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Encyclopedia > Coptic Church
The factual accuracy of part of this article is disputed.

The dispute is about The Arab Invasion and Occupation of Egypt.
Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page.

Christ - Coptic Art
Christ - Coptic Art

Coptic Orthodox Christianity is the indigenous form of Christianity that, according to tradition, the apostle Mark established in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century AD (approximately AD 60).

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the national church of Egypt. It is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Its leader is the Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of the Holy See of Saint Mark; a position not to be confused with that of the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome, nor to be confused with either of the other two bishops bearing the title of Patriarch of Alexandria (one in communion with the Roman Pope and the other the head of one of the canonical Eastern Orthodox churches). The current incumbent is Pope Shenouda III.



Egypt is often identified as the place of refuge that the Holy Family sought in its flight from Judea: "When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son" (Matthew 2:12-23). The Egyptian Church, which is now more than nineteen centuries old, was the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says "In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border."

The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Mark during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith. Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Mark's arrival in Alexandria as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of Saint John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the second century. In the second century Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria

The Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest Catechetical School in the world. Soon after its inception around 190 A.D. by the Christian scholar Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became the most important institution of religious learning in Christendom. Many prominent bishops from many areas of the world were instructed in that school under scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the great Origen, who was considered the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. Origen wrote over 6,000 commentaries of the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla. Many scholars such as Saint Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The scope of the school of Alexandria was not limited to theological subjects, because science, mathematics and humanities were also taught there: The question and answer method of commentary began there, and 15 centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were in use there by blind scholars to read and write. The Theological college of the Catechetical School of Alexandria was re-established in 1893. Today, it has campuses in Alexandria, Cairo, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, where Coptic priests-to-be and other qualified men and women are taught among other subjects Christian theology, history, Coptic language and art - including chanting, music, iconography, and tapestry.

Monasticism and Missionary Work

In the third century, during the persecution of Decius, some Christians fled to the desert, and remained there to pray after the persecutions abated. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was reorganized by the saints Anthony the Great and Pachomius in the 4th century. By the end of the century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian hills. A number of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations till this day.

Egyptian monasticism attracted the attention of Christians in other parts of the world, who visited Egypt, many bringing monastic ideas home with them, and spreading monasticism through the Christian world. Saint Basil, organizer of the monastic movement in Asia Minor visited Egypt around AD 357 and his rule is followed by the eastern Churches; Saint Jerome, en route to Jerusalem, stopped in Egypt and left details of his experiences in his letters; Saint Benedict founded monasteries in the 6th century on the model of Pachomius, but in a stricter form.

Council of Nicaea

In the 4th century, a Libyan priest called Arius started a theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) was convened by Constantine to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, which is now recited throughout the Christian world, was authored by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, the Bishop of Alexandria.

Council of Constantinople

In the year 381, Pope Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:

"We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in one Holy Universal Apostolic Church. We confess one Baptism for the remission of sins and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen."

Council of Ephesus

Coptic Altar in Jerusalem

Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople who taught that God the Word was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title "Mother of God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be "Mother of Christ" (Christotokos). When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, the Bishop acted quickly to "correct" this breach with orthodoxy. Requesting that Nestoriusrepent. When he would not the Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency session and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as "The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril." In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!" Nestorius however, still would not repent and so this led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), presided by Pope Cyril I of Alexandria.

The First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of the Holy Ever-Virgin Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Saint Athanasius had said that there is "One Nature and One Hypostasis for God the Word Incarnate" (Mia Physis kai Mia Hypostasis tou Theou Logou Sasarkomeni). Also, the introduction to the creed was formulated as follows:

"We magnify you O Mother of the True Light and we glorify you O saint and Mother of God (Theotokos) for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world. Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firminess of the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen."

The Orthodox faith is considered to have prevailed at the council. Unfortunately, Bishop Cyril I of Alexandria died soon afterwards. Saint Dioscorus, the archdeacon of Alexandria (considered a saint by the non-Chalcedonians but a heretic by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics) was elected as Cyril's replacement. The Nestorians took the opportunity of Saint Cyril's death to revive their campaign against Cyrillian Christology.

Council of Chalcedon

St Mark Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria

By the time the Council of Chalcedon was called, politics had already started to intermingle with Church affairs. When the Emperor Marcianus interfered with matters of faith in the Church, the response of Saint Dioscorus, the Pope of Alexandria who was later to be exiled, to this interference was clear: "You have nothing to do with the Church." It was in Chalcedon that the emperor could take his revenge from the Pope's honesty.

