Coptic Christians live quietly in New Jersey town

Fri Sep 14, 2012 3:43pm EDT

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By Lily Kuo

JERSEY CITY, N.J. Sept 14 (Reuters) - A small group of women at the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark's prepared for Sunday services in the parish's simple basement kitchen, baking cookies and neatly packing them into containers and paper bags.

"Peaceful, loving, easy-going," Lodi Tannios, 29, said, describing her fellow worshippers while working in the kitchen, which was decorated with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. "We don't ask for much except to be respected."

Tannios and other St. Mark's members are more than 4,500 miles (7,240 km) from the demonstrations raging in the Middle East in protest of a 13-minute film portraying the Prophet Mohammad as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser - but they know they could feel the backlash.

The film was promoted by a U.S.-based Egyptian Coptic Christian activist, Morris Sadek, who said his intention was to highlight discrimination against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority by Muslims.

"The tensions have always been there but it's never been that bad," Tannios said.

The film and protests have brought sudden and often unflattering attention to Coptic communities in areas such as Jersey City, where Mayor Jerramiah Healy said as many as 25,000 members of the faith live. St. Mark's is the oldest Coptic church in the United States.

Tannios, who moved from Egypt to Jersey City more than a decade ago, said the uproar over the inflammatory film was dragging the church into a situation out of sync with its followers' values.

Officials speaking for Coptic churches in the United States have been quick to separate the religion from the video. There are more than 150 Coptic churches in the United States, with strongholds in New Jersey, California, Florida and New York, according to the website of the Coptic Orthodox Church Network.

"These actions are not the actions of a true Coptic Christian," said Bishop David of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.

FULLY INTEGRATED

In Jersey City, a sprawling city across the Hudson River from Manhattan, residents said the Coptic Christians were a distinguishable but fully integrated part of the community.

"They open small businesses, their children are in schools, they work," said Mayor Jerramiah Healy. "Their lives revolve around their families... These are the kinds of people you want in your city."

St. Mark's, established in 1970, is made up of five small houses converted mostly into Sunday school space, and a tall sanctuary painted red with white crosses. It sits on the corner between a street of row houses and an avenue of shops and restaurants. Coptic Christians in Jersey City and nearby towns drive in for the Sunday services, which are conducted in English and Arabic.

Children from the church go to public schools and their parents work in local businesses. Lodi's mother, for instance, works as a manager at a nearby Burger King.

A police officer who patrols St. Mark's and another Coptic church in the city said he did not fear violence or backlash from Muslim residents because of the video.

"We would have heard about it. It would be brewing," said the 59-year-old police officer who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to media.

He too said the Coptic Christians were an integral part of the city.

"They basically live here," he said. "They're involved in the experience of Jersey City. What happens to Jersey City happens to them."

Yet in Jersey City and elsewhere across the United States there have long been tensions between members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, a religious minority in the Egypt, and Muslims.

Christians and Muslims have co-existed peacefully for decades but occasional sectarian clashes have taken a more violent turn following the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the rise of Islamists to power. The acting head of the Coptic church, Bishop Bakhomious, in Egypt said in August that the country's new government fails to fairly represent the Christians who make up 10 percent of the population and have long been a minority.

"I like Christians only," said Same Hani, 45, a Coptic taxi driver in Jersey City originally from Cairo who had a wooden cross hanging from his rear-view mirror.

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