Spotlight on the Eastern Churches: 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 8.85 million Christians, social inequity — exacerbated by anti-Christian violence with the arrival of the Arab Spring — is a fact of daily life.

Until the overthrow of longtime president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptian Christian leaders preferred not to call too much attention to the injustices or the occasional acts of violence. Most Christians, or Copts (a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian), lived side by side with their Muslim neighbors, particularly in the country’s densely populated cities. Copts made accommodations in exchange for security and the freedom to worship. But the rise, and fall, of the Muslim Brotherhood has challenged that approach as more and more lay Copts demand full respect as citizens of a secular Egypt.

Despite the turmoil of the past 50 years or so, 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.

At the Church of Mary Queen of the World in Port Said, Egypt, Orthodox gather for liturgy on Sunday morning in the Angel Chapel. (photo: Sean Sprague)
At the Church of Mary Queen of the World in Port Said, Egypt, Orthodox gather for liturgy on Sunday morning in the Angel Chapel. (photo: Sean Sprague)

St. Mark the Evangelist, disciple of St. 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. The church of Alexandria 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. The Alexandrian church was not confined to cosmopolitan Alexandria — many Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer and contemplation, fled to the desert and uninhabited hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. It was in Egypt where Christian monasticism started, and eventually spread to Asia Minor and Syria in the fourth century and to the West in the early sixth century.

Debates regarding the nature and person of Jesus inflamed the Christian world, especially as they assumed an increasing ethnic, linguistic and political tone. Ecumenical councils were called to advance peace and unity, define orthodoxy and condemn heresy. Yet, the decrees, and the methods used to employ them, divided the church further.

Significant numbers of Alexandria’s Christians opposed the Council of Chalcedon (451). Over time they joined like-minded Syriac Christians and separated from 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 this schism reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.

For centuries, Egypt remained primarily Christian even after Muslim Arab tribes conquered it in 641. The Arabs retained the civil structures set up by the Romans, 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, and by the 12th century, Copts had declined in number and influence, fading into obscurity until the birth of modern Egypt 700 years later.

Click here for more on the Coptic Orthodox Church from the pages of ONE magazine.

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