The Coptic Church, also known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, is an oriental Christian church in Egypt. According to ancient records, Mark, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, brought Christianity to Egypt and founded the Coptic Church during the 1st century A.D.
The Coptic Church in Egypt is known as the oldest Christian Church in the Middle East.
What Is The Coptic Church?
The Coptic Church first split away from the Christian community in 451 A.D. Rome and Constantinople accused the Coptics of being “monophysite” or teaching only one nature of Christ. The Coptic church is one of several eastern churches that rejected the Christological language that agrees on Christ’s two natures – one human, one divine. Instead, they believe Christ has one nature, and he is both divine and human.
Unlike Catholics and other Christians who believe in the Incarnation of Jesus, Coptics thought that Christ’s humanity and divinity were equally present throughout his Incarnation. They do not deny Christ’s humanity but give both his divinity and humanity equal presence in Christ himself.
For many centuries, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches considered Coptic Orthodox Churches as heretical. However, by the near end of the 20th century, they tried to resolve many theological disputes. Now, they are recognized as being similar to the mainstream of orthodox Christianity.
The church uses the Alexandrian Rite for its prayer, liturgy, and devotional patrimony. It also believes that it’s the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. For example, 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.”
Coptic churches in Egypt are all built to face the East so that the congregation faces the East when they pray. The church’s sanctuary is in the altar and divided from the nave by a screen made of icons. Only priests and their deacons are allowed to the iconostasis.
The church has primary and secondary schools in many places in Egypt. They also have a Sunday school for children who are unable to go to Coptic religion schools. Aside from Egypt, Coptic churches are also present in many other countries, including Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Canada, United States, and South America.
Who Are Coptic Christians?
Copts are native Christians of Egypt believed to be direct descendants of ancient Egyptians. Today, the term copts also refer to indigenous people in Egypt. Copts are known for creating Christian monasticism. The leaders are the ones that established the bedrock doctrine known as the Nicene Creed. They were already there, even before the time of the pharaohs and the birth of Christianity. For this reason, Copts belong to one of the oldest branches of Christianity in the world.
For seven years, the baby Jesus and the holy family spent time in Egypt and lived among Copts. Jesus also spoke the Copts’ language and even drank from the Nile River. According to classical accounts, Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt soon after the ascension of Christ during the reign of Claudius in 42 A.D.
Saint Mark was one of Jesus Christ’s 72 apostles and author of Mark’s Gospel in the Bible. It is even evident from a section of John’s Gospel where some of it was written in Coptic and discovered in Egypt in the first half of the second century. It makes Coptic Christianity one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world.
Saint Mark created a huge Christian following in the country. Based on Coptic accounts, Mark died a gruesome death at the hands of pagans in Easter 68 A.D. He was tied to a horse and dragged to death by a mob of pagans.
Most of the Coptic ancestors in Egypt believe they have a distinct ethnic identity from the Muslim Egyptians. They think of themselves as a unique community with unique genetic and cultural differences from other Egyptians.
By the fourth century, most Egyptians had embraced Coptic Christianity. Even after the Muslims conquered the country, most Egyptians were still Christians. During the Middle Ages, it wasn’t only when a significant number of Egyptians became Muslims, and the Christian population slowly dwindled.
Most Copts were forced to convert to Islam or risk being killed. Some rich Copts who didn’t convert had to pay a special tax. Locals who speak Coptic were threatened to have their tongues cut out.
Before the conquest of Arabs, the people of Egypt called themselves. Their language in Greek as Aigyptios pronounced in Arabic as qibt, which is borrowed from the ancient Egyptian ha-ka-ptah, meaning “House of Ptah’s spirit.” The word Copt derives from this word ha-ka-ptah. Ptah was the god of Memphis, the very first capital city of lower Egypt. It also became the first administrative center of the ancient Egyptian Kingdom in 3100 B.C.
When many Egyptian Christians called themselves this term, it became a unique name in the Christian minority. So, during the 19th century, they started calling themselves Coptic. These helped them distinguish themselves from Roman Catholics and from Eastern Orthodox, who were mostly Greek.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, he didn’t only name the city of Alexandria after himself. He also made Egyptians speak Greek and made it their official language. It had a massive impact on history because Greeks then transcribed the Egyptian hieroglyphics using the Greek alphabet. This scripture then evolved into Coptic. Although the Coptic language died in the 17th century, it’s still recited today in various scripts and liturgy.
For centuries, Coptic Christians experienced persecution because of their theological differences from the Christian community. Some even have become targets of aggression and violence because of their faith. And for a long time, they experienced oppression and discrimination.
