NEW YORK–On the morning of Friday–January 15–New York’s St. Vartan Cathedral played host to the pontiffs of two ancient churches: His Holiness Karekin I–the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenia’s–and His Holiness Shenouda III–Pope of the Coptic Church.
The meeting began when Pope Shenouda entered the St. Vartan Cathedral sanctuary with an entourage of priests and lay people–led by the Primate of the American Coptic Church–His Eminence Bishop Suriel. A brief prayer service followed–in which a number of Armenian priests from the surrounding region participated.
His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian–the Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America–offered some words of welcome to the two pontiffs–before asking Catholicos Karekin to address the small groups of observers.
As veterans of the Christian ecumenical movement–both hierarchs have met numerous times in the past. Like the Armenian Church–the Coptic Church is one of the five–so-called "Oriental Orthodox" churches (the others are the Syrian–Ethiopian and Malabar-Indian churches)–which are closely-related in their theological understandings and in the antiquity. All five churches are officially "in communion" with each other–and in recent years there has been a successful effort to foster greater cohesion among the Oriental Orthodox–at the international level as well as here in America.
The Catholicos–briefly expressed his sentimen’s of brotherly affection for the Coptic Pope. Pope Shenouda in return remarked that he had been praying for Catholicos Karekin’s health–and was glad to see him looking so well. He added that he had made this visit with the Catholicos his first order of business after arriving in New York.
The group of about twenty clergymen left the cathedral to gather in the formal reception room of the Diocesan Complex. Both pontiffs then presided over an informal question and answer session–responding to queries from the Coptic and Armenian priests–and updating each other on the activities of their respective churches.
One topic in the wide-rangin conversation seemed to provoke the particular interest of both pontiffs: the results of the recently-completed General Assembly of the World Council of Churches. A major concern of that assembly revolved around objections raised by the Orthodox churches–that the World Council as a body was deviating from the fundamental teachings of Christianity in general and of the Orthodox churches would bow out of the membership of the World Council; and while this was averted–the essential causes of the rift in the ecumenical organization remain.
Both Pope Shenouda and Catholicos Karekin agreed that the objections themselves are serious–and need to be addressed. But they also agreed that the cause of Christian unity would not be well served by the wholesale withdrawal of their own churches from the World Council.
The Coptic Church is an extremely ancient Christian community–dating back to the generation of the Apostles. It was established in AD 42–by the Evangelist St. Mark–during his mission to spread the Gospel to Egypt. The modern Coptic Christian community still looks to Egypt as its homeland (indeed–the word "Copt" is a European form of the word "Kibt," which is a derivation of the Greek word for "Egyptians"). As the Coptic Pope–His Holiness Pope Shenouda III resides in Alexandria–and is considered to be the successor to the throne of St. Mark.