The Coptic Church is considered one of the oldest in the world. It is a traditional Egyptian Christian Church founded on three important elements which can be compared to the three Pyramids of Egypt; we could call them ‘the pyramids of Coptic ecclesial history’.
The first pyramid is the theological teaching represented by some champions of holiness, like St. Athanasius the Apostolic and St. Cyril the Pillar of the Faith. While in recent history the best known representative is Pope Shenouda III.
The second pyramid is the testimony: the Church has generated martyrs – there is a long history of them in Egypt – and continues to generate them today. The most famous are St. Mina and St. Damian.
Lastly, the third pyramid is the hermitic and ascetic life. Our Church has seen the birth of the vocations of several monks and hermits, among whom St. Anthony [of the Desert].
These three pyramids constitute the living history of the Church, its spiritual history which began in Egypt, but which has now spread all over the world to the extent that today there are Coptic churches in over 67 countries.
And as far as concerns the pastoral priorities?
At the top of the list is the care of the Coptic Christians, particularly those who live in the isolated regions of Egypt, in the villages, the desert areas or in the makeshift settlements. Alongside this is the care of the children: the attention to infancy is pushing us to consider entrusting the pastoral of children and teenagers to the age of 15 to a special bishop. For the young people from 15 to 25 there is another person in charge, Anba Mûsà, and for the 25 upwards age group we would actually like to delegate a bishop for the care of the Christian family.
Furthermore, there is a pressing need for integral human development. For this aim we shall begin to hold congresses for the study of five main subjects: monasticism, seminars, family law, personal property and real estate (the awqâf) and the general ecclesial projects of all the eparchies for economic growth.
On various occasions, above all at the time of the most important celebrations of the liturgical year, you visited the brothers of the other Churches, a gesture that was appreciated by many, like a spring breeze on the Churches of Egypt. How do you see the ecumenical question?
I would like to speak specifically of the Middle East. Here we are about 300 million people, of whom only 5% is Christian, according to a rough percentage. Therefore our Christian voice must be one only. We express this single voice in two important contexts.
The first is constituted by the charity meetings with the Patriarchs and Bishops of all the Christian Churches. One of the happiest moments for me was when I went to visit the Catholic Church in Egypt and the Patriarch Antonios Naguib during his illness. I also met the Patriarch of the Greek-Catholics Gregorius III Lahham and the Patriarch Theodorus II of the Greek Orthodox. Just today I spoke to the Patriarch Beshara Rai in Lebanon and Msgr. Sayyah came to see us here. These are charitable relations that in the Bible are called ‘the virtue of fraternal love’. This aspect involves me personally.
The second context consists in the common activities among the young people, children and families, which all move around love. These activities entail an exchange of charity, while we keep ourselves somewhat distant from everything that is connected with the dogma and which could cause a certain tension. I believe in diversity in unity. If I go into a garden where the flowers are all red and the same height, it is boring. Instead, if I go into a garden and find a red rose, another which is yellow and a third one that is white and I can see trees of different height, this diversity is an expression of beauty and strength. While I am seated here with you, I am rich in my brothers in Christ.
Can this stress on meetings also lead to reconsidering some difficult aspects of the relationship between Catholics and Orthodox Copts? A painful element for the Catholics, for example, is the fact that their baptism is not considered valid by the Coptic Orthodox and must therefore be repeated in the case of a mixed marriage….
The Catholic Church is a sacramental and traditional church that believes in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments. It is an apostolic church. We have the greatest respect for this, but there are some problems in the understanding and terminology and a theological dialogue among scholars is needed. As far as concerns the sacrament of baptism, each one has its own way of administering it. Baptism takes on two forms: by immersion or aspersion. In the Coptic Church baptism takes place by immersion. Hence a series of differences arise. But we can valorise each situation, according to the conditions of the person.
Therefore the problem lies in the modality of baptism, not in its substance.