The Council of Chalcedon abandoned Cyrillian terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures. The Council of Chalcedon was rejected by many of the Christians on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire: Egyptians, Syrians, Armenians, and others. From that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the "Melkite" or Imperial Patriarch, now known as the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, and the non-Chalcedonian national Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope of Alexandria. Almost the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the Council of Chalcedon and remained faithful to the national Egyptian Church (now known as the Coptic Church). Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading churches of Rome and Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Oriental Orthodox Church.

The Chalcedonians sometimes called the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic Church denies that it teaches monophysitism, which it regards as a heresy. They have sometimes called the Chalcedonian group "dyophysites". A term that comes closer to Coptic doctrine is "miaphysite", which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos. The Coptic Church believes that Christ 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. These two natures did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye.

The Coptic Church was misunderstood in the 5th century at the Council of Chalcedon. Perhaps the Council understood the Church correctly, but wanted to exile the Church, to isolate it and to abolish the Egyptian, independent Pope, who maintained that Church and State should remain separate. Despite all of this, the Coptic Church has remained very strict and steadfast in its faith.

From Chalcedon to the Arab Invasion of Egypt

Copts suffered under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacrated the Egyptian population whom they considered as heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of the Chalcedonan Council, but Egyptians remained strong in the faith of their fathers and loyal to the Cyrilian terminology in Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian Saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.

The Arab Invasion and Occupation of Egypt

The neutrality of this section of the article is disputed.
Please see the relevant discussion on the talk page.

The entire Egyptian population resisted the Arab Muslim invasion of 641. However, because of the Byzantine persecution, Egyptians did not have the means to fight the invaders. Egyptians fought bear-handed against the Arabic swords and were massacred on the streets and inside the churches. Entire villages were burnt down, with their animals and inhabitants. Alexandria was set into fire by the invading Arab army under Amr ibn al-As, who also destroyed its renowned Bibliotheca Alexandrina by order of the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab. Meanwhile, the Byzantines demonstrated very little, if any, resistance towards the invaders and usually fled their posts at the scenes of the approaching Arabs.

The invading Arabs gave the native Egyptians three choices: pay a certain amount of money (to be defined by the rulers) known as Jizya, convert to Islam or be killed. Those who chose to convert to Islam were assimilated with the Arab invaders, both linguistically and religiously. Egyptians who decided to remain Christian were labelled as Copts by the Arabs. The English word Copt is from New Latin Coptus, which is derived from Arabic Qupt قبط, an arabisation of the Coptic word Gyptias, which in turn is derived from the Greek word Aiguptios (Αιγύπτιος) meaning Egyptian; originally from an older Egyptian word meaning Egyptian; probably keme (meaning Egypt in Egyptian) or Ha-Ka-Ptah (meaning House of the Spirit of Ptah in Egyptian, which is the Egyptian name for Memphis, the Ancient Egyptian Capital).

In addition to the Jizya, Copts, suffered from specific disabilities under the Arab Muslim occupation, some of which were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For instance, there were restrictions on repairing old Churches and building new ones, on testifying in court, on public behavior, on adoption, on inheritance, on public religious activities, and on dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt changed from a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country and the Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in some expectation of Muslim hostility, which periodically flared into violence. It is remarkable that the well-being of Copts was more or less related to the well-being of their rulers. In particular, the Copts suffered most in those periods when Arab dynasties were at their low. Under the Arab Muslim persecution, the Coptic Church offered many martyrs. Yet, it also experienced its spiritually strongest period ever. It enjoyed unique miracles such as the translocation of the Mokattam mountain with the prayer of the Coptic faithful in the 11th century.

From the 19th century to the 1952 Revolution

The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali's dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit and, by 1855, the main mark of Copts' inferiority, the Jizya tax was lifted. Shortly thereafter, christians started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 revolution in Egypt, the first grassroots display of Egyptian identity in centuries, stands as a witness to the homogeneity of Egypt's modern society with both its muslim and christian components.

Coptic Christianity today

Coptic Festival in Upper Egypt.

The Coptic Orthodox Pope today is Pope Shenouda III, while the most recent Greek Orthodox Melkite Patriarch is Patriarch Theodoros II.

By some accounts there are more than 40 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world: they are found primarily in Egypt (roughly 10 millions), Ethiopia (roughly 30 millions), and Eritrea (roughly 2 millions), but there are significant numbers in Sudan and Israel, and in diaspora throughout the world. However, as applied to the Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia, which before 1950 was a part of the Coptic Church of Egypt, the word Coptic can be considered a misnomer because it means Egyptian. The Eritrean Orthodox Church similarly became independent of the Tewahedo Church during the 1990s. These three churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Oriental Orthodox churches.

