim Brotherhood blames the Copts for the overthrow of former-President Morsi. We have lived in harmony with Arabs and Muslims for centuries, but the jihadists hate us, even more than they hate other Christians. The ISIS terrorists are the same way."
Active persecutions are taking place in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. At least 40 Coptic churches were burned following the fall of President Morsi in 2013.
"Abdel el-Sissi, the new Egyptian president, is tolerant of us and has assured us he will stop the killings and the burning of our churches," said Father John. "We are a people of peace and wish to live in harmony with people everywhere."
Living in harmony
"We are very grateful to the people of Bethel and to Pastor Stewart for letting us worship here. I hope some Bethel members will attend one of our services and experience our faith with us. We want to teach others and also learn from others."
For Salyer's part, "This is a great opportunity for our congregation. We already share our Christian faith, and by working together, we will learn to share our cultures and customs."
To learn more about Coptic Christians, visit the website of the Diocese of the Southern U.S. at www.suscopts.org.