BY JAMES BERNICK
The Virgin Mary and St. Pachomius Coptic Orthodox Church of Stony Point will be hosting its annual Egyptian Festival over the coming two weekends. The festival will run on the church grounds at 3 Swim Club Road in Stony Point from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. on Saturday, September 19 and Sunday, September 20 as well as the next weekend September 26&27.
According to Samuel Beshara, a deacon in the church and long time member, there will be myriad family friendly activities for visitors to enjoy: “We’re going to have carnival style games and kids’ games. There is going to be Egyptian art and jewelry for sale as well as antique Coptic Icons, and of course there will be plenty of Egyptian and MIddle Eastern food. We will also be giving church tours in which we will discuss the history of the Coptic Church for those that are interested.”
“We are also having a movie night on Saturday the 19th under the stars starting at 7:30 p.m. There will be fried oreos and cotten candy for the movie. Admission to the festival is free for everyone.”
Explained Beshara, “We’ve hosted an Egyptian festival every year here since 2008 to raise awareness of who we are to the community. We like to share our faith first and our culture to let them know that we’re around. Everyone is welcome.”
Father Jacob Ghaly, who has served as a priest at the church since he came to America in 1993, provided additional details on the festival’s offerings, “We have so many booths. We have arts, crafts, and a gift shop. We have books. We have food and drinks. We have Pharonic pictures that have Egyptian scenes and dresses. We have rides for the children. They operate in the grass outside for the children. Also, its a good time for families to spend with one another.”
Asked about his goals for the festival, Ghaly emphasized community outreach: “Number one is to make our church recognized in the area. Every year we see more and more people coming to see the church. The second thing is that it’s a chance for all the members to come here to work as a team. As you see, the women have come here to work on the food, and others are working on the signs. It’s an annual time for the people to come and do something for their church. The third goal is to raise money for the new building.”
According to Ghaly, the festival has historically been a very important part of the church’s fundraising efforts: “We have a goal of $150,000 for this year. Last year we raised $97,000 dollars, though this is not only from fundraising- some money comes as a donation towards the project. The good news is that every year we see more people from the community.””
“When we bought the property we’re on now in 2007,” said Beshara, “it was Marvello Country Club. We converted the reception hall into the church sanctuary, but it isn’t ideal, especially since the church has grown and needs more room so a major goal of this year’s festival is fundraising towards the building of the new church.”
“The new building is going up behind current reception hall. The top floor will be the church itself, the bottom floor will be the social hall, and the middle floor will have classrooms for Sunday School. Right now the interior framing is up, and by the time the festival starts the outrside framing will be complete. We hope by the winter to have it closed so we can start working on the inside by the time it gets cold.”
Somewhat counterintuitively, the need for a new church building is a direct result of Middle Eastern political upheaval. The Egyptian Coptic Christian community in Rockland County has grown significantly over the past few years as a result of the political turmoil and religious persecution that has roiled Egypt since the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Explained Beshara, “We have a lot of new families joining the church, espectially recently after everything thats been happening in Egypt. Many Coptic Christians have been seeking asylum in the US. I’d say the average influx of Egyptian Christians into the area has doubled or tripled from before . Their immigration is a growing thing, and we are trying to focus on helping them find places to work and places to live and getting them settled on their own.”
Father Ghaly added some additional details from his own experience with persecution of Christians in the Middle East: “More than 54 buildings of the chuch were burned totally in Egypt- between 54 and 86 completely destroyed. I don’t know the numbers but there were so many murders of Christians as well. People were taken from their homes, and they had their lands taken. It was very harsh on Christians. Not only that but there was a danger for the Christian girls. For example, if you’re a father and you have girls, the first thing you think about is the safety of these girls- not only rape, but many were abducted and they disappeared and no one knows where they are. I think this is the first reason that any father who has children would leave Egypt.”
Fortunately for Christians in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, the US has been offering asylum to many of those facing such persecution: “I want to thank American policy for asylum because it helped them out. Imagine if they [were] not accepting our people how bad it [would] be,” said Ghaly. “The whole situation became better after el-Sisi became president. He is very, very moderate. He has been taking care of the country and giving rights for Christians back. He’s taking care of the whole country, whether Christians or Muslims. He’s a very moderate person.”
In spite of the turmoil, Beshara also maintains a positive outlook for the future of Egypt:”During the overthrow it was crazy. There have been burnings of churches, but once everything was settled things improved a lot, especially now that a moderate like el-Sisi is president. Once he was voted into office, he worked hard to build the ties between the Muslims and the Christians to work together for a better Egypt regardless of religious affiliation. One thing he always says is that we are all Egyptians.”
Beshara continued, “We obviously pray for peace not just in the Middle East but all over the world- especially between fellow Egyptians. We always know that the church for us is not just a building; it is in our hearts and in our families. As long as we keep our faith and trust in God everything will be okay. Like St. Paul said in Romans 8:28, ‘All things work together for good.’”