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Feature Story #1 - Egypt, Coptic Christians

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An Overview of the Coptic Christians of Egypt

by Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn


The word Copt is an English word taken from the Arabic word Gibt or Gypt. It literally means Egyptian. The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in 641 AD, called the population of Egypt Gypt, from the Greek word "Egyptos" or Egypt. The Greek word "Egyptos" came from the ancient Egyptian words (Hut-Ka-Ptah), one of the names for "Memphis", the first capital of Ancient Egypt. In contemporary usage, the term "Coptic" refers to Egyptian Christians. Today, Copts form almost 13% to 15% of Egypt's population though they are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians as they are fully integrated into the body of the modern Egyptian nation.

In 1992, there were over nine million Copts (out of a population of some 57 million Egyptians) who pray and share communion in daily masses in thousands of Coptic Churches in Egypt. This is in addition to another 1.2 million immigrant Copts who practice their faith in hundreds of churches in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Brazil, and many other countries in Africa and Asia. Inside Egypt Copts live in every province though in no one of these provinces are they a majority.

The history of the Coptic Church in Egypt is basically the history of Christianity in Egypt, for the current Coptic Church is a direct evolution from those earlier times. However, it traditionally begins with the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt. Copts relate that the blessing of Christianity on their country goes back to the days when Jesus was a young boy. The holy family, consisting of the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph traveled to Egypt and lived there for some time. Numerous traditions exist about the exact locations that the holy family visited and many take annual pilgrimages following this route (it is also a popular tourist route) However, historically it was Saint Mark the Evangelist, during the first century AD, who actually is considered to be the founder of the church. He preached and suffered martyrdom in Alexandria around the time that Nero ruled Rome.

When St. Mark died in Alexandria in year 68 AD, his body was buried in the chapel at "Beucalis". In the year 828, the remains were stolen and placed in the Venice cathedral. In 1970 the largest cathedral in Africa was built in Cairo, St. Mark's Coptic Cathedral. Before the cathedral was finished Pope Paul VI returned to Egypt the body of St. Mark. With much ceremony this was placed in a grave beneath the main altar. Nowadays, weekly meetings are held there where the pope addresses the crowds.

The early Christians of Egypt suffered considerably at the hands of the early Roman pagans, as did others prior to The rule of the Roman emperor, Constantine, who not only legalized their faith, but encouraged it as a Christian himself.

However, in 451 AD the Fourth Ecumenical Council took place, and would divide the Catholic, or "universal" Christian church. The decisions of this council concerned the nature of Jesus Christ.

The Chalcedonian definition states that Jesus Christ is indeed the Logos incarnate, the very Son of God "born of the Father before all ages." It affirms that the Virgin Mary is truly Theotokos since the one born from her "according to the flesh" in Bethlehem, is the uncreated, divine Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity. In His human birth, the Council declared, the Word of God took to Himself the whole of humanity, becoming a real man in every way, but without sin. Thus, according to the Chalcedonian definition, Jesus of Nazareth is one person or hypostasis in two natures - human and divine. He is fully human. He is fully divine. He is perfect God and perfect man. As God, He is "of one essence" (homoousios) with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. As man, He is "of one essence" (homoousios) with all human beings.

The union of divinity and humanity in Christ is called the hypostatic union. This expression means that in the one, unique person of Christ, divinity and humanity are united in such a way that they are neither mixed together and confused, nor separated and divided. Christ is one person Who is both human and divine. The Son of God and the Son of Mary is one and the same person.

The decision of the Council of Chalcedon was not accepted by the extreme disciples of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, nor by those who came to be associated with them. These Christians, called monophysites, rejected the Chalcedonian Council on the basis that the council spoke of two natures, thus rejecting the old formula of Saint Cyril which claimed that in His incarnation, Christ has but one nature. The supporters of the Chalcedonian decision claimed and still claim that though their words are different from those of the holy father, their doctrine is exactly the same and is simply expressed with greater precision. The disagreement was never settled, however, and although many attempts at reunion were made in the fifth and sixth centuries - and again in recent years - the dissenters from the Chalcedonian decision remain separated from the Orthodox Church.

Today, the so-called Monophysite Christians are in the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Syrian Church of India, and the Armenian Church. These churches are often called the Lesser Eastern Churches or the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

However, it should be pointed out that, officially, the Coptic Church has never believed in monophysitism the way it was portrayed in the Council of Chalcedon. According to a statement by the Coptic Church:

"Copts believe that the Lord is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word", which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Copts, thus, believe in two natures "human" and "divine" that are united in one "without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration" (from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy).

These two natures "did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye" (also from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy)."

This split in the church ended up taking the form of persecution against the Coptic Christians of Egypt. After having survived the persecution of the Roman Pagans, they were once again besieged, now by other Christians. Hence, when the Arabs invaded Egypt in the mid-seventh century AD, they met little resistance form the native Christian population.

