Thursday, March 15, 2012

Copt Lent prayers for Pope Shenouda

Coptic Orthodox cross
Easter, just a month away, is my favorite holy day of the year, filled with faith and symbolism leading up to Holy Week and the Resurrection.

Last year I was in Beirut and participated in all the Passion Week ceremonies. I shall miss that. But I have been preparing and counting down the days to Easter with a Copt friend. This allowed me to learn more about the ancient Coptic people of Egypt and their rituals.

The 18 million Coptic community in Egypt, the UAE and worldwide began the Great Lent fast four weeks ago and have offered their prayers to Pope Shenouda, who is in poor health. The venerated Pope has been weak since back surgery a few years ago and members of his congregation are holding their breath for a sad announcement.

Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria
Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria -- born Nazeer Gayed on August 3, 1923 in Asyut, Upper Egypt -- is the 117th Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He is the head of The Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Pope Shenouda with Sheikh Khalifa
His Holiness was a guest in the UAE in April 2007, when he attended the inauguration ceremony of the new Cathedral of St. Anthony for Coptic Orthodox in Abu Dhabi -- a further expression of the Emirates’ openness and tolerance for religions. The Pope met then with UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and religious officials. He presented a speech praising the UAE's religious tolerance policy and its role in enhancing co-existence between different faiths.

The Cathedral of St. Anthony in Abu Dhabi
Pope Shenouda at St. Anthony's in Abu Dhabi
There are several other Coptic Orthodox churches in the Emirates, including two in Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Al Ain and one being built in Ras al-Khaimah.

Pope Shenouda was enthroned on November 14, 1971, nearly nine months after the death of Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria. He presides over a worldwide expansion of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He is known for his commitment to ecumenism and has, since the 1970s, advocated inter-denominational Christian dialogue. He devotes his writings, teachings and actions to spread and propagate understanding, peace, dialogue and forgiveness. No names have been made public on his eventual successor.

Coptic icon of St. Mark
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the largest Christian church in Egypt and the Middle East. Tradition has it that Saint Mark the apostle and evangelist established it in Alexandria in the middle of the 1st century, shortly after the ascension of Christ and during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius around 42 AD. By the beginning of the 3rd century AD, Christians constituted the majority of Egypt’s population, and the Church of Alexandria was recognized as one of Christendom's four Apostolic Sees, second only to Rome. The Church of Alexandria is thus the oldest Christian church in Africa.

Of the 18 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world, between 10 and 14 million are Egyptian natives under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. As a religious minority, the Copts are often victims of discrimination and acts of violence by religious bigots and extremists in modern day Egypt.

Being an integral part of Egypt's history, Christian Copts have shared and shined in all aspects of life in the country. The list of notable Egyptian Copts includes the sixth secretary-general of the United Nations Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the world's leading transplant surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, and world-renowned film directors Youssef Chahine and Henry Barakat. 

St. Anthony Monastery, one of the oldest in the world
There are also significant numbers of Copts in the Diaspora in countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Germany and Sudan. There are between 350,000 and 400,000 native African adherents in East, Central and South Africa. Although under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church, these adherents are not considered Copts, since they are not ethnic Egyptians.

The Copts, I learned, have seasons of fasting like no other Christian community. They fast for over 210 days out of the 365 days in a calendar year. The diet then is mainly vegan, cooked with either oil or water. No animal products -- meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, etc. -- are allowed.

There are seven weeks during the year – between Easter and Pentecost -- where there is no fasting even on Wednesdays and Fridays. This is a period of joy for the community in celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.

Lent, known as “the Great Fast,” is the main fast of the Copts. It consists of six weeks (40 days), which correspond to the 40 days Christ fasted on the mountain. It precedes Palm Sunday and Holy Week. There is an additional seven days of fasting before the beginning of the Great Lent, which serve as a preparatory period. Called "Pre-Lenten Fast" or "Preparatory Week," it is not part of the Great Lent fast. Sundays are excluded when counting these 40 days in that each Sunday is a celebration of the day of the week on which Christ rose and is a little Easter.

The days of fasting are days of repentance and contrition. At the same time, they are periods of joy and cheer as believers experience victory and power in their innermost self through fasting, prayer and alms giving.

The fast is very discreet. It is only through a change of routine in my friend’s lunch habits that I found out about her fasting and probed into it. It has been humbling to observe such personal faith and devotion. Personal in that it does not affect or try to affect others. It also led me to explore further into the writings and teachings of the revered Pope Shenouda, also known for his poetry and prose.

Wishing all my fasting friends and readers acceptance of their Lent offerings and counting down to a joyous Easter.

Related posts:
Good Friday Mass in Beirut – 23 April 2011