Church of Alexandria (Coptic)
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the portion of the Church of Alexandria which broke from the Byzantine churches in the wake of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in 451. Sharing a common heritage before with the Chalcedonian Church of Alexandria, it traces its origins to the Apostle Mark. The church is one of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Its leader is the Coptic Pope of Alexandria, currently Pope Shenouda III.
The Coptic Church regards itself as having never believed in monophysitism the way it was portrayed in the Council of Chalcedon, but rather as having always believed in miaphysitism (a doctrine that Oriental Orthodox Churches regard as correct and orthodox). In that council, monophysitism meant believing in one nature of Jesus Christ. 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 articulated by St. 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).
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 the Apostle Luke 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 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. Founded around 190 by the scholar Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning, where students were taught by 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 St. Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The scope of this school was not limited to theological subjects; 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. The new school currently 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. St. Basil the Great, organizer of the monastic movement in Asia Minor visited Egypt around AD 357 and his rule is followed by the eastern churches; St. Jerome, en route to Jerusalem, stopped in Egypt and left details of his experiences in his letters; St. Benedict of Nursia founded monasteries in the 6th century on the model of Pachomius, but in a stricter form.
Council of Chalcedon
Note: This section represents the view of the Coptic Orthodox Church and not that of the Chalcedonian Orthodox, which regards the Council of Chalcedon as the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
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 Dioscorus of Alexandria (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 at Chalcedon that the emperor would take his revenge for the Pope's frankness.
The Council of Chalcedon abandoned Cyrillian terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures. However, the Council's finding were 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 Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, and the non-Chalcedonian national Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope and Patriarch 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 the Roman Empire. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Oriental Orthodox Church.
The Coptic Church regarded that the ousting of Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria in the council of Chalcedon was in part due to the rivalry between the Bishops of Alexandria and Rome. The Tome of Pope Leo of Rome was considered influenced by Nestorian philosophy. It is important to note that Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria was never labeled as heretic by the council's canons. Copts also believe that the Pope of Alexandria was forcibly prevented from attending the third congregation of the council in which he was ousted, which apparently a result of the conspiracy tailored by the Roman delegates.
The Chalcedonians sometimes called the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic Church denies that it teaches monophysitism, which it regards as a heresy. They in turn 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 iterated by 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 regards itself as having been misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon.
The Arab conquest of Egypt
The Arab conquest of Egypt took place in AD 641. Although the Imperial forces resisted the Arab army under Amr ibn al-As, the majority of the civilian population, having suffered persecution for the differing Christian beliefs, were less hostile; in some cases they welcomed their new masters. Considered "People of the Book", Christians were allowed to practice their religion, under the restrictions of the Islamic Shari'a law. This protection stemmed in part from a Hadith of Muhammad (whose Egyptian wife had been the only one to bear a male child) that advised "When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your proteges and kith and kin" and in part from a need to have capable administrators.
Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained a predominently Christian land, although gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries had the effect of changing Egypt from a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century. This process was sped along by persecutions during and following the reign of the mad Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (reigned AD 996-1021) and the Crusades, and also by the acceptance of Arabic as a liturgical language by the Pope of Alexandria, Gabriel ibn-Turaik.
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
The current Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria is Pope Shenouda III. There is a small Coptic Catholic Church (Eastern Rite Catholic) which is headed by a Patriarch of Alexandria. The Melkite Greek Catholic Church has little presence in Egypt, but is headed by a Patriarch of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
By some accounts there are more than 40 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world: they are found primarily in Egypt (roughly 10 million), Ethiopia (roughly 30 million), and Eritrea (roughly 2 million), 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 the Oriental Orthodox and Chalcedonian Orthodox churches 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. Native languages are used, in conjunction with Coptic, during services outside of Egypt.
Note: Some of these are not saints on the Chalcedonian calendar.
- Abdel Messih El-Makari
- Abraam Bishop of Fayoum الأنبا إبرآم أسقف الفيوم
- Anthony the Great القديس الأنبا أنطونيوس أب الرهبان
- Athanasius the Apostolic البابا أثناسيوس الرسولي
- Cyril of Alexandria القديس البابا كيرلس السكندري عامود الدين
- Cyril VI (Atta) of Alexandria قداسة البابا كيرلس السادس
- Demiana الشهيدة دميانة
- Didymus القديس ديديموس الضرير
- Dioscorus البابا ديسقوروس
- Mary of Egypt القديسة مريم المصرية
- Mina الشهيد مارمينا العجايبي
- Maurice القديس موريس قائد الكتيبة الطيبية
- Moses the Black القديس موسى الأسود
- Pakhom القديس باخوم أب الشركة
- Parsoma الأنبا برسوم العريان
- Paul the Anchorite
- Philopatyr Mercurius
- Samuel the Confessor
- Shenoute the Archimandrite
- Simon the Shoemaker
- Takla Haymanot القديس الأنبا تكلا هيمانوت الحبشي القس
- Verena القديسة فيرينا
- Official Website of HH Pope Shenouda III
- An Overview of the Coptic Christians of Egypt by Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn
- Links to ALL Coptic sites
- Holy Virgin Mary Apparitions over the domes of Her Coptic Orthodox Church in Zeitun, Cairo, Egypt, 1968 - seen by millions
- The late Pope Kyrillos VI (Cyril the Sixth), 116th Pope of Alexandria and See of St. Mark (Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, 1959-1971)
- St. Mina (Menas) Coptic Orthodox Monastery in Mariut, near Alexandria, Egypt
- Encyclopedia Coptica: The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt
- HH Pope Shenouda III: Biography and Writings
- Coptic Church History at www.St-Takla.org
- More Information on the Coptic Church, its Beliefs, Practices, and Liturgical Life
- CoptNet - The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt
- Réseau des Coptes en France
- Ancient Hymns of the Coptic Orthodox Church
- Coptic Hymns
- Monophysitism Reconsidered