Different rites but a common faith
If you ever find yourself passing near the Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Ħaż-Żebbuġ on a Sunday morning, you can easily be captivated by unfamiliar hymns in a strange language emanating from the church. Every Sunday tens of families, mainly Egyptians, but also Eritreans and Ethiopians gather here to celebrate the Coptic liturgy of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
The Coptic Church is the largest Christian church in Egypt. It belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches and is the biggest Christian community in the Arab World. Estimates of its numbers vary between 5 to 7 million. There are also Coptic communities around the whole world including in Malta. Locally, around 200 people, including families with children and young adults, form the Coptic Community. Of these, between 60 and 80 people attend regularly.
Copts believe that their Church dates back to around 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria. This makes it one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land
The Coptic Liturgy is celebrated and sung in Arabic and in the Coptic languages and is specific to the Egyptian Orthodox Rite. It includes old hymns descending from the ancient Egyptians, prior to the dawn of the Arab era. These represent a valuable inheritance, dating back to the apostolic age. Remnants of authentic Pharoic music have passed from one generation to another, preserved in the heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Maltese Coptic community is led by Fr Paula Elsouriany a missionary monk assigned from Alexandria to serve the Copts in Malta. “Due to the hospitality of the Maltese Catholic Church, we find it very easy to assimilate here. All this is built on mutual understanding and our common belief in the faith of the Apostles,” said Fr Paula.
The two Apostolic Churches celebrate the same feasts but differ in several traditions and practices. An example is the Lenten fast. The Copts fast for the whole forty days of Lent and only eat bread and vegetables for the whole period. They even don’t consume food and drink between midnight and midday for the entire Lent!
Notwithstanding the differences, including the different rites, and having different Popes, one in Rome and one in Alexandria, the Coptic and Catholic Churches have many similarities including the Creed and the seven sacraments.