During the Byzantine era, misunderstandings in the Coptic religion doctrine caused the church to undergo severe sufferings under the Byzantine rulers’ hands.
In Egypt, Copts are persecuted and have endured marginalization for years. The Human Rights Watch believes the Egyptian government failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible properly. They have been targets of hate crimes and murder by Islamic extremists. In 2001, a Coptic church was burned in south Cairo and 35 houses belonging to Coptic Christians. It has led many Copts to flee Egypt.
Up to this day, the Copts continue to face many challenges. They face many discrimination in employment, education, access to public services. They also have a hard time getting permits to build their churches. These limitations don’t apply to Muslims and mosques.
Today, Coptic Christians are the oldest and largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, with around 10 million members. There are about 12 million members worldwide, according to the World Council of Churches. Most Copts live in every corner of Egypt and at every level of social status. There are affluent Copt families and garbage collectors who are also Copts.
Copts are also often hard to distinguish from other Muslims in Egypt. But you can if you know these details. First, all Copts have tattoos of a cross on their wrists which they often get when they’re children committed to their community. Coptic women also don’t veil, which makes them a lot different from Muslim women.
The Coptic Language
The Coptic language was a product of two blended cultures as scriptures were mostly Egyptian words written in Greek script. Their language is used mainly in service books and churches, where you can often find Arabic texts in parallel columns. The Coptic usually refers to the script rather than the language.
The Coptic alphabet was believed to have been established by Pantaenus in the 2nd century. Pantaenus is the principal of the theological school in Alexandria. He used Greek characters, adding seven Egyptian, which correspond to sounds that don’t exist in Greek.
The Coptic language is also noted as the final form of the ancient Egyptian language called hieroglyphics. That is why the language itself is so indispensable in studying Pharaonic history and other biblical studies. Today many critical Christian texts have been discovered to be written in Coptic. Coptic remained the spoken language of many Egyptians until Arabs conquered it in the 17th century. Today, the Coptic language is taught to many schools worldwide.
The Bible is the primary scripture of the Coptic Church. It’s believed that the first translation of the Bible into Coptic script was around the 2nd century. However, there are very few manuscripts that still survive. Coptic theology believes that God didn’t write the Bible but that God had inspired the men to write down its words. Other sources of faith for Copts include the saints’ sayings, the creeds of the council, and the ritual books. All these with the Holy Bible makeup the Copt’s church tradition.
Like Catholics, Coptic Christianity also believes in the Ten Commandments, and they practice sacred sacraments of confession, baptism, and confirmation. However, unlike the Catholics, they don’t believe in purgatory. Also, in Coptic theology, Coptic priests are allowed to marry. The Coptic Church only ordains men to priesthood and episcopate. If they wish to be married, they must first be married before they are ordained. They follow similar practices as other Oriental Orthodox churches.
There is also little difference between Catholic and Coptic theology. Most Copts also praise martyrs in Christian history and visit sites dedicated to the saints. They also pray to Christ and ask for a blessing when they touch holy relics.
For Copts, salvation is maintained through two ways: first is already provided through Jesus’s death and resurrection, where people have to take hold of it through continuous good work. The second is through confession to sin to a priest.
The Coptic church has seven sacraments:
- Unction of the Sick
Other Coptic Religion Beliefs
Coptic churches have their liturgy in Coptic, clerical hierarchy, and their calendar. Their calendar is possibly the oldest in the world since it’s based on the ancient Egyptians’ calendar. The Coptic calendar has 13 months divided into three seasons: Inundation, Sowing, and Harvest.
The head of the church is called the Patriarch of Alexandria, or the Coptic Cope. He presides over the grand Abbasiya Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt. In the 1890s, the Coptic Orthodox Church developed a democratic system with a patriarch and 12 diocesan bishops. Each Christian town has bishops and priests who perform baptism, marriage, and funerals.
There are three ranks in the Coptic priesthood: Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. Deacons help priests and bishops. The priests are married individuals who give sermons. Bishops are monks who are celibate and haven’t been married. The leader of the bishop is called a metropolitan.
The highest authority in the church is the Holy Synod. A group made up of the Patriarch, bishops, abbots, and stewards of the Patriarche. They deal with spiritual, structural management, and overall financial affairs. They also have community councils that regulate the finances of churches and schools. They’re also the ones who take over the administration of the rules on marriage, inheritance, and other matters concerning personal status.
