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 Los Angeles now has its first bishop in this faith.
Bishop Serapion, 44, was enthroned in his new role Dec. 23 at Holy Virgin St. Mary and St. Bishoy Coptic Church in Highland Park and will preside over Coptic Christmas Eve rites tonight at St. George Coptic Church in Bellflower.
"My first priorities are caring for our youth, helping families to be stable amid the challenges of living in a new country, and seeing how our new dioceses can cooperate in our relations with the mother church in Egypt," Serapion said this week.
Answering long-standing requests for spiritual oversight, Pope Shenouda III of Cairo--the patriarch of the ancient church in predominantly Muslim Egypt--will eventually appoint four more of the Coptic Church's first six bishops in North America. One other prelate, Bishop Youssef, has begun duties as the Dallas-based bishop of churches from Florida to Arizona.
Among the estimated 10,000 Coptic Christians in Southern California are four brothers of Los Angeles' new bishop--three of whom live in Encino and one in Huntington Beach.
But Serapion's appointment to the new Southern California and Hawaii diocese is considered much more than a family reunion, according to Father Bishoy Mikhail, pastor of the Bellflower church.
"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 said, "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, 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, a computer programmer who lives in Encino. The bishop will have a chance to meet local religious and civic leaders at a welcoming banquet Feb. 11 in Los Angeles.
"Our concerns extend beyond those for our own church," Serapion said. "We want to see how the Coptic community can relate to social needs in the whole community where we live."
Tradition says the Coptic Church was founded in the 1st century by Mark, the evangelist credited with writing one of the Gospels. Clement of Alexandria 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 and hold church services the night before.
Bishop Serapion'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, steepled church where Father Bishoy Bastawros has been the priest since 1988, after serving in Italy.
Bastawros, 55, said the installation of Serapion is important not only for administrative efficiency but also to fill 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 Lancaster. The church has tripled in size to 400 families in less than a decade and plans to build a new worship facility in Northridge.
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 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.