Fueled by steady immigration from Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church has grown from three to 13 congregations in Southern California since 1980--growth so rapid that the first bishop for Los Angeles will be installed today.
In Arleta, for example, about 60 people attended Mass on Friday at incense-filled St. Athanasius Coptic Church, which has tripled in size to 400 families in less than a decade. The church plans to build a new worship facility in Northridge.
Answering long-standing requests for spiritual oversight, Pope Shenouda III of Cairo--the patriarch of an ancient church in predominantly-Muslim Egypt--is appointing the Coptic Church's first six bishops in North America.
Immediately after his expected late-afternoon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles Bishop Serapion, 44, will be whisked off to Holy Virgin St. Mary and St. Bishoy Coptic Church in Highland Park for an enthronement ceremony.
Among the estimated 10,000 Coptic Christians in Southern California are four brothers of the new bishop--three who live in Encino and one in Huntington Beach.
But Bishop Serapion's appointment to the new diocese that covers Southern California and Hawaii is considered much more than a family reunion, according to Father Bishoy Mikhail, pastor of St. George Coptic Church in Bellflower.
"Most of our leaders are professional people--engineers, architects, physicians--so you get people who are highly opinionated," the priest said. "We are not a humble group."
Therefore, he continued: "We needed a bishop that everyone can respect. We couldn't have had a spiritual bumpkin from the hinterlands."
While residing in the Coptic papal complex in Cairo for the last decade, Bishop Serapion has been the church's widely traveled, ecumenical representative. He is a member of the World Council of Churches' Central Committee and vice president of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, among other interdenominational activities.
"His coming will help the church expand and establish contacts with other churches," said Yousef Abdelsayed of Encino, a computer programmer who attended Mass on Friday morning with his wife, Nadia.
Tradition says the Coptic Church was founded in the 1st century after Christ by Mark, the evangelist credited with writing one of the Gospels. Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, and his student, Origen, were among the most influential early Christian thinkers. Christendom's first system of monasteries began in the 4th century along the Nile River.
Broadly speaking, Coptic churches, with an estimated worldwide following of 27 million, are part of Eastern Orthodoxy, which includes the dominant churches in Greece, Slavic countries and the Middle East. Coptic Christianity resembles churches with origins in Armenia, Syria and Ethiopia.
Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas Day on Jan. 7 with church services the night before.
The bishop's three brothers in Encino--Nassif, Wafik and Nabeel Bishay--work as a mechanical engineer, a civil engineer and a pharmacist, respectively. All three frequently attend St. Athanasius in Arleta, a white church with a steeple where Father Bishoy Bastawros has been the priest since 1988, after serving in Italy.
Bastawros, 55, said the installation of Bishop Serapion is important not only for administrative efficiency but also for the classic Christian role of a bishop as a "pastor to the pastors."
Or, as Bastawros put it, "We are happy to have a father for the fathers."
The church in Arleta has grown despite the departure of some members to form churches in Moorpark and in Lancaster.
Besides Sunday morning Masses, Bastawros celebrates Mass on Friday mornings in keeping with the Coptic Christian tradition of remembering the crucifixion of Jesus on a Friday. "We worship on Friday also because in Egypt, Friday is a day off for everyone and most people [Muslims] work on Sunday," said William Attalla of Tarzana.
The San Fernando Valley congregation has purchased and cleared a four-acre lot on Roscoe Boulevard in Northridge, but it will not start construction on a 14,000-square-foot fellowship hall until it can sell the Arleta church, the priest said.
The most important task facing St. Athanasius and other Coptic churches in this country, Bastawros said, is providing schools for children of immigrant families.
"We hope to be able to . . . teach our culture and religion," the priest said. "We already have a Mass in English on Sunday because many kids born here can't understand Arabic or the Coptic language, which we use in church services," he said.