By Nigel Boys
Thousands of believers poured into Nashville, Tennessee on Friday night for their chance to catch a glimpse of the Pope, according to reports.
However, they weren’t there to see Pope Francis on another visit to the U.S. but Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic, or Egyptian, Christian Orthodox Church, USA Today reports.
In the first such papal visit since 2,000 Tawadros appeared at St. Pishoy Coptic Orthodox Church, along with priests and deacons, who were seated before images of Christ and the Apostles and over 2,000 Coptic Christians. As the smell of incense wafted through the air, the Alexandria leader of the Christian Orthodox Church listened to the beautiful music sung by an Antioch group.
The community has been electrified by Tawadros’ decision to visit Nashville on Friday night and Saturday, said 20-year-old, Lydia Yousief, a Copt who was born in the U.S. after her parents moved here from Egypt. The student at Vanderbilt University, who grew up in Franklin, has not suffered like millions of other Coptic Christians who have and still are facing persecution and even death in the Middle East.
“As a people who are minorities anywhere they go, this is pretty huge to have your leader come here,” said Yousief, whose father is a local church leader and brother a deacon.
The Houston Chronicle reports that 62-year-old Tawadros, born Wagih Subhi Baqi Sulayman, in the Egyptian city of Mansoura, was installed as the church’s 118th pope in 2012. He visited the Roman Catholic Pope in the Vatican in 2013, becoming only the second Coptic pope to ever do so.
Tawadros’ American tour, which is set to last for about two weeks, began with visits to congregations in Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Nashville. His next stop will be Houston, Texas on Monday, followed by visits to Dallas, Arizona and finally, Los Angeles, according to reports.
The Coptic Orthodox Church reportedly split from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 450 A.D. and trace their founding to the first century and the Apostle St. Mark.
Pope Tawadros II, the leader of around 16 million Coptic Christians was only expected to ordain two Coptic priests during his Nashville visit, but decided to also consecrate the church’s newest facilities, according to Priest Pavli Ebrahim, who leads St. Pishoy.
“This is a historic and wonderful blessing,” Ebrahim said. “He is the shepherd of our church, a kind of father figure and this is his first visit to the United States.”
“Pope Francis is a political and spiritual leader,” while “Tawadros is just a spiritual leader…” said the Rev. Matthias Shehad, a priest at Bellaire’s St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Texas, which the Egyptian pontiff plans to visit. “This is a pastoral visit. He’s coming to give a talk to the people, his spiritual children.”
While there are estimated to be as many as 1 million Coptic Christians in the U.S., three-fourths of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s global membership remains in Egypt. Christians only account for about 10% of the Egyptian population and many of them have fled the country in fear of their lives after violent attacks in recent years.