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The Coptic Orthodox Church

Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself, predating Islam and the Arab invasion of the country by six centuries. But for Egypt’s six million Christians, social inequity is increasingly a fact of daily life. Egyptian Christian leaders prefer not to call too much attention to the injustices or the occasional acts of violence; most Egyptian Christians, or Copts (a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian), live side by side with their Muslim neighbors, particularly in the country’s densely populated cities. They do not isolate themselves in quarters delineated by stone walls; Copts are an integral part of Egyptian life.

Despite 15 centuries marked by periods of persecution and peace, the Coptic Orthodox Church, which embraces more than 93 percent of all Coptic Christians, thrives. Churches are packed with young and old; ancient monasteries flourish with monks and nuns; social outreach programs touch the needy and catechetical programs instill values and a sense of identity for the young – who are increasingly emigrating to the West.

Life of the early church. St. Mark the Evangelist, disciple of the Apostle Peter, brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria – second only to Rome in the ancient world – establishing a church among the Jewish, Greek and native Egyptian communities as early as the year 42.

Though sporadically persecuted by the Romans, the Alexandrian Church grew quickly. By the early third century, its reputation as the primary center of learning, biblical scholarship and theological exploration was unchallenged in the Christian world. Founded by the scholar Pantaenus around 180, the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which also included studies in philosophy, science and mathematics, was led by such influential thinkers as St. Clement (died around 211), Origen (died around 251) and Didymus the Blind (whose life spanned most of the fourth century), a teacher of the great church father, St. Jerome (died 420).

The Alexandrian Church was not confined to the cosmopolitan environment of Alexandria – Christian remains dating to the mid-second century have been found throughout Middle and Upper Egypt. Many Alexandrian Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer and contemplation, fled to the desert and uninhabited hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. Some of these men and women, such as St. Anthony the Great (251-356) and St. Macarius (300-390), inspired hundreds of followers eager to pursue a life of constant prayer, in which even ordinary acts of life, such as eating, were seen as invitations to pray.

It was St. Pachomius (died 345), a follower of Anthony, who first grouped these men and women into monastic communities. This Christian monastic tradition eventually spread to Asia Minor and Syria in the fourth century and to the West in the early sixth century. Several of these monasteries – four located in Wadi Natrun, a valley in Egypt’s Western Desert, and two in the Eastern Desert – remain active centers of Coptic spirituality and learning as well as popular pilgrimage destinations.

Christological controversies. The great debates of the early church, particularly those centered on the person and nature of Jesus and his relationship to the Father, began long before the Roman Emperor Constantine issued his edict of toleration in 313. As Christianity grew throughout the Mediterranean world, it embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic worlds, each of which had its own culture, history, language, philosophy, vocabulary and world view. Typically, these distinctive understandings of Jesus, or Christologies, reflected the culture or language that defined them.

In Alexandria, theologians tended to emphasize the divine nature of Jesus, as opposed to theologians in Antioch, the second great theological school of the early church, who emphasized the humanity of Jesus. Though understood today as complementary, these Christological approaches clashed, as Alexandria and Antioch competed for preeminence.

The Alexandrian Church, led by St. Athanasius (298-373), sought to refute the teachings of the influential priest Arius, who questioned whether Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. Athanasius’ understanding of Jesus as both true God and true man became the basis for the creed (formulated at the ecumenical councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381), which is still recited in churches throughout the world.

Despite the formulation of the creed, however, Christological debate continued to bristle the Christian world. These debates assumed an increasing ethnic, linguistic and political tone, disturbing the unity of the empire. Alexandria, piloted by its indefatigable patriarch, St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444), again took charge, irritating the emperor who wielded immense power over church and state. Further ecumenical councils, all called by the emperors to advance peace and unity, defined orthodoxy and condemned heresy; yet the decrees, and the methods used to employ them, divided the church further.

The Christological decrees of the Council of Chalcedon – which in 451 asserted that in Jesus there are two natures, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin” – suggest a victory for the Alexandrian Christological position. The emperor, however, deposed and exiled Cyril’s successor as head of the Alexandrian Church, Dioscorus (who died around 457), for his alleged acceptance of heresy and his political opposition to the emperor.

Significant portions of the Church of Alexandria, particularly the Coptic (or non-Greek-speaking) communities of Egypt’s rural interior and its monasteries, supported Dioscorus. They opposed the council and the heavy-handedness of Byzantium’s emperors, espousing the oneness of Jesus’ humanity and divinity. These so-called “Monophysites” joined like-minded peoples in the Syriac-speaking areas of Asia Minor and Syria and broke full communion with the rest of the church. Today, this group of non-Chalcedonian churches (now called Oriental Orthodox) includes the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara Syrian and Syrian Orthodox churches. It is generally agreed that this schism reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.

A national church is formed. For more than a century after Chalcedon, Egypt’s two Christian parties, Coptic and Greek, struggled to secure the patriarchate of Alexandria. Despite the Byzantine emperors’ attempts to wipe out the Coptic opponents of Chalcedon, the Copts flourished, particularly in the desert monasteries. The liturgy, which originated in Alexandria, developed along monastic lines and was celebrated in the vernacular, Coptic. Rendered in Greek script, Coptic is a Semitic tongue that represents the final stage of the ancient language of the pharaohs. A distinctive style of liturgical art, rooted in the traditions of Greece and Rome, yet impacted by neo-Platonism and monasticism, thrived.