When the Patriarch dies, the electoral college selects three qualified monks at least 50 years of age to assume the office of Patriarch. The final choice is made by lot after prayer. Coptic laity (both men and women) are active in their church lives. They often also oversee the pastoral and social needs of the community. In various parts of the world, they established many benevolent societies that offer spiritual, educational, and welfare services.
Coptic priests wear the same kind of robes as other Orthodox churches. The highest positions are taken by Coptic monks who are regarded as symbols of piety and had great power within the church. All popes and bishops started as monks. They were celibate and forced to live most of their life in seclusion in monasteries.
Women are not allowed to become priests in the Coptic religion. They are also not allowed to read the scripture aloud in church. However, they can teach children and other girls in Sunday School.
Copts observe five essential fasts. First is the pre-Lenten fast of Nineveh, second the great fast of Lent, third, the fast of nativity before Christmas, fourth the Apostles after Ascension, and five, the fast of the Virgin, before the assumption. They also fast on Wednesdays and Fridays except between Easter and Pentecost.
Coptic Christians don’t celebrate Christmas on the 25th as all other Christians do. Instead, Coptic Christmas is celebrated on January 7. It’s declared an official holiday in Egypt. Even though many Egyptians are Muslim, the country has come to celebrate December 25 as a secular holiday.
Coptic Easter falls on Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. It marks the end of the 55-day lent or the Great Fast, where people aren’t allowed to eat any kinds of animal products, including cheese, butter, and milk.
Coptic religious music is often regarded as very unique. All the melodies are within a five-tone range, and all have a wide range of melodies despite the limitation. Furthermore, Coptic hymns are harmonic and deep. They’re sung to express praising spirit emotions—most of the rituals and music use very ancient words. Copts often use only vocals when singing praise. Still, they can be accompanied by simple musical instruments such as the cymbals and the triangle.
Coptic music has three distinct genres: alhān, tasabīh & madā’h, and taranīm. The first one is composed of liturgical hymns that are often performed during church services and rites. The second is usually performed in praise of Coptic saints such as St. Mary, mother of God, or God himself. The third one is a collection non–liturgical folk songs often sung informally.
Sunday is the primary day for service, and each worship session can last for hours. The service has four parts. The first part of preparation prayer (or early morning prayer) lasts 30 minutes. The second part offers prayer said over holy bread and lasts for 20 to 30 minutes. The next one is preaching mass, where the priests read sections of the old and new testament and give a sermon. The fourth part is reconciliation prayer which lasts for 10 minutes.
Noteworthy Coptic Monasteries in Egypt
Today, many Copts visit monasteries all over Egypt for guidance, retreat, and to rediscover their heritage.
- Monastery of St. Anthony – Located southwest of Cairo near the Red Sea. It is regarded as the world’s first monastery. Founded by St. Anthony in A.D. 356, the monastery was the place where St. Anthony meditated alone for years. The monastery is so isolated that it receives its supplies only once a month through a camel caravan. Today, it’s a living place for Monks who vow chastity, poverty, and obedience. It consists of several chapels, churches, monk cells, workshops, and bakeries.
- Monastery of St. Paul – A monastery located in the Zararana mountains. Built around the same time as the Monastery of St. Anthony, the Monastery of St. Paul consists of chapels and churches. It’s considered even more challenging to get into than the monastery of St. Anthony since you need permission from the Coptic Church in Cairo to get in here.
- Monastery of St. Simeon – Monastery on the top of a hill. It’s regarded as one of the most preserved Coptic monasteries in all of Egypt. The monastery was built in the 7th century and rebuilt only during the 10th century. The monastery can be reached by camel or through hiking.
Churches Outside Egypt
The Coptic Church has expanded throughout the world in the last four decades. In the United States, there are over a hundred Coptic orthodox churches. Out of all, Michigan has the largest Coptic community. They are now flourishing and running their business in the country in ways that aren’t possible in Egypt.
In Australia, there are two Coptic bishops and more than 50 priests that serve the community. The Coptic community is also present in the U.K., where there are four bishops and a Coptic cathedral in Britain. There are also several Coptic churches in Japan, Switzerland, Libya, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Iraq.
- The Coptic Church, also known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandra is founded and established by Saint Mark, one of Jesus Christ’s 72 apostles.
- Copts believe in the equal presence of Christi’s divinity and human nature.
- Copts are native Egyptians who belonged to the oldest branch of Christianity in the world.
- Cops were marginalized and persecuted in Egypt for centuries.
- Today, Coptic churches are found all over the world.