Church of Alexandria (Coptic)

From OrthodoxWiki
Revision as of 06:23, July 1, 2019 by IAmCoptic (talk | contribs)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)
Jump to: navigation, search
Coptic icon of Christ

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 Theodore II. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria cares for about 18 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt and abroad, besides being the Mother Church of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahido Churches. More than 95% of the Christians of Egypt are Coptic Orthodox, but other "Patriarchates/Patriarchs of Alexandria" also exist (Coptic Catholic, Greek/Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox - see 'Coptic Christianity Today' below), as well as small Protestant and Anglican denominations.

Coptic Orthodox Cross

Churches of the Oriental
Orthodox Communion

Autocephalous Churches
Armenia | Alexandria | Ethiopia | Antioch | India | Eritrea
Autonomous Churches
Armenia: Cilicia | Jerusalem | Constantinople
Antioch: Jacobite Indian

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).


A Coptic altar in Jerusalem

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

St Mark Coptic Cathedral in Alexandria
Coptic Orthodox Cross
Note: This article or section represents an Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonian) perspective, which may differ from an Eastern Orthodox (Chalcedonian) understanding.

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, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, "Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary," thus the foundation according to non-Chalcedonians is made clear. In terms of Christology the Oriental understanding is that Christ is "One Nature--the Logos Incarnate," of the full humanity and full divinity. The Byzantine understanding is that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. (Just as all of us are of our mother and father and not in our mother and father, so too is the nature of Christ. If Christ is in full humanity and in full divinity, then He is separate in two persons as the Nestorians teach. Imagine your nature in your mother and your father; you are then two different people. If however your nature is of your mother and your father, then you are one person [1].) This is the linguistic difference which separated the Orientals from the Byzantines.

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 officially known by the Egyptian State as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa [2], and the non-Chalcedonian national Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and Apostolic See of St. Mark. 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 regards herself as having been misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon. Some Copts believe that perhaps the Council understood the Church correctly, but wanted to exile the Church, to isolate her and to abolish the Egyptian, independent Pope, who maintained that Church and State should remain separate. 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 was a result of the conspiracy tailored by the Roman delegates. For further info, please refer to this key paper on the subject by Professor Fr. John S. Romanides, a prominent Greek Orthodox scholar.

Before the current positive era of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox dialogues, Chalcedonians sometimes used to call the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic Church denies that she teaches monophysitism, which she has always regarded as a heresy. They have sometimes called the Chalcedonian group "dyophysites". A term that comes closer to Coptic doctrine is "miaphysite" [3], 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 hypostasis without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration. These two natures did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye (Coptic Liturgy of Saint Basil of Caesarea).

Copts suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population whom they considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and to the Cyrillian view of Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.

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. However, recently (2005-2006) Christians have unfortunately been persecuted in various parts of Egypt.

Coptic Christianity today

Coptic Festival in Upper Egypt.

The current Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria is Pope Tawadros II. There is a small Coptic Catholic Church (Eastern Rite Catholic) established in the 19th century and headed by a Patriarch of Alexandria in communion with the Pope of Rome. 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 about 60 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world: they are found primarily in Egypt (roughly 15 million), Ethiopia (roughly 38 million [4]), and Eritrea (roughly 2 million), but there are significant numbers in North America, Europe, Australia, Sudan and Israel, and in diaspora throughout the world making approximately another 3 to 4 million. However, as applied to the Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia, which in 1959 was granted her first own Patriarch by Coptic Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria, 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 (see Agreed Official Statements on Christology with the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches). In the summer of 2001, the Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria agreed to mutually recognize baptisms performed in each other's churches, making rebaptisms unnecessary, and 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 [5] was used in church services, and the scriptures were written in the Coptic alphabet [6]. 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.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has her own, unique purely religious/liturgical music and chants [7], [8], [9], [10] (some are also used by Coptic Catholics).

Following their own church calendar (Coptic Calendar), Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January which, since 2002, is an official national holiday in Egypt. The Coptic calendar is the calendar of martyrs. Coptic years are counted from 284 AD, the year Diocletian became Roman Emperor, whose reign was marked by tortures and mass executions of Christians, especially in Egypt. Hence, the Coptic year is identified by the abbreviation AM (for Anno Martyrum or "Year of the Martyrs").

The Coptic Orthodox Church also has her own distinguished Coptic art [11], [12]; iconography [13], [14], [15]; and architecture [16], [17].

Some Coptic saints

Note: Some of these are not saints on the Chalcedonian calendar.

See also


External links