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The identity of the Coptic (i.e., Egyptian) Orthodox Church is based on the foundation of the patriarchate of Alexandria by Mark the Evangelist. He is regarded as the first in an unbroken line of patriarchs represented in 2007 by Pope Shenuda III who, like the Greek Orthodox patriarch, is called the Pope of Alexandria and all Africa. The patriarchate is in Abbasiya, Cairo, in the complex of the Coptic Cathedral of Saint Mark, and there are roughly 8 million believers across the country.
Egyptian patriarchs of Alexandria wielded great influence at the various councils convened to reconcile disputes that plagued the early church. In 325, Alexander and his papal successor Athanasius subscribed to the Nicene Creed that God the Father and Christ the Son were full and equal participants in the Godhead; Arius, who presented that the Son was subordinate to the Father, was banished. When Constantinople gained the prestige that once belonged to Alexandria, Arius was recalled and Athanasius was driven into exile on five occasions, which coincided with the appointment of Arian bishops in Alexandria. The dispute was finally resolved in the Council of Constantinople in 381 when the Nicene Creed, defended for decades by Athanasius, was reaffirmed.
Egypt’s refusal to endorse the decrees issued at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 was a nationalistic gesture of independence. Earlier, there existed no theological differences between the Church of Alexandria and the Churches of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The decisions that caused the divisions into “Chalcedonian” and “non-Chalcedonian” or “monophysite” churches were political rather than doctrinal because both claimed authority over the patriarchate of Alexandria. The Coptic Church is committed solely to the first three ecumenical councils: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesis (431), where Saint Cyril of Alexandria, champion of Christian orthodoxy, was honored for his defense against Nestorianism and for his definition of faith as expressed in the Coptic Synaxarium: “The Union of the Word of God with the flesh is as the union of the soul with the body, and as the union of fire with iron, which although they are of different natures, yet by their union they become one. Likewise, the Lord Christ is One Christ, One Lord, One Nature and One Will.”
In the year 570, Copts appointed their own “pope and patriarch” residing at Wadi Natrun, west of the Delta. Egyptian Orthodox Christians henceforward ignored ecclesiastical representatives from Constantinople, adopted a Calendar of the Martyrs that begins its era on August 29, 284 in recollection of those who had died for their faith in the reign of Diocletion, translated the whole of the New Testament into Coptic, and followed the teachings of Saint Mark.
Periods of peace and persecution comprise the history of the Coptic Church. The Persian army destroyed churches and monasteries in 617. The religious life of the Copts suffered relatively little after the Arab invasion in 641, provided they paid a tax, but when repressive laws were later imposed, they drove the Copts to revolt on several occasions. The Church generally flourished under the Fatimids (969–1171), when there was a revival of Coptic identity, but this was followed by persecution under the Ayyubids (1171–1250). With the rise of the Mamelukes, churches and monasteries were plundered and destroyed, Copts became a small minority, and pressure continued under the Ottomans (1517–1808).
The position of the Coptic Church improved under the enlightened rule of Mohamed Ali’s dynasty in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1950s nationalization and “Arabization” policies under Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser resulted in an exodus of a professional class abroad, including Copts. There are more than 80 Coptic Churches in the United States and Canada, 26 in Australia, and some 30 in Europe. A missionary movement has resulted in the establishment of six Coptic Orthodox Churches in Africa.
The tremendous cultural revival of the Coptic Church from the 1950s, mainly initiated under Pope Kyrollos and continued under Pope Shenuda, includes a surge of Sunday schools, Coptic institutions, orphanages, old age homes, hospitals, and social service centers.
Since the 1970s, Pope Shenuda has instigated theological discussions with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Greek and Oriental Orthodox Churches, with view to the Copts being fully accepted as Orthodox Christians by all members of the world community. In fact, ecumenical discussions at the Vatican in 1973 led to a general acceptance of the above-mentioned Christological formula of Saint Cyril of Alexandria.
- Kamil, Jill. 2002. Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church. New York: Routledge.
- Meinardus, Otto F. A. 1999. Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.
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