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The Coptic Orthodox Church

The foundation of the church in Egypt is closely associated with St. Mark the Evangelist who, according to tradition, was martyred in Alexandria in 63 AD. Eventually Egypt became a Christian nation and Alexandria an extremely important center of theological reflection. Moreover, monks in the Egyptian desert provided the first models for the Christian monastic tradition, having been nourished by the spiritual insights of the early “desert fathers.”

The christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, partially because of opposition to Byzantine domination, were rejected by the great majority of the Egyptian hierarchy and faithful. Persecutions intended to force acceptance of Chalcedon only strengthened the resistance. Eventually a separate “Coptic” (from the Arabic and Greek word for “Egyptian”) Church emerged with a distinct theological and liturgical tradition. From the 5th to the 7th centuries the Greek Patriarchs lived in Alexandria, while the Coptic Patriarchs resided in monasteries outside the city.

After the Arab invasion in 641, the Copts slowly diminished in numbers, becoming a minority in Egypt sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries. Arabic replaced Coptic as the official language of the country in the 8th century, but Coptic continued to be spoken until the 11th century in the north and until the 16th century in Upper Egypt. Islamic rule was marked by long periods of persecution, but also by periods of relative freedom, during which the church flourished again and produced outstanding theological and spiritual works in Arabic.

Today the Coptic Church is the largest Christian community in the Middle East and still represents a significant minority in Egypt. It has continued to grow in spite of a recent increase in the number of those leaving Egypt to seek a new life in the West.

There are many separate Coptic schools in Egypt, and a Sunday School movement flourishes. Presently an encouraging revival of monasticism is taking place, and many young monks, involved in agriculture and publishing, inhabit the ancient desert monasteries. There are currently 33 monasteries in Egypt and in the lands of the immigration with a total of more than 1,000 monks, and six convents with about 300 nuns. The largest concentration of monasteries is at Wadi Natrun, about 60 miles northwest of Cairo.

The Coptic Church’s main seminary is in Cairo next to St. Mark’s Cathedral. About half of the church’s priests were educated there, and many laypeople participate in evening courses in scripture and theology. A Coptic Institute of Higher Studies, founded in 1954 and situated at the patriarchal compound, is an important ecumenical center for the study of the Coptic Christian tradition.

The recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt has created new problems for the Coptic Church. Following anti-Coptic outbursts by fundamentalists in the late 1970s, President Sadat in 1981 placed Pope Shenouda III under house arrest in one of the desert monasteries. He was not released until 1985. It was generally surmised that this action resulted from the government’s need to appear even-handed in dealing with conflicting groups. Nevertheless, this interference in the affairs of the Coptic Church disturbed many Egyptian Christians. Attacks against Copts by Islamic militants in Egypt have been on the increase.

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