An 89-year-old former English Congregational Church in Lansford is being renovated by its new owners, a Coptic Christian organization based in Egypt and California and led by a controversial cleric, Bishop Zakaria Botros. The work should take a few months, and St. John the Beloved Coptic Orthodox Church is expected to open early next year.

Worshippers will be brought in from the Poconos, New York and New Jersey, said Adel Mikhaeil, who is coordinating the small crew of Egyptian Arabic-speaking men who are doing the work.

"We have about 30 families in Mt. Pocono," he said. He says the Coptic Orthodox community there now prays at a Catholic Church, St. Mary's.

An Internet search for Coptic Orthodox churches showed a Virgin Mary and St. Marina Coptic Orthodox Church of the Poconos in Mt. Pocono. Mikhaeil said Botros hopes to bring new people into the flock through the opening of St. John the Beloved.

The Orthodox Center for Religious Studies, based in Cairo, Egypt and Orange, California and led by Botros, bought the church for $41,000 on July 31, 2009 from George and Gala Properties, Meadville, Missouri, who had bought it a month earlier at auction. Botros has drawn the ire of Muslim leaders for his aggressive efforts to convert them to Christianity.

Why open a Coptic Orthodox church in Lansford?

"I don't know," Mikhaeil says. "My Bishop is a man of interest ... he wishes to bring more people to the church." He said Botros started a church in Brazil, which now has 300 families. "He's planning to do this in a lot of places in the United States."

On Tuesday, a worker climbed a scaffold on the front steps of the church, at 47 W. Ridge St. He worked steadily, carefully scraping around the marble letters that spell out "English Congregational Church."

Mikhaeil had earlier asked Code Enforcement Officer Katheryn Labosky if the borough had a museum that might accept the letters. She suggested the No. 9 Mine and Museum.

Inside the church, another worker scaled a scaffold. Hefting a hammer, he swung it at the wall, smashing the old plaster, which rained down in a cloud of dust.

The musty smell mingled with the fragrance of fresh lumber from boards stacked on the floor. The sharp crack of the hammer echoed through the cavernous room, punctuating exchanges in Egyptian Arabic among the workers and Mikhaeil.

The men are knocking out the old plaster and putting in insulation and then Sheetrock panels. Mikhaeil said the roof is leaking in "five or six areas" and that he is waiting for quotes from contractors to fix it. He said a new kitchen will be installed, along with a new floor.

Labosky was forced to condemn the building on Sept. 23 after the Orthodox Center for Religious Studies failed to respond to several letters she sent, including at least one to Egypt, concerning the poor condition of the three-story, 10,000-square-foot church.

Mikhaeil, 44, who describes himself as a private investigator and says he lives in East Stroudsburg, speaks with a heavy accent.

"I was contacted by Bishop Botros" to coordinate the work on the church. "He didn't really officially hire me, like he's going to pay me. I did this volunteer," he said. "I said, OK, I will give the church time, to get this done."

For the past two weeks, Mikhaeil said, he has had a crew come in.

"Hopefully, in the next two months we should have the place pass all the inspections. Hopefully by next year, we can have the grand opening."

On Monday, he stopped by the borough zoning/code office to fill out forms requesting permission to install a new sign on the front of the church, above the front doors. The sign cannot be larger than 50 square feet, Labosky told him.

On Tuesday, he obtained a permit for painting, plaster removal and other cosmetic work.

Mikhaeil said he is looking for community support for the church, and asks that people step up to volunteer to help with the renovation work.

"That building is an historical building. I'd hate to see it go down," he said. "But I'm just hoping that I get lots of support from the town."

He said the church needed much repair when Botros bought it a year ago, and that, as a church, the group relies upon donations for income.

"Hopefully, the town will be patient with us," Mikhaeil said. "Give us the support to keep that place."

Mikhaeil was 8 years old when he first met Bishop Botros in Egypt.

"He used to come to our house with another bishop," he said.

The Coptic Orthodox Church, founded when St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt shortly after the Crucifixion of Christ, is the oldest and largest Christian community in the Middle East. It has more than 10 million adherents worldwide.

However, Copts in largely-Islamic Egypt are discriminated against in education, employment and elected office.

According to numerous international news reports, Botros has converted untold numbers of Muslims to Christianity through televised "Truth Talk" broadcasts, which he delivers in Arabic. The elderly cleric was named "Islam's 'Public Enemy No. 1'" by the Arabic newspaper, al-Insan al-Jadid.