Coptic Christians

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Coptic Christians

POPULATION: 6.8 million-8.3 million (2007 estimate/includes 1.2 million Coptic Christians who reside outside Egypt)
LANGUAGE: Arabic, Coptic
RELIGION: Coptic Orthodox Christianity


The Coptic Christians are a distinct religious community in Egypt and the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian institution in the Middle East. The origin of the community dates to the childhood of Jesus, who was said to have traveled to Egypt with his father, Joseph, and mother, Mary. The apostle Mark, a follower of Jesus, brought Christianity to Egypt during the rule of the Roman emperor Nero in the 1st century ad, and Copts regard Mark as the first patriarch of their church. Mark's proselytizing helped spread Christianity from the city of Alexandria throughout Egypt. Writings from the New Testament that date to AD 200 have been found in Bahnasa. A fragment of a document found in upper Egypt contains a portion of the Gospel of St. John in the Coptic language.

Copt scholars and writers played an important role in the formation of early Christian theology. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was founded in AD 190 and soon became the most important site for religious instruction among Christians. The school also taught science, mathematics, and the humanities. Monasticism, or the practice of renouncing worldly pursuits in order to pursue a spiritual path, began in Egypt in AD 300 and influenced Coptic beliefs in submission and humbleness. A Copt known as St. Anthony was the world's first Christian monk. By the end of the 4th century ad, hundreds of monasteries had formed in the hills of Egypt.

Coptic Christians were part of the Byzantine family of Christians until the universal Christian church split following the Council of Chalcedon (the Fourth Ecumenical Council) in AD 451. The council, based in Rome, ruled that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, or of two complete natures. This ruling diverged from beliefs of the Coptic Christians and other followers of what has come to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Eastern Orthodox followers believe that the humanity and divinity of Jesus are united and that the son of God has one, not two, natures. As the universal church split, Copts suffered a great deal of persecution from other Christians, and their strength as a religious community weakened. Arabs invaded Egypt in AD 649 and were able to use the weakness in the community to convince hundreds of thousands of former Christians to convert to Islam. By the end of the 12th century, Egypt had become a predominantly Muslim country. Muhammad the Prophet, the founder of Islam, however, had an Egyptian wife and emphasized the need for new converts to practice kindness toward Copts. Coptic Christians were allowed to practice their faith freely and suffered little discrimination as long as they paid a special tax to the Arab regime. The Copts suffered periodically from Muslim hostility and were at times prohibited from building new churches, testifying in court, or practicing their religion in public.

The position of Copts improved in the early 19th century under the rule of Muhammad Ali. The Egyptian state lifted tax rules imposed on the community and no longer separated Copts from Muslims administratively. By 1855 Copts were serving the Egyptian army and joined with Muslims in asserting a sense of a national Egyptian identity during the 1919 revolution in Egypt. The Coptic church has enjoyed a remarkable revival since the middle of the 20th century. The church is strongest in Egypt, with approximately 9 million followers. However, missionary efforts and the emigration of Copts from Egypt have led to the establishment of Coptic Christian communities throughout the world.


Copts live throughout Egypt, and traces of their cultural, historical, and spiritual influence can be found in every province. Egypt is located in northern Africa. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, between Libya and the Gaza Strip, and the Red Sea north of Sudan. Egypt's land also includes the Sinai Peninsula.

With an area of 1,001,447 sq km (686,622 sq mi), Egypt is slightly bigger than the states of New Mexico and Texas combined. That land area is largely desert, with small oases scattered throughout the land. All but about 5% of the country's land is uninhabitable. More than 97% of the population lives in the Nile Valley, which runs the length of the country. The Nile faced seasonal flooding until the Aswan Dam was built in southeastern Egypt. The dam has allowed for a small agricultural area to thrive. Most residents, however, live in cities along the Nile, particularly around Cairo. Overcrowding has prompted the government to reclaim desert areas through the pumping of water from Lake Nasser. Southern Egypt is largely rural and Copts who inhabit these areas are generally poorer and less well educated than those who reside in the more prosperous north.

Part of the Sahara Desert lies in Egypt. Coptic monasticism historically has brought men to Egypt's deserts to practice asceticism for periods of time. As a result, a rich array of Coptic culture can be found near the Khargo oasis. Living conditions in the deserts are extremely harsh. The climate throughout Egypt is generally hot and dry in the summer with temperatures reaching 21 to 36°C (69 to 97°F) in July and more moderate in the winters. Temperatures in December average from 8 to 18°C (46 to 64°F). Egypt receives only 5 mm (0.20 in) of rainfall per year on average although as much as 203 mm (8 in) might fall in the Nile Delta. A hot, dusty wind known as khamasiin blows in Egypt through the spring.