In 567, the Byzantine emperor recognized two claimants to the patriarchal throne of Alexandria: the Coptic, to whom the vast majority of Egypt’s Christians owed allegiance, and the Melkite (meaning “imperialist”), who led the Greek-speaking minority of Alexandria. Today, Coptic Orthodox Pope and Patriarch Shenouda III is the 91st occupant of the see of St. Mark since Dioscorus, guiding nine million Coptic Orthodox believers worldwide. Greek Orthodox Pope and Patriarch Theodoros II shepherds some 250,000 people, the vast majority of whom are natives of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

The Arab invasions. Byzantium’s religious discords weakened the empire and opened it to the Persians, who by the early seventh century occupied much of Byzantine Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine and Syria, sacking Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Though the Byzantines eventually repelled the Persians in 628, they could not hold back the Arabs, a Semitic people from the Arabian Peninsula. Spurred on by the monotheistic teachings of Muhammad (who died in 632), the Arabs conquered much of Byzantine Palestine, Syria and Egypt, taking Alexandria in 641.

Egypt’s Coptic majority by and large welcomed the Arabs, preferring their rule to that of the Byzantines, who remained hostile to Coptic Christianity. The Arabs favored the Copts, who were protected as “People of the Book” by Islamic law and by a hadith, or saying, of Muhammad: “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your protégés and kith and kin.” The Arabs recognized the Coptic pope and patriarch as the head of the Christian community, but he, as with the rest of his church, was required to pay tribute, or jizya, in lieu of military service.

For centuries, Egypt remained primarily Christian: The Arabs retained the civil structures set up by the Byzantines, employed Coptic bureaucrats, sanctioned the development of a Coptic code of civil law, and later a code of canon law, and approved the construction and refurbishment of churches and monasteries. Conversion to Islam was gradual, though a campaign to convert all Egyptian Christians and Jews by force was adopted by the Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, Hakim bi-Amr Allah (985-1021).

By the 12th century, Copts had declined in number and influence. Though Coptic Orthodox delegations represented the pope and patriarch of Alexandria at the Council of Lyon (1274) and the Council of Florence (1439), and Capuchins and Jesuits established missions in Egypt in the 17th and 18th centuries, relatively little is known about the Copts from the 12th century until the birth of modern Egypt 700 years later.

A modern resurgence. The revival of the Coptic Orthodox Church coincided with the birth of Egyptian nationalism, the decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire (the Turks ruled the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt, for centuries) and the ascent of Europe. In 1855, Egypt’s rulers, pressured by European colonial powers, lifted the jizya, emancipating the Copts from a financial obligation that had often sparked revolts in the past. While free to join Muslims in military service, Copts also prospered financially, taking a prominent role in the modernization of Egypt.

European and American missionaries – Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian – competed for influence among the Copts. While the goals of these missionaries – to educate the Coptic Orthodox laity, most of whom were illiterate, and strengthen the education and formation of the clergy, who were often no better off than their flock – were well intended, their efforts often splintered the Coptic Orthodox Church, eventually forming Coptic Catholic and Coptic Evangelical Presbyterian churches. Today there are approximately 200,000 Coptic Catholics and 100,000 Coptic Evangelical Presbyterians.

Not since the earliest days of the Alexandrian Church have two men impacted St. Mark’s spiritual descendants more: Pope Kyrillos VI (1959-71) and his successor, Pope Shenouda III (1971-present), have spearheaded a revival in catechesis, particularly with the youth, that has spawned a resurgence in monastic life, renewed liturgical life and stimulated theological learning and Scripture study (the latter a result of the influence of Protestant missionaries). Grand church complexes, including Cairo’s Cathedral of St. Mark and the Cathedral of St. Mina, near Alexandria, draw thousands of pilgrims daily, who attend liturgy, venerate relics of Coptic saints and, particularly at St. Mark’s, study the Scriptures.

Under Kyrillos VI, contacts among the Oriental Orthodox churches were strengthened. Relations with other churches, particularly the Byzantine Orthodox and Catholic churches, have improved significantly. In May 1973, Pope Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI issued a joint statement that put to rest the Christological discord that divided the two churches since the fifth century.

“He who is God eternal and invisible,” declared the popes, “became visible in the flesh, and took upon himself the form of a servant. In him are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.”

Beginning in the 1980’s, Byzantine and Coptic Orthodox theologians have met regularly to resolve the same Christological differences. In 1990, and again in 2001, the Coptic and Antiochene Orthodox churches recognized the validity of one another’s sacraments of Christian initiation (baptism, Eucharist and confirmation) and marriage.

Life for Egypt’s Copts can be difficult. The revival of the church has irked extremists who, in the name of Islam, have provoked aggression against it. In 1981, President Anwar al-Sadat placed Pope Shenouda under house arrest in a desert monastery – presumably to protect him from the rise of violence that claimed the Egyptian president’s life later that year. The pope was released four years later.

Though assaults on Copts have abated, random disturbances continue to rattle the community, increasingly encouraging young adults to settle where opportunities are more readily available and life more mundane.

The Coptic Orthodox Church in diaspora, which numbers some three million members, is particularly strong in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia, where eparchies have been founded. There, the same catechetical programs and parish models that have animated the church in the homeland enliven a church in emigration, readying it for new challenges unique to the emigration experience.

This is the sixth in a series of articles on the Eastern churches by Executive Editor Michael La Civita.

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