Coptic Orthodox

Jewish Influences on Egyptian Christianity: An Interview with a Coptic Orthodox Priest in Canada

Amanda Achtman on August 13, 2020

Fr. Pishoy Salama is a Coptic Orthodox priest in the Greater Toronto Area. In 2007, His Holiness Pope Shenouda appointed him to establish St. Maurice & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in Markham, the first multicultural Coptic Orthodox Church in North America. Growing up between Egypt and Canada, Fr. Salama observed that “Canadians are, to a great extent, practising what should have been the Church’s mandate in becoming a welcoming and safe environment to persons who seek refuge in it. For this reason, the Church must take note from what has made the Canadian society successful in embracing multiculturalism.”

Amanda Achtman interviewed Fr. Salama about his personal experience, pastoral ministry, and how his passion for both multiculturalism and Coptic Orthodoxy has led him to cultivate a reverence for the Jewish roots of Christianity and a commitment to combating racism and antisemitism.

Achtman: Tell me about your upbringing in Egypt as a member of the Christian minority and what led you to the priesthood.

Father Salama: I was born in Egypt in 1970, where I lived until immigrating with my family to Canada in 1984. In Egypt, I grew up in a suburb of Cairo near the Great Pyramids of Giza. As a businessman, my father owned a farm and worked in the jewelry business. He taught me important life lessons such as hard work, honesty, integrity, and nobility. My mother is a great nurturer, believer, and caregiver. Her warm heart and strong faith is what inspired my brothers and I to become who we are today and to dedicate our lives to serving God.

Living in Egypt, people are always judged by their religion. Even though I attended a British School, Christians were a minority and always had to leave the class during the religion period for a separate lesson. Some of my friends in school told me they could no longer be friends with me because I am a Christian. I was bumped from being the starting goalie in the school’s soccer team because I am Christian. Christian persecution was evident in the media, in government policies regarding building or renovating churches, and in hiring for jobs.

In 1999, I was called to priesthood through the senior priest where I attended church in Toronto. In the Coptic Orthodox Church, the call to priesthood usually comes from the bishop or the senior priest at the local parish. The person then takes some time to pray about leaving his full time job and becoming fully consecrated to the ministry. After my wife and I prayed for God’s will, we accepted the nomination.

Achtman: What is the focus of your studies and ministry?

Father Salama: As a Coptic Orthodox priest, my responsibilities are: liturgical, pastoral, educational, logistical, administrative, and visionary. Liturgically speaking, I officiate Eucharistic Liturgies, baptisms, weddings, funerals, confessions, and unction of the sick prayers. My pastoral service centers around counselling, home blessings, outreach, and spiritual care.

As for my education, I completed a Master of Divinity degree in Youth and Family Ministry, followed by a Doctorate of Ministry in Pastoral Theology focusing on intercultural marriages.

I led a major construction project to build a church and community centre in Markham, which includes a large sanctuary, banquet hall, full gymnasium, childcare centre, recording studio, Sunday School classrooms, and an underground parking garage. In 2019, the church was officially designated a tourist attraction in the Province of Ontario. At the church, we provide children’s programs, including Sunday School and summer camp, as well as programs for youth, young adults, newlyweds, and young families.

St. Maurice & St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church is the first multicultural Coptic Orthodox Church in North America with more than 52 ethnicities represented in its congregation. It promotes an inclusive culture and reaches out to the community with a message of hope and comfort.

Achtman: What languages do you know and how did you come to learn them?

Father Salama: My mother tongue is Arabic because I was born and raised in Egypt and lived there until the age of 14. I learned English by attending a British school in Egypt since kindergarten and continued schooling upon immigrating to Canada. I began learning Coptic in the Church in my teen years and then I learned Greek in seminary. My familiarity with Coptic and Greek only pertains to liturgical and biblical knowledge.

Achtman: In what ways do you see the Coptic liturgy, theology, church structure, and religious lifestyle as being particularly reflective of the Jewish roots of Christianity?

Father Salama: First, the Hebrew Scriptures provide a significant foundation to Orthodox Christian beliefs and practices. The Law and Prophets are part of the Christian canon and are considered to be inspired by God. The Psalms are recited on a daily basis as part of the Liturgical prayers of the Coptic Church.

Christian priesthood is inspired from the descendants of Aaron but provides a different interpretation in viewing Christ as the new High Priest. The flourishing Jewish community present in Alexandria in the first century paved the way for the early Christian missionaries who shared their faith in the risen Messiah. Finally, the Holy Land became the birthplace of Christianity and continues to inspire Christians to this day.

Achtman: I’ve heard you explain that, in Acts 7:38, the Greek word translated as “Church” is used to describe the Jewish people gathered at Mount Sinai. What is the Coptic understanding of both the continuity and divergence between the Jewish people and the Church?

Father Salama: Pentecost is the link between the Jewish nation and the rest of the Christian Church. It is on that day that from the heavens God revealed His commitment to people from all nations, tribes, tongues, and languages. The Holy Spirit descended first on Jews of many different ethnicities (Acts 2), then on Samaritans (Acts 8), and finally on Cornelius, a gentile, and his household (Acts 10). Therefore, God’s salvation was ultimately revealed to the entire world. This is the link connecting Judaism with Christianity and proclaiming a global salvation open and available to any person and not only connected with a specific race or nation.

