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The Christians of Egypt

Egypt’s Christian population continues to flourish despite discrimination and emigration.

Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself. Tradition places Mark the Evangelist – the disciple of Peter and Paul – in the city of Alexandria, where he preached the Gospel to the Jewish community. It is commonly believed that St. Mark established the church in Alexandria as early as 42 A.D. and in 63 was martyred there.

Although the Romans harassed and persecuted Christians, Egyptians embraced the faith quickly. Many of these early Christians fled to the desert to lead uninterrupted lives dedicated to prayer and contemplation. St. Anthony of Egypt, whose life inspired the monastic development of the churches of the East and West, settled near the Red Sea at the end of the third century. There he lived and prayed, while his reputation spread throughout Egypt. Pilgrims and would-be disciples, seeking his counsel, settled around their role model.

In Upper Egypt, St. Pachomius founded religious houses where men and women embraced poverty and lived, worked and prayed together in community. These first monasteries attracted thousands of followers, thereby establishing Egypt as the center of monastic life and spirituality.

Meanwhile Alexandria developed into the leading school of theology in the East, with Origen and St. Clement as its leaders.

However after Constantine extended toleration to Christians and moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek town of Byzantium, the influence of the Church of Alexandria began to wane. As the power of the new Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) grew, so too did its influence over the Alexandrian Church.

Weary of efforts to hellenize the church, the non-Greek-speaking Coptic population. which included the majority of believers, broke away from the established church of the empire after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. For more than a century a contest ensued as the two parties – Coptic and Greek – struggled to place their candidate on the patriarchal throne.

Despite the Byzantine emperors attempts to unite the church forcibly, the Copts flourished. The desert monks, most of whom did not speak Greek, supported the local church. The liturgy, which originated from the Greek liturgy of Alexandria, developed along monastic lines and was celebrated in the Egyptian vernacular, Coptic. Although rendered in Greek script, Coptic is a semitic tongue representing the final stage of evolution of the ancient language of the pharaohs. Meanwhile the creation of icons and other forms of liturgical art thrived in these monastic communities.

In 567, the Byzantine emperor was forced to recognize two distinct Christian churches in Egypt: the Coptic and the Melkite, or king’s men, most of whom were officials of the empire and of Greek descent.

The Arab invasion (640-642) radically altered the state of Egyptian Christianity. Before the invasion, Christianity was the faith of Egypt. The Melkites numbered about 200,000 believers, while the Coptic Church totaled more than three million.

After the Arab caliphs consolidated their power they began the process of arabization. Islam, which inspired these nomadic tribes to conquer the then-known world, was established as the principal religion. Although protected as “people of the book,” Christians were forced to pay heavy taxes. The Coptic patriarch was recognized as the leader of the entire Christian community, but even he was forced to pay tribute. In 705, use of the Coptic language, that element which separated the native Egyptian Christians from their Byzantine rivals, was forbidden. Later in the eighth century the Copts revolted, but the forces of the caliph crushed the Copts. In just a few hundred years, the Christian population of Egypt was reduced to a tiny minority, their churches destroyed, their monasteries abandoned, and the development of the Coptic language arrested.

There were, however, brief periods of relative freedom for the Copts. As the head of the Coptic “nation” and therefore its secular leader as well, the Coptic patriarch was forced to establish a code of civil law. Such a code led to the development of canon law and other legal collections that sought to regulate the life of the church.

Contacts with other Christian communities were not entirely severed. A Coptic delegation was present at the Council of Lyons (1274) and likewise at the Council of Florence (1439), where the representative of the Coptic patriarchate, in the name of the entire Coptic Church, embraced Chalcedon and accepted communion with Rome. This union, however, was never fully accepted nor implemented by the Copts.

The fruit of Florence, and of the activities of the Franciscans, Capuchins and Jesuits, was the creation of the Coptic Catholic Church, which by the mid-18th century numbered about 2,000 members.

As the influence of the Muslims (first the Arabs, and later the Ottoman Turks) spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, eventually replacing even the Byzantines (Constantinople fell in 1453), various Eastern Christian communities emigrated to Egypt in search of work and opportunity.

Among the first to emigrate were artisans, craftsmen and merchants of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Large numbers of Armenians were brought as slaves in the 13th century. And later a multitude of Eastern Christians in communion with Rome – Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite-Greek and Syrian – arrived in pursuit of a better life. These communities were centered in or around Cairo and Alexandria.

The Coptic Catholic Church received its first vicar apostolic in 1741, when the Coptic bishop in Jerusalem, Amba Athanasius, became a Catholic. He was not permitted to enter Egypt, but a line of Coptic Catholic vicars apostolic succeeded him.

Although Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to subdue Egypt in 1798 was unsuccessful, his presence, and later the presence of his British adversaries, brought Egypt within the realm of Western influence. Missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, entered seeking converts. Although these missionaries were at first inspired to bring the Christian faith to the Muslims, most worked among the indigenous Christian population. More than 95 percent of the 100,000 members of the Coptic Evangelical Church, a Presbyterian body founded by three Americans in 1854, are formerly Coptic Orthodox.

Pope Leo XIII’s appointment of the Rev. Cyril Makarios as patriarch in 1899 bolstered the tiny Coptic Catholic community. Today this church, traditionally centered in the farming villages of Upper Egypt, maintains more than 100 parishes and schools.

In the early part of the present century, more than 100,000 Greeks – primarily sailors, dock workers and their families – flooded the Egyptian kingdom. They brought with them their Greek Orthodox faith, reinvigorating the nearly extinct Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.

According to several sources, however, the Greek Orthodox have lost more than half of their 150,000 members to emigration. The sundry of Catholic churches have also suffered losses, as thousands of Egyptian Christians, typically the best educated portion of the population, seek economic and educational opportunities in Australia, Canada and the United States. Interestingly, Syrian Catholic sources indicate that the birth rate matches the emigration rate, stemming for the moment the disappearance of this community.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is pastorally active. Presided Over by His Holiness, Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria, Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, the church, which numbers about 10 percent of Egypt’s 58 million people, is witnessing a revival of monasticism and a flourishing catechetical program.

Every Wednesday, at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the Abbassyia district of Cairo, the Pope teaches the Scriptures to a congregation that includes hundreds of young adults.

The audience, which parallels the weekly assembly held by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, is attended by a variety of people, including bishops of other churches.

Often these gatherings include a question and answer period; after a lengthy exegesis of that day’s Scripture reading the Pope answers questions often centered on items of a personal nature, e.g., marriage, family, relationships and work.

The Coptic Community – indeed Egypt’s Christian community – holds Pope Shenouda in great esteem. The difficulties and crises experienced by many Christians have also been shared by this septuagenarian patriarch. In 1981, following a few years of militant violence directed against the Copts, President Anwar al-Sadat placed Pope Shenouda under house arrest in order to appear even-handed and to protect the Pope. President Sadat was assassinated in October 1981 by Muslim extremists.

Released in 1985, the Pope continues his pastoral work throughout the country – and beyond. The 117th successor of St. Mark frequently visits the more than 50 thriving Coptic Orthodox communities scattered throughout the U.S.

Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself. Despite persecutions, civil and economic strife and religious controversy, Egyptian Christianity not only endures, it flourishes.

Michael La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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