The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Coptic Orthodox Church

The foundation of the church in Egypt is closely associated with St. Mark the Evangelist who, according to tradition, was martyred in Alexandria in 63 AD. Eventually Egypt became a Christian nation and Alexandria an important center of theological reflection. Moreover, monks in the Egyptian desert provided the first models for the Christian monastic tradition, having been nourished by the spiritual insights of the early desert fathers.

The christological teachings adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were supported by the Byzantine emperors but rejected by the great majority of the Egyptian hierarchy and faithful. Persecutions intended to force acceptance of Chalcedon only strengthened the resistance. Eventually a separate “Coptic” (from the Arabic and Greek word for “Egyptian”) Church emerged that preserved ancient Alexandrian theological and liturgical traditions. From the 5th to the 7th centuries the Byzantine Patriarchs lived in Alexandria with most of their faithful, while the Coptic Patriarchs resided in rural areas of the country where most of their faithful were found.

After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642, the Copts slowly diminished in numbers, becoming a minority in Egypt sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries. Arabic replaced Coptic as the official language of the country in the 8th century, but Coptic continued to be spoken until the 11th century in the north and until the 16th century in Upper Egypt. Islamic rule was marked by long periods of persecution, but also by periods of relative freedom, during which the church flourished again and produced outstanding theological and spiritual works in Arabic.

Today the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian community in the Middle East and still represents a significant minority in Egypt. It has continued to grow in spite of an increase in the number of those leaving Egypt to seek a new life in the West.

There are many Coptic schools in Egypt, and a Sunday School movement flourishes. Presently an encouraging revival of monasticism is taking place, and many young monks, involved in agriculture and publishing, inhabit the ancient desert monasteries. There are currently 33 monasteries in Egypt and in the lands of the immigration with a total of more than 1,000 monks, and six convents with about 300 nuns. The largest concentration of monasteries is at Wadi Natrun, about 60 miles northwest of Cairo.

The Coptic Church’s main seminary is in Cairo next to St. Mark’s Cathedral. About half of the church’s priests were educated there, and many laypeople participate in evening courses in scripture and theology. A Coptic Institute of Higher Studies, founded in 1954 and situated at the patriarchal compound, is an important ecumenical center for the study of the Coptic Christian tradition.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt has created new problems for the Coptic Church. Following anti-Coptic outbursts by fundamentalists in the late 1970s, President Sadat in 1981 placed Pope Shenouda III under house arrest in one of the desert monasteries. He was not released until 1985. It was generally surmised that this action resulted from the government’s need to appear even-handed in dealing with conflicting groups. Nevertheless, this interference in the affairs of the Coptic Church disturbed many Egyptian Christians. Attacks against Copts by Islamic militants in Egypt still take place sporadically. More recently, however, the Egyptian government has granted permission to the Copts to build new churches and has legitimized the status of a number of churches that had been built without proper registration, which until then had been almost impossible to obtain.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, who had served as Coptic Patriarch since 1971, passed away on March 17, 2012. After a lengthy and highly democratic process, three candidates for the patriarchal office were brought forward. Their names were placed in a glass urn, and on November 4, 2012, a blindfolded child before a large congregation drew out the name of 60-year-old Bishop Tawadros, who had been serving as an assistant to the acting patriarch. Tawadros had studied in Great Britain and had earned a degree in pharmacy before becoming a monk in Bishoi monastery in 1988. He was ordained a priest in 1989 and a bishop in 1997.

The Coptic liturgy grew from the Alexandrian tradition which was originally celebrated in Greek and then developed its own native characteristics. This process took place mainly in the monasteries, and to this day the Coptic liturgy has many monastic characteristics. It is celebrated in both Coptic and Arabic.

Relations between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church grew much warmer in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. In May 1973, during a visit to Rome by Pope Shenouda III, he and Pope Paul VI signed a Common Declaration that expressed agreement on a large number of theological topics, including a Christological formula that would seem to have overcome the divisions of the past. They also set up a formal dialogue between the two churches that met regularly until it was subsumed into the new international dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church in 2004. In 2013 Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II agreed to celebrate May 10 each year as a “Day of Friendship Between Copts and Catholics.” When Pope Francis visited Egypt in 2017, he and Pope Tawadros II signed another Joint Declaration that celebrated the deepening communion between their churches and stated “that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our Churches for any person who wishes to join the other.”

In 1995 the Coptic Holy Synod began to divide the single Archdiocese of North America into a number of dioceses. Subsequently bishops have been named for Los Angeles and Southern California (Bishop Serapion); the Southern United States based in Dallas (Bishop Youssef); New York and New England headquartered in Staten Island, NY (Bishop David); South Carolina, North Carolina and Kentucky (Bishop Peter); Ohio, Michigan and Indiana (Bishop Saraphim); and Pennsylvania and Affiliated Regions (Bishop Karas). There are also two dioceses in Canada based in Mississauga (Bishop Mina) and in Ottawa (Bishop Boules). Other areas fall within the Archdiocese of North America directly under the Coptic Patriarch (5 Woodstone Drive, Cedar Grove, New Jersey 07009-0373). Altogether there are about 200 worshiping communities in the USA and more than 40 in Canada. There are also two Coptic dioceses in Australia. The diocese of Melbourne (including New Zealand and Fiji) currently has no bishop (100 Park Road, Donvale, Victoria 3111), while the diocese of Sydney is headed by Bishop Daniel (Level 3, 91 George Street, Parramatta, NSW, 2150). Altogether there are over 50 parishes in Australia.

There are three Coptic jurisdictions in the British Isles. Bishop Missael leads the Diocese of the Midlands (Hill Park House, Lapworth Street, Solihull, Warwickshire B94 5QS), and Bishop Antony (40 Kingston Drive, Whitley Bay NE26 1JJ) heads the Diocese of Scotland, Ireland, Northeast England and affiliated areas. Copts in other areas of England fall within the Papal Diocese under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Patriarch and administered by General Bishop Angaelos (Coptic Orthodox Centre, Shepalbury Manor, Broadhall Way, Stevenage, Hertfordshire SG2 8RH). Altogether there are 32 parishes in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Location: Egypt, small diaspora
Head: Pope Tawadros II (born 1952, selected 2012)
Title: Pope of Alexandria, Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark
Residence: Cairo, Egypt
Membership: 9,000,000

Last Modified: 18 November 2020

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