Since the 1980s theologians from the two groups have been meeting in a bid to resolve the theological differences, and have concluded that many of the differences are caused by the two groups using different terminology to describe the same thing. In 1990, the Coptic and Antiochian Orthodox Churches agreed to mutually recognize baptisms performed in each other's churches, making rebaptisms unnecessary. In the summer of 2001, the Coptic Orthodox and Antiochian Orthodox agreed to recognize the sacrament of marriage as celebrated by the other. Previously, if a Coptic and Greek wanted to marry, the marriage had to be performed twice, once in each church, for it to be recognized by both. Now it can be done in only one church and be recognized by both.

In the Coptic Church only men may be ordained, and they must be married before they are ordained, if they wish to be married. In this respect they follow the same practices as does the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Traditionally, the Coptic language was used in church services, and the scriptures were written in the Coptic alphabet. However, due to the arabisation of Egypt, service in churches started to witness increased use of Arabic, while preaching is done entirely in Arabic.

Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January which, since 2002, is an official national holiday in Egypt.

Famous Copts

  • Origen of Alexandria
  • St Abraam Bishop of Fayoum
  • St Anthony the Great القديس الأنبا أنطونيوس أب الرهبان
  • St Athanasius the Apostolic
  • St Cyril I of Alexandria القديس البابا كيرلس السكندري عامود الدين
  • St Cyril VI قداسة البابا كيرلس السادس
  • St Demiana الشهيدة دميانة
  • St Didimos
  • St Dioscores
  • St Mary of Egypt
  • St Mina الشهيد مارمينا العجايبي
  • St Morris
  • St Moses the Black القديس موسى الأسود
  • St Pakhom القديس باخوم أب الشركة
  • St Parsoma الأنبا برسوم العريان
  • St Pavly the Anchorite
  • St Samuel the Confessor
  • St Shenouty the Archmendrite
  • St Simon the Shoemaker
  • St Tigy
  • St Verena القديسة فيرينا
  • HH Pope Shenouty III, the current Pope of Alexandria قداسة البابا شنوده الثالث
  • Boutros Ghali, the only Coptic Prime Minister of Egypt in modern history بطرس غالي
  • Boutros Boutros Ghali, Former Secretary General of the United Nations بطرس بطرس غالي
  • Sir Magdi Yacoub , leading cardiologist in the world مجدي يعقوب
  • Makram Ebeid مكرم عبيد
  • Kamal Stino, Former Vice Prime Minister of Egypt كمال ستينو
  • Youssef Boutros Ghali يوسف بطرس غالي
  • Isaac Fanous, the father of modern Coptic iconography ايزاك فانوس
  • Mary Moneib ماري منيب
  • Ester Fanous استر فانوس
  • Sobhi Gergis صبحي جرجس
  • Margret Nakhla مرجريت نخلة
  • Sandra Nashaat ساندرا نشأت
  • Michel Bakhoom ميشيل باخوم


Coptic Net (http://www.coptic.net)

Coptic Church (http://www.andrewfanous.com/CopticChurch.htm)

See also

List of Coptic Popes

Coptic Language

Coptic Alphabet

External links

  • Official Website of HH Pope Shenouda III (http://www.CopticPope.org)
  • More Information on the Coptic Church, its Beliefs, Practices, and Liturgical Life (http://www.copticchurch.net)
  • The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt (http://www.coptic.net)
  • American Copts (http://www.copts.com)
  • Réseau des Coptes en France (http://www.france-copte.net)
  • Ancient Hymns of the Coptic Orthodox Church (http://tasbeha.org)
  • Part of the largest Coptic Orthodox media ring (http://www.coptichymns.net)
  • Coptic Links from Saint Takla Haymanout Church in Alexandria (http://st-takla.org/Links/Coptic-links-1.html)
  • More Coptic Links (http://www.andrewfanous.com/CopticLinks.htm)

  Results from FactBites:
Encyclopedia Coptica: The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt (0 words)
The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century, a dozen of years after the Lord's ascension.
The Coptic Church was misunderstood in the 5th century at the Council of Chalcedon.
There are three main Liturgies in the Coptic Church: The Liturgy according to Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesarea; The Liturgy according to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople; and The Liturgy according to Saint Cyril I, the 24th Pope of the Coptic Church.
CopticChurch.Net - Coptic Orthodox Church Network (0 words)
The Coptic Church venerates St. Mary as the "Theotokos,", the Mother of God, whom the Divine Grace chose to bear the Word of God in her womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35).
Since she is considered to be the exemplary member in the church, and the interceding mother on behalf of her spiritual children, she is exalted above heavenly and earthly creatures.
Mark's Coptic Church, Jersey City, NJ Hymns of Veneration for St. Mary for Bishop Youssef, Cantor Gad Lewis, Higher Institute of Studies, and St. George, Geushi Shobra.
  More results at FactBites »



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