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Sunday, January 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

New Coptic church a tribute to past and future

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times staff reporter

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Father Takla Azmy thinks the new St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church, when completed in Lynnwood, will offer a glimpse of heavenly life, thanks to its 207-foot-high dome, bell towers and seating for about 700.
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As Father Takla Azmy gives a brief guided tour through the cramped home of St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church in Lynnwood, he points to signs of a congregation grown far too large for its home.

The baptismal font is housed in what can only be called a glorified closet. An add-on room has been built in the main area to hold more pews for the hundreds who come for Saturday evening prayers and three-hour Sunday liturgies.

It is a fine enough, if humble, church, formerly home to, he thinks, a Baptist congregation.

But it is nothing like the multimillion-dollar church the congregation is building several blocks away: a grand, 12,000-square-foot structure designed in the Coptic tradition, complete with a 207-foot-high dome and bell towers, large enough to seat about 700. This new church is taking shape, and as he stands inside it, catching shafts of sunlight streaming through rafters, Father Takla's eyes gleam. "The church moves us from worldly life to heavenly life," he says.

"I feel I am inside the ark which will transfer me from earth to heaven."

Father Takla is 65, gaunt, with a long, salt-and-pepper beard. He's clad in black, from a shawl covering his head to a robe swirling about his shoes. He is priest and leader of a congregation of 170 families of Copts in the Puget Sound area.

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Father Takla wears the cross close to his heart. He and his congregants are looking forward to moving from the current humble home of St. Mary's to the $5 million church building going up a few blocks away.
Copts are Egyptian Christians who trace the beginnings of their church to St. Mark, the apostle believed to have brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st century.

The Coptic Church is considered part of the Oriental Orthodox Church, which holds that Christ has only one nature, as opposed to the beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which say Christ has two natures: one divine and one human.

When Father Takla's Cairo-based leader, Pope Shenouda III, sent him to Seattle in 1991, there were about 35 Coptic families in this area. Over the years, that number has slowly grown. The priest thinks there are 200 Coptic families in the state, most of whom emigrated from Egypt and live in the Lynnwood and Bellevue areas.

That's a relatively small number compared with New York and New Jersey, where most Copts in the United States live, and with Los Angeles, home to about 16 Coptic churches. But it's enough that there is standing room only at St. Mary's old church building on Sundays.

Church members have dreamed of a bigger home for years. In 1996, they bought the 3.3 acres where their new church is sited. Construction began last summer. Now, enough of the new church has been built that drivers who pass by slow down to gawk.

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Father Takla leads a growing congregation of 170 families.
The design, by Seattle-based architects Ray Ernst and Kevin Zahn with the help of a church member who also is an architect, is based on traditional Coptic churches. Pointing to the ceiling of the grand dome, Father Takla describes where an iconographer from Egypt will come to paint the ceiling and the four corners at the base of the dome, representing the four Gospels.

He waves an arm, indicating the design of the whole church, pointing out how it is shaped like a cross. And viewed from the side, the church also resembles a large boat, he says, meant to symbolize Noah's Ark, the biblical vessel that saved Noah and his passengers from the flood, much as the Coptic Church is seen by its members as saving them from worldly sin.

The project has cost $2 million to date, with total cost estimated at more than $5 million. The church has raised about $800,000 from congregants' contributions and the sale of another property it owned in Shoreline.

It also plans to sell its current church building and has a bank loan. The new church is expected to be completed in August.

The cost is worth it, church members say. They briefly entertained the idea of buying an existing building. But "we wanted to let new generations here see the traditional Egyptian design," Father Takla said.

In its old church, the congregation had to make many changes, including building an icon bearer at the front of the altar. "We converted it into an Orthodox church, but it didn't feel at any time really Orthodox. It wasn't ours," said Samia Salama, a member of St. Mary's. With the new church, "it will feel like home again."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com


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