Coptic church in Aswan, Egypt. Photo: Terry.
The Coptic church is the by far largest Christian group in both Egypt as well as in North Africa/Middle East. According to government figures there are about 2 million Copts in Egypt, but this is not correct. 6.5 million is a realistic estimate.
One of the main reasons for the discrepancy between official governmental figures and actual church adherence is that many Copts do not register their religious affiliation in official papers in order to avoid future discrimination.
The name — from Greek (Aigyptos), through Arabic (qubt) — points in a direction of the Egyptian national origins.
The term, Coptic Church, is sometimes used for the Ethiopian church, too, but this bodym now the Ethiopian Orthodox, declared itself independent from its Egyptian heritage in 1959, and does not accept the term ‘Coptic’ for itself.
The church is headed by the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, Pentapolis and Ethiopia, but he now resides in Cairo. The election of the pope is carried out by both clergy and laity who select from 3 nominees.
There are presently 12 monasteries in Egypt, with around 600 monks. In 6 convents, there are around 300 nuns. The largest monasteries, and most famous, are at Wadi Natrun.
In its early history, the Egyptian church was of great importance to the development of early Christianity. Clement of 2nd century and Origen of the 3rd century were some of the most central Christian personalities in their time. The first Christian monastery, was formed inside the Egyptian church.
The Coptic liturgy is based on the Greek rite of Alexandria, but after the 4th century, it developed its own distinct characteristics. This development happened mainly in the monasteries. Today, it is performed in both Coptic and Arabic.
The Coptic church’s relationship with the governments of Egypt has sometimes been difficult, but today the Copts and the Muslims are not treated very differently in comparison with earlier decades. The Copts have, however, recently faced attacks from militant Islamists in Egypt, and there has been some emigration of the Copts.
The Coptic church is active in talks with other smaller churches, and has also found a basis for solving theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox church, recognizing that political and verbal distinctions throughout history sometimes formed the basis for disunity.
1st century: According to their own traditions, the Egyptian church is formed by the evangelist Mark. This is not supported by historians, who believe that it started in the Jewish community in Alexandria. But there are no sources to how Christianity came along in Egypt.
3rd century: Ascetic Christians began forming small independent or eremitc communities out in the desert. From this developed cenobitic or communal monastery system.
4th and 5th centuries: Strong controversies within the church in the 4th and 5th centuries on the question of the quality of Jesus: man or God? One or two natures, human and/or divine? (See Arianism and Council of Nicaea).
451: A large group of the Egyptian Christians do not accept the decrees of Chalcedon this year. Their contention was that Jesus did not have two natures, but one divine nature which manifested itself in the flesh (monophysis). What resulted was the Monophysite (one nature) party, and it was this group that developed into the church now known as Coptic.
641: Because of lack of support from the Christian leaders of the Byzantine Empire, the Egyptian Christians put up little resistance to prevent the Arab Muslim invasion.
7th and 8th centuries: The number of Christians in Egypt begins to decline, largely due to conversions to Islam.
9th century: Muslims outnumber Christians in Egypt.
1443: A Coptic delegation signs an agreement creating a union between its church and the Roman, Cantate Domino, at the Council of Florence. But this attempt was not supported by Coptic leaders in Egypt, so none of the plans are realized.
1741: The bishop of Jerusalem Athanasius becomes a Catholic, and converts his bishopric of 2,000 adherents, into a Catholic one. Still his church would retain much of its character and independence. Athanasius would later return to the Orthodox branch, but the Catholic congregation was continued. From this comes the Coptic Catholic Church, which now has 210,000 adherents in Egypt.
1971: 48 year old Shenouda 3 is elected Pope of Alexandria. He is still the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
1981: Pope Shenouda 3 is placed under house arrest by President Sadat.
1985: Shenouda is allowed to return to office.
1997: A wave of attacks on Copts by militant Islamists.