The Coptic Christian church of Egypt has been responsible for at least several major contributions to the universal Christian faith. Perhaps best known is the founding of monastic establishments. Even before Christianity, it was not uncommon for young Egyptians to retire to the desert for seclusion, perhaps because of the harsh treatment of the Egyptians by the early Romans. Later, with the advent of Christianity, Christians also took to the desert for solitary spirituality and as this movement evolved over time, they sought out like minded individuals, eventually forming themselves into monastic communities. Hence, Egypt is known as the birth place of Christian monasteries.

Another outstanding contribution was the Didascalia, the famous catechetical school in Alexandria where early Christian scholars labored to prove that reason and revelation, philosophy and theology were not only compatible, but also essential for each other's comprehension. This was the first Catechetical School in the world. The first great scholar who served as head of the Didascalia was Pantaenus, who probably ran the school for about a 20 year period between 180 and 200 AD. However, probably the most important theologian and prolific author associated with the school was Origen.

The Copts Today

After the invasion of the Arab Muslims around the middle of the seventh century AD, the church suffered a slow decline but around the middle of the twentieth century, it experienced an unprecedented revival. This spiritual renaissance had its start in the forties and fifties in the Coptic Sunday School movements in Cairo, Giza and Asyut. Inspired by the challenges they experienced in the Sunday School classes, young men consecrated their lives to God and joined the desert fathers. Today, many of the church leaders grew from that spirited revival. The Copts continue to have active youth groups that emphasize religious education as well as providing social interaction. Although called Sunday schools, these gatherings usually held on Fridays, are considered to be a very important religious element to all the Coptic families. Their children usually join at an early age and continue to participate in them throughout their adolescence. They involve diverse activities, both on the spiritual level as well as on the social side of their lives.

Today, the Coptic church has spread throughout the world, with churches in many different countries. Under the patronage of the current people, the church holds a deep and profound interest in erasing the prior concepts of the church among world. The church today maintains communications with the Roman Catholic church, as well as others, and it is clear that the desire of the Copts is to be fully and unequivocally accepted as orthodox Christians by all members of the Christian world community.

The Coptic Church of the diaspora is a new and dynamic development of the second half of the twentieth century. Recent missionary efforts of the Coptic Church in Africa have led to the establishment of numerous churches in Zambia, Kenya, Zaire, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. The Coptic Church is even spreading throughout the United States.

The Coptic Orthodox Church's clergy is headed by the Pope of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III. For hundreds of years Alexandria, the second city of Egypt, was the home of the Pope but today his Cathedral is in Cairo.

Both the Pope and the Bishops that regularly oversee the priests ordained in their dioceses and matters of faith, must be monks. As for the priests, they must be married and must attend the Catechetical School before being ordained. Today, there are over 60 Coptic Bishops governing dioceses inside Egypt as well as outside, such as Jerusalem, Sudan and Western Africa.

The Holy Synod is the highest ecclesiastical body in the church and is responsible for the church's spiritual, ecclesiastical, structural, organizational and economic affairs. It is made up of all the members of the Coptic episcopate, which today include seventy-eight metropolitans, bishops and the wakil al-batrakiya, an archpriest representing the married clergy. Though this body has functioned since the fourth century, in 1985 a constitution for the Holy Synod was drafted, setting out its objectives, policies and procedures. To make it more effective, Pope Shenouda III divided the Holy Synod into seven subcommittees that deal with pastoral affairs, liturgical affairs, ecumenical relations, monastic affairs, faith and ethics, and diocesan affairs. The body of the Holy Synod convenes annually on the Saturday prior to Pentecost Sunday in the Chapel of Saint Antony in the Pontifcal Residence in Cairo.

There are two other non-clerical bodies who participate in taking care of Church affairs. The first is a popularly-elected Coptic Lay Council, which appeared on the stage in 1883 A.D. to act as a liaison between the Church and the Government. The second is a joint lay-clerical committee, which appeared on the stage in 1928 A.D. to oversee and monitor the management of the Coptic Church's endowments in accordance with the Egyptian laws.

The Virgin Mary Coptic Church in Zamalek, also called the Mara'ashly Church.

The most famous churches in Cairo are the Virgin Mary Church in Zamalek and St George's Church in Heliopolis. Both were built by well-known Architect, Ramses Wessa Wassef. Also, another famous church is Al Adra Church (Virgin Mary) in Zaytoon. This got its exceptional fame from the events of April 2, 1968 when the Virgin St. Mary appeared to the crowds every night for over two months. The sightings were confirmed by thousands of Copts and Muslims. Hundred of miracles were reported. Right now there are two churches: the old small church where the appearances happened, and a newly built Cathedral.