Seven months after Egyptians took to the streets in massive political protests, the patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church came to the United States to reassure those of his flock who live here.
Patriarch Antonios Naguib, who was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI last year, met with Egyptian Catholics who are concerned about their loved ones in the north African country.
While in Brooklyn, he visited the oldest Coptic Catholic parish outside of Egypt: Resurrection Church, Park Slope, on July 31. The parishioners welcomed him and were eager to hear his take on the change in government in their native land.
“His visit today has made a special impact because Egypt has moved on and we have not,” said Deacon Ezzat Felter. “He helps put the link between the new and the old.”
As head of the Catholic Church in Egypt, Cardinal Naguib said he is cautiously hopeful for the future situation of Catholics in his country, who make up only 1% of the population. Ten percent of the country is Christian.
He said he is fearful that radical Islamists may gain strength and come to have even more influence in social and political affairs during the upcoming election. However, he said, many Muslims share the same goals as Christians.
“There are many moderate Muslims who wish to have a state where people can live in peace and justice,” he said. “And this is what gives us hope.”
The cardinal said Christians have faced many difficulties in the last two millennia as the political and social atmosphere endured many changes.
However Christians stayed strong in their faith, the patriarch said. Despite the current political upheaval, the 75-year-old patriarch said he has hope in the faith of the people.
In order to face the new challenges present in their nation, Christian leaders met in the aftermath of the popular revolt. They examined the circumstances in their country and decided on a plan to move forward, said Cardinal Naguib.
“We discussed the way to support and orient our faithful: give them trust and hope and ask them to join and support the parties which work for a democratic and civil state,” he said.
The patriarch brought a similar request with him on his pastoral visit.
“My message to the Catholics and the people of the United States is to support not any one group or force that will win in the coming period but to support the force of the parties and politicians that are for justice, democracy, equality and the right kind of freedom,” he said.
As Christians in Egypt took to the streets to fight for their rights and the rights of all the people in their country, the heads of the Christian Churches met for a second time in order to write a letter to the military force currently in power. Cardinal Naguib said the leaders requested a draft of a new law governing the procedures of building and operating worship sites.
He said clearer laws can help stop violence against Christians because some Islamic extremists view church buildings in Egypt as illegal. New legislation would allow the dispute to enter the legal system. However in order for any new law to be practical, the state must work with Christians in the country.
The patriarch said the new the military has not yet responded to the request.
A Message of Hope
Despite the many problems his country is facing, the patriarch came to the United States with a message of hope and a positive outlook. He visited several Roman Catholic and Coptic Catholic parishes in Brooklyn. He celebrated Mass in Resurrection Coptic Church and in Holy Name Church, Windsor Terrace, where he was residing. After each Mass he stayed to greet parishioners. He shook their hands, joked with them, talked with them and prayed with them. It was clear that he was enjoying his visits.
“I am thankful to the Catholic Church in the United States for all the things she does to support our church and mission by prayers, financial help and also for the presence of American missionaries, priests and religious sisters; they are not many but they represent your country well,” he said.
The cardinal said there is much good that can come out of Catholics uniting.
“In the Middle East we have seven Eastern Catholic Churches,” he said. “Each has its own historical and cultural traditions. In the central context of each, there is a call to join in the celebration in the union of the Body of Jesus Christ.”
To show his support of the Copts, Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn came to Resurrection Church to welcome the patriarch. Bishop Mansour said he has respect for patriarch because of his vision of unity.
“He is very unique in that he has the courage to speak on behalf of the youth,” the bishop said. “He speaks about a future that includes Catholics and Muslims.”