Achtman: At your ordination, you adopted the name of Fr. Pishoy Kamel. What did you glean from his book Daniel the Prophet, Friend of the Angels, and why did he have this special interest in Daniel?

Father Salama: Daniel is a figure who is revered within the Coptic Church and often referred to as a model of courage, faithfulness, prayer, and leadership. In the Church’s Liturgical prayer of the midnight psalmody, which is recited daily, the church remembers the stories of Daniel and the three youth Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3). Fr. Pishoy Kamel had a special connection to Daniel the Prophet because of his adoration of angels who called Daniel “A man greatly beloved” (Daniel 10). Fr. Pishoy Kamel saw in Daniel a model of humility, courage, and compassion, which were great virtues that he pursued.

Achtman: How does your study of the Hebrew Bible inform your understanding of intercultural marriage?

Father Salama: The Hebrew Scriptures always play a foundational role in understanding God’s will for any subject under research or investigation. We can never neglect God’s covenant with the Jewish nation in pursuit of a full Christian understanding of His will. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13), which means that the Hebrew Bible is always the starting point when seeking clarity and truth.

In the case of intercultural marriage, the Old Testament reveals several examples of God’s blessing as long as individuals did not forsake their covenant and commitment to Him. Ultimately, God created all humans in His image and likeness and blessed them.

Achtman: How are we to understand both that “God shows no partiality” and “there is neither Jew nor Greek” with the particularism of the People of Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible?

Father Salama: There were many glimpses in the Hebrew Bible portraying God’s love and commitment to people of all nations. Examples include: Ruth, Rahab, and Naaman the Syrian, to name a few. Prior to the incarnation of Christ, God needed to reveal Himself to a particular nation in order to be known on earth. Every nation across the world had taken to itself a god to worship due to sin entering the world. In Christ, all nations have been restored and made aware of the ultimate love of God who cares for their salvation and eternal life.

Achtman: What is your experience of the Jewish community in the Greater Toronto Area? How did growing up in Toronto give you a different experience of modern Jews than most Copts would have?

Father Salama: My family has worked in the jewelry business for four generations from the time of my great-grandfather until the present. This journey started in Egypt in the early twentieth century. Towards the middle of the twentieth century, Egypt had a flourishing Jewish community, many of whom worked in the jewelry business. My father told me many stories of partnerships, collaborations, and great friendships that existed between the Jewish jewelers and our family.

In 1956, when President Nasser expelled all Jews from Egypt, my grandfather and father helped many Jewish families escape persecution without harm. My father tells me that one of their Jewish neighbours transferred his jewelry store to my grandfather prior to his deportation from Egypt.

In 1993, my father and I started a precious metal refining business in Toronto. We built a great relationship with our Jewish customers who trusted our family with their precious metal refining. This business is mainly built on word of mouth and trust which is something that we have earned over the years. Even though I left this business twenty years ago, every time I visit the store in downtown Toronto, I pass by many of my Jewish friends as we continue to have great friendships and respect among one another.

Also, in 2019 I had the opportunity to spend a semester at Harvard Divinity School as a Resident Fellow. One of my colleagues was a young Jewish woman who invited me, along with several of her friends, to a Shabbat dinner at her residence. Particularly being away from home, I found this to be a great gesture of kindness that left a great impact on me.

Achtman: Do you ever make any special effort, particularly through preaching and youth ministry, to hand on the faith in such a way that combats racism and discrimination in general and antisemitism in particular, and if so how?

Father Salama: It is unfortunate that some leaders continue to blame all Jews for the death of Christ, because this leads to antisemitic comments and behaviours. The ongoing tension in the Middle East between Israel and Egypt has also aggravated these emotions. We are blessed to live in Canada where we can all see each other as humans and celebrate common values and beliefs.

Everyone needs to do their part to eliminate sentiments of hatred or racism. I am very outspoken about combating racism, hatred, and antisemitism whenever the opportunity arises. The best way is to lead by example and to offer respect and dignity to every human regardless of who they are.  

Amanda Achtman is a political staffer to a Conservative and foreign policy-minded member of the Parliament of Canada. She studied political science in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta, and recently completed a master’s degree in John Paul II Philosophical Studies at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. An alumna of the Philos Project’s Leadership Institute trip to Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan, Amanda leads the Philos Project Canada Chapter and is also a Charles Bronfman Israel Policy Forum Atid Convener. 

  1. Comment by George Brown on August 18, 2020 at 6:14 pm

    Wonderful perspective and article. In all such considerations of Israel and the Church it’s helpful to view mankind biblically in two overlapping dichotomies: Jew and Gentile / Believing and non-believing. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah is the focus and among Jews and Gentiles there are Believers and non-believers. Its a biblical error to interpret Gal. 3:28 to mean that the church has replaced Israel (Replacement Theology). In Christ there is STILL Jew and Gentile just as much as there is Male and Female (from the same passage). Interpreting that Jews become Gentiles or Gentiles become Jews is a gross error leading to much trouble and prevents much understanding of the teachings of the Apostle Paul’s writings in Romans 9-12. I don’t see this error in the article but it just came to mind and its important.

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