Nashville’s Coptic Catholic Community

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) — The small community of Coptic Catholics in Nashville, consisting of about 40 families who have moved to the city from their native Egypt, threw open their arms wide to welcome Cardinal Antonios Naguib, patriarch of the worldwide Coptic Catholic Church.

“It is a great hope, a great pleasure to have him (the patriarch) here,” said Moussa Tawadrous, a leader of the local community.

He will “help build our Coptic Catholic Church in Nashville,” Tawadrous told the Tennessee Register, the diocesan newspaper.

Cardinal Naguib was in town the weekend of July 24 as part of a tour of Coptic Catholic communities across the United States.

The purpose of the visit was to demonstrate his spiritual proximity to the local people and “to hear about their situation, their needs and problems,” he said, “to show them we are always supporting them, doing what we can to remain in link with them.”

There are five Coptic congregations in the United States, Cardinal Naguib said: Los Angeles, New Jersey and Brooklyn, N.Y., and two smaller communities in formation, one in Nashville and one in Boston.

Though small, the Coptic Catholic Church, one of the Eastern Catholic churches, is one of the oldest Christian communities.

Based in Alexandria, Egypt, the community was established by St. Mark in the first century and was home to some of the early fathers of the church, including St. Alexander, St. Cyril and St. Athanasius. In the fifth century, the church in Alexandria split with Rome, but their union was later restored.

“We are one in the faith, one in the highest authority, the Holy Father,” Cardinal Naguib explained.

Currently, Father Youssef Boushara, a Coptic Catholic priest in Brooklyn, travels to Nashville once every two or three months to celebrate Mass for the local community.

Finding a priest who could live in Nashville would help nurture the faith of the Coptic Catholic immigrants here, Cardinal Naguib said.

A problem facing immigrant communities everywhere, Cardinal Naguib said, is that as the succeeding generations assimilate into their new culture, they lose a connection to the faith of their homeland.

While he was in Nashville, the cardinal also spoke about the situation in Egypt, saying, “We are living in a very critical period.”

He talked about restrictions that Egyptian society and the government put on Christians and their churches, and noted Egyptians are facing several important elections.

“We’re calling for religious freedom,” he said, “Not only religious freedom. In general we would say freedom and equality and basing the government on citizenship and not just religion.”

His concerns about his homeland are on the minds of Egyptian Catholics elsewhere in the United States.

In the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., the events that have been unfolding in Egypt for the last seven months may seem far away for most but not for Azza Keuntjes, a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Sigel.

An Egyptian native, Keuntjes had family living in Cairo at the time of the upheaval — her mother and brother, Christians, and her father, who is Muslim. Baptized and raised in the Greek and Coptic Orthodox tradition, her family converted to Catholicism when Keuntjes was a youth.

As it turned out, her family was distant from the violence and Keuntjes’ mother, Ida Meleik, soon came to make her annual American visit from July to early December.

Both women remain anxious about the situation in their homeland, but they are encouraged by the same faith in Christ and family support that has kept Egyptian Christians buoyant amid a seemingly endless sea of Muslim troubles.

For every Christian who lives in Egypt, Keuntjes said, the threat of danger and violence is always at the back of one’s mind.

“Every once in a while, you feel danger,” she said. “It’s cyclical, but you just never knew. We have a very strong faith; it’s a faith I see here in these rural areas, very strong and nothing will shake it. In those moments, I felt that you could kill me, but I will never deny Christ.”

It was a faith she received from her mother, who spoke to The Catholic Times, the La Crosse diocesan newspaper, about the prospects of a peaceful future for Egypt. She spoke in French, with her daughter serving as translator.

“The (Christian) church leaders are requesting the equal rights of Christians and Muslims, but the Muslim Brotherhood wants the government to do away with rights for the others,” according to Meleik.

“They want them to convert or pay taxes and cover up our women,” she said. The “jizya” is a mandatory tax non-Muslims pay to fund Muslim social programs.

“In September they’re supposed to have a new constitution coming out and one of the items they’re fighting about is the demand that the president must be Muslim,” she added. “So right away, things don’t look good for Christians.”

But finding strength in the daily recital of the rosary and Mass, Meleik knows that no government can conquer the kingdom of God.

“My faith won’t change and victory only comes from Christ,” she said. “We don’t seek any glory on earth but only in heaven.”

Contributing to this story was Joseph O’Brien in La Crosse.

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