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Coptic Christians practice faith in peace on Long Island

About 500 families on Long Island belong to the Coptic Christian Orthodox denomination. They worship at St. Abraam Church in Woodbury.  Credit: Corey Sipkin

Long Islanders with ties to Egypt feel grateful — blessed really — that they can practice their unique form of Christianity peacefully, unlike many of their fellow faithful in other parts of the world. 

About 500 families in Nassau and Suffolk counties belong to the Coptic Christian Orthodox denomination, founded nearly 2,000 years ago after the apostle St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt. 

The center of their religious life is St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Center and St. Abraam Church, a four-acre campus in Woodbury where they not only worship but get together for retreats, camps and even basketball and soccer.

Woodbury has been a welcoming place since the church built the complex 30 years ago, said the Rev. Guirguis Tadros, the longest serving of the St. Abraam's three priests.

“We have a lot of friends," Tadros said of the community. "We are not isolated in any way and we encourage our children to be involved in everything.”

The gracious spirit of Woodbury emphasizes the persecution that Copts, as church members are known, have faced throughout their history. In the past few decade, the violence against them has escalated, particularly in their predominantly Muslim homeland.

“There has been persecution, all the way, all the time,” Tadros said.

Two years ago, for example, Islamic State terrorists claimed responsibility for the bombing of two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday that left 45 dead and 126 injured. A month later, another attack in Egypt killed more than two dozen.

As the bloodshed started to increase in the 1970s, Copts began migrating to other parts of the world. Roughly 500,000 of Egypt's 15 million Copts have settled in the United States. 

Today, the denomination has 250 churches stretching from coast to coast, with at least one in every state, said the Rev. Joseph Loka, another priest at St. Abraam.

A concentration of Copts live in New Jersey, Loka said, and New York City has several Coptic churches, including one on the Upper East Side leased from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. 

The Catholic and Coptic churches are alike in many ways: Each has a pope, for example. Both celebrate Mass. And neither allows women to be priests.

But the two faiths also have sharp differences.

In the Coptic Church, men and women often don't sit together during services, a tradition started both out of respect for the Muslim culture in Egypt and fear of raising suspicion with authorities.

Copts also select their priests from their congregations. Their training is a 40-day retreat at a monastery, not the years that Catholic seminarians study to be ordained.

Tadros was a doctor before he was chosen to serve. Loka was a pharmacist. The Rev. Moussa Shafik, the third priest, was an accountant. The church pays them a salary.

Many priests are married and have children, which Tadros believes helps them to relate better to their parishioners. 

“When I sit with somebody with a family problem, I know what a family problem is, I went through it,” Tadros said. “I know how hard it is to work, to earn money, how hard it is to struggle in this world.”

Steven Metri has been going to St. Abraam for all of his 22 years. He doesn't take for granted how free he is to practice his religion or how neighborly Woodbury is. 

“Considering how the Coptic people are treated in Egypt, I find we are very blessed and very fortunate that we are all safe, we have an easy way to worship and pray” said Metri, a Farmingdale State College student whose parents came to the United States in the 1980s. 

Tadros points to the good relationships that St. Abraam has with more mainline Christian denominations as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities. 

Oyster Bay Town officials have been more than supportive, too — from explaining the zoning process when the church wanted to expand to reaching out to the congregation when violence has flared in Egypt, he said.

“We are proud that the Town of Oyster Bay is a welcoming place for people of all faiths," said Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino. "St. Abraam’s has been a good neighbor to the Woodbury community and a focal point of spiritual life for its congregants.” 

And though the campus lies just out the borders of Huntington, Town Supervisor Chad Lupinacci recognizes the St. Mark center as a place for the wider community to come together.

The center has a large multipurpose room, four smaller rooms and a gymnasium. Outside is a basketball field and a grass field for soccer.

“We are lucky to have such a presence," he said. 

Tadros agrees the center, especially the gym, is a big reason why the wider community knows the church so well and is so accepting.

The congregation's annual Egyptian Festival also has done volumes over the past 30 years to educate the public about the Coptic denomination, Tadros said. This year's festival, which will include traditional food and guided tours of St. Abraam as always, is set for Sept. 20-22 and 27-29. 

“We are part of the community through the gym and through the festival,” he said. “If you come to the festival you are going to be surprised that most of the people at the festival are not Egyptians.”

For Metri, the college student, his faith is everything.

“It’s like my entire community," he said. "All my friends are here. All my morals come from here, my ethics. Really my entire life revolves around here.”

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