(nj.com) - The Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America is "saddened and dismayed" by the actions of those who protested at a Coptic church in Bayonne this past Sunday, according to a statement released to The Jersey Journal on Thursday.
"As congregants of the church, we attend the holy liturgy to worship God with one heart and one spirit, seeking the Lord's grace and forgiveness," Bishop Karas wrote in the two-page statement. "The actions of those who shouted and protested inside the church, disrupting the service, showed no regard for the holy eucharist on the altar. The actions of the protesters in insulting and cursing in the church and at the clergy is both inappropriate and against ecclesiastic law."
The first protest in what is expected to be a series of weekly demonstrations occurred this past Sunday, when a throng of churchgoers demanded their leaders bring back Father George Greiss to the St. Abanoub & St. Antonious Coptic Orthodox Church at 1325 Kennedy Blvd.
On Oct. 1, the Coptic church's pope, Pope Tawadros II, issued a Papal Decree reassigning Greiss to a church in South Carolina, according to Joseph Ghabour, a spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Mark's in Jersey City.
Greiss' reassignment came after he spent 17 years at St. Abanoub & St. Antonious, which Ghabour said has been "the subject of unrest for more than 14 years," posing "numerous challenges" to Coptic church leaders.
In a letter sent to The Jersey Journal on Tuesday, Ghabour stated that the Bayonne church faces "administrative, financial, engineering, spiritual and behavioral challenges that require special managerial expertise and spiritual leadership." When contacted, he did not provide details on the issues cited, nor did he say if any complaints had been filed against Greiss.
On Sunday, a Jersey Journal reporter witnessed more than 200 protesters at the church. Bayonne police reported "approximately 100 protesters."
Ghabour said there were fewer than 50 protesters. Father Abraam Sleman is the senior priest at St. Mark's and was one of the officiating members of the clergy at St. Abanoub & St. Antonious on Sunday.
Five to six people were inside the church shouting and disrupting the service on Sunday, Ghabour said.
During the protest, one man -- Zakaria Nakhla, 55, of Kennedy Boulevard in Bayonne -- was arrested inside the church after refusing to listen to police officers' commands for him to leave, Bayonne police said.
Nakhla "persisted in yelling and disrupting" the church service, while all the other protesters dispersed peacefully, Bayonne Police Lt. Janine Foy said. He was charged with harassment and later released on a summons, she said.
Adel Aziz, 55, a longtime member of St. Abanoub & St. Antonious, told The Jersey Journal earlier this week that he and other participants in the protest on Sunday will continue to protest every Sunday until Greiss is reinstated.
Aziz admitted on Tuesday that parts of the protests on Sunday were "disrespectful" and that "a lot of people got out of line," but claimed the protests at the church will continue and that, in the future, they will be silent.
Today, Aziz said over the phone that he agreed with much of the statement issued by the Archdiocese of North America. He said he knew most of the people who were shouting inside the church and that most of them were not regular attendees of St. Abanoub & St. Antonious.
Most of the people who had shouted inside the church will be at the protest again Sunday, but they will not enter the church, he promised, despite denying being the leader of the upcoming protest. All of the protesters will stay outside, in the parking lot, he said.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Ghabour said claims by some protesters that Greiss' ousting was motivated by "corruption" and that St. Mark's in Jersey City was attempting to "take over" St. Abanoub & St. Antonious are "outrageous" fabrications.
Ghabour noted the many challenges that St. Abanoub & St. Antonious has been facing. Father Abraam Sleman has been assigned by Pope Tawadros II to manage the affairs of the Bayonne church, he said.
In the statement released by the Archdiocese of North America on Thursday, Bishop Karas asked for unity, prayer, repentance, forgiveness and peace.
"I ask the congregation of St. Abanoub and St. Antonious of Bayonne to pray for unity and to come to church with a peaceful and contrite heart, asking the Lord to protect his church from the wars of the devil and for repentance and forgiveness to all who dishonored his name by their actions," he wrote.