Pope Tawadros II presided over the Divine Liturgy on Sept. 18 at St. Mary and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in North Syracuse. The pope is visiting Coptic churches in the Northeast until Oct. 11. (Courtesy of Father Abraham Azmy, director of U.S.-Coptic media)
While Pope Francis is visiting the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia this week, the world’s other pope was making his rounds in the northeastern United States last week.
Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, visited North Syracuse on Sept. 18 to consecrate the altar of St. Mary and St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, which is located in the former Andrews Memorial Methodist Church building on Church Street.
“Today is a blessed day for the history of this church,” Bishop David of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of New York and New England said after the Divine Liturgy, or the service in which Pope Tawadros II anointed the altar.
“There are only two popes,” Bishop David told the Star-Review. “The Pope of Alexandria was named pope before the Pope of Rome.”
Father Kyrillos Sadek, the priest of St. Mary and St. Mina, said the pope’s visit was “a blessing that we never dreamt would happen.”
While St. Mary and St. Mina moved into its current home in 2016, its “birth certificate” will read 2018, Bishop David said. Each Coptic Church must be officially consecrated by a bishop or the pope, according to Father Abraham Azmy, director of U.S.-Coptic media for Pope Tawadros II.
Fr. Abraham said this was the second visit to the U.S. for Pope Tawadros II, who was named head of the church in 2012. He last visited the States in 2015.
Bishop David said the pope has visited churches with as many as 7,000 attendees, but he does visit small churches as well, like the one in North Syracuse. Fr. Kyrillos said St. Mary and St. Mina is made up of about 40 families, or 150 people.
“He says that ‘I love to visit the small churches and pray in the small churches,’” Bishop David said of the pope.
Fr. Abraham, the pope’s director of media, said Pope Tawadros II has more on his plate than just visiting churches and receiving international dignitaries as visitors. The church has had to contend with violent attacks in recent years. On Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, suicide bombers detonated their devices at churches in Tanta and Alexandria. Thirty people were killed in Tanta and 17 people were killed in Alexandria. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The pope escaped the bombing in Alexandria by mere minutes, having left to look into the Tanta attack.
Recently, an incident from within St. Macarius Monastery, which is located about an hour and a half north of Cairo, rocked the church. Two monks went on trial this week for the July 29 murder of Bishop Epiphanius. Wael Saad Tawadros, whose ecclesiastical name was Isaiah or Ash’eyaa, confessed to killing the bishop over ideological differences and disagreement over financial donations to the monastery. Raymon Rasmy Mansour, whose monk name was Faltous, is accused of being the perpetrator’s accomplice, acting as a lookout while the murder took place.
In response to Bishop Epiphanius’ murder, the two monks were stripped of their ranks and titles. Pope Tawadros II also put travel restrictions on Coptic monks and ordered them to delete their social media accounts. He closed St. Macarius Monastery to visitors and increased security around the monastery.
Fr. Abraham said Pope Tawadros II invoked the story of Judas Iscariot, who according to the Bible betrayed Jesus Christ, leading to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus.
“If one monk killed his master … this could be expected from an evil person,” Fr. Abraham explained.
Fr. Abraham said the pope gave a sermon after the death of Bishop Epiphanius, assuring Copts that there will be peace in the church.
“He brought peace to the church. He was very clear about the message,” Fr. Abraham said.
The pope’s message of peace was evident at the Sept. 18 celebration. Local officials such as Clay Town Supervisor Damian Ulatowski and North Syracuse Mayor Gary Butterfield met with Pope Tawadros II and accepted gifts from him at the Divine Liturgy.
Bishop David thanked local leaders for their warm welcome, as well as the New York State Police and the North Syracuse Police Department for their assistance in providing security during the pope’s visit.
Pope Tawadros led the lengthy Divine Liturgy, which began at 9 a.m. and concluded around 1 p.m. Afterwards, he feasted with congregants before departing for his next destination of Albany. He is traveling throughout the Northeast until Oct. 11.
“For us to have the head of the whole Coptic Church to visit us, pray the Divine Liturgy with us, consecrate our church altars and icons, greet each family and take pictures with us, this is an unimaginable blessing and a dream come true,” Fr. Kyrillos said. “For most of us, this would be a once in a lifetime experience.”
Maria Iskandar of East Syracuse said the pope’s visit is “a big blessing.”
“It’s an honor because he doesn’t come often to the States,” she said. “It’s my first time seeing a pope. I hope he can come again.”
Iskandar brought her 6-month-old son to the Divine Liturgy.
“I’m here to seek his blessing for his life and ask him to pray for us,” she said.
Dr. Tamer Malik came from his job as a transplant surgeon at Upstate University Hospital to attend the Divine Liturgy. He said it was a unique opportunity.
“It might not happen again,” he said. “For [the pope] it’s very difficult to be traveling all the time, so for him to be visiting a relatively small church with a small congregation is really nice.”
Bishop David said the pope’s visit helps Coptic congregations in the U.S. maintain their “connection to the motherland.”
“When the pope comes, we feel our father is visiting us,” he said.
“The visit also made us all feel the love and humility of our beloved pope and our beloved Bishop David,” Fr. Kyrillos said. “For them to include us in their schedule and to dedicate that much time for us showed us how much they love and care for each one in their flock.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.