The word Copt is derived from Gibt, which was an Arabic form of the Greek term of Aigyptos. The Greek term was derived from Hikaptah, which was the ancient Egyptian name for the first capital city of Memphis. The Coptic language shares a philological affinity with the ancient tongue of Egypt's pharaohs and continues to be used in liturgical rituals. However, most Copts speaks Egypt's official language of Arabic. Some also use English and French for business or social affairs. Coptic language and literature courses are offered at a few European universities, a Coptic Studies program at American University–Cairo, and some Coptic Orthodox Churches.

Coptic Christians often define their affiliation to their religion through the naming of babies. It is customary to choose a Coptic name over a more common Egyptian name that might be associated with Islam.


Copt stories from the medieval period remind humans of the importance of prayer, fasting, and doing good works in the name of God. Many of the stories contain both Coptic Christian and Egyptian Muslim influences. Some were first written in Arabic, but used in Christian homilies throughout Egypt.

One such story relates to a figure named Luqman the Wise, a Christian preacher. In one story, Luqman the Wise chastises those who neglect such practices by telling them that they risk allowing a rooster to become better than them.

Luqman the Wise says:

“O my son, don't let the rooster be better than you!

For it, when the night is half spent, beats

its wings and cries out to God in praise. So if a lowly bird that has no value praises God, how can it be that a

noble human being, whom God has set above all the creatures, does not

praise God and ascribe him holiness at all times?”

In another story, Luqman the Wise's words emphasize the freedom and strength of the Copts in preserving their religious practice amid the threat of persecution from Muslims:

Also, Luqman the Wise says:

“God has humbled the people of the world

with two traits: death and poverty.

Were it not for death, no stubborn tyrant would submit.

Were it not for poverty, no free people would serve slaves.”


The Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament contains a prophecy of the formation of a Christian community in Egypt. In chapter 19, verse 19, Isaiah writes, “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.” In line with that prophecy, many Biblical figures saw Egypt as a refuge from famine and persecution. Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, also are believed to have spent time in Egypt when Jesus was a small child. Many churches have been built at sites where the Holy Family was believed to have sought shelter, and other landscape features, such as caves and trees, are known as resting points for the family.

Coptic Christianity leans toward the mystic and spiritual. Religious instruction continues at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, where scholars use allegorical and spiritual methods to interpret and teach scripture. Numerous saints and ascetics are associated with the Coptic Orthodox Church. Many of these individuals attained martyrdom during the centuries of persecution that Copts suffered under Byzantine rule. One of the most prominent symbols of the Coptic Church is the Coptic cross. The most common Coptic cross consists of two bars of equal length that are crossed perpendicularly at the center. There are three points at the end of each bar, symbolizing the Trinity. The total of 12 points on the cross further symbolizes the 12 Apostles. In some forms, the cross will contain a circle, either at the center or at the top. Copts adapted the cross soon after the apostle Mark brought Christianity to Egypt. The Copt use of this cross continues a belief among pre-Christian Egyptians that the symbol represented eternal life.

Many Coptic Christians regard asceticism as a way of life. The level to which asceticism is practiced among Coptic Christians varies considerably. Nevertheless, most believe that the path to enjoyment of the divine spirit lies in a minimizing or full renouncing of worldly pursuits. This belief leads some to practice celibacy. Women traditionally would live together in a single house in the cities to assist each other spiritually, while men who chose to be celibate would live in simple huts in villages. Others would go to Egypt's deserts. Nearly a dozen monasteries still exist in Egypt's deserts, and at least six convents for Copts are still operating in Egyptian cities.

The Coptic Christian worship service is lengthy and rich with ritual. Worship includes the singing of hymns, the reciting of liturgies, fasting, and numerous feasts throughout the year. The full congregation, including children, participate in the service.


Egypt established Coptic Christmas as a national holiday in 2003. The celebration of Christmas generally falls around January 6 or 7 and ends with a 45-day fast that some Copts observe. Shops and government services for both Muslims and Christians are closed in Egypt on that day. Other major holidays include Epiphany, Palm Sunday, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, and Annunciation. These holidays, along with Christmas, are known in the Coptic Christian world as the Seven Major Feasts. A series of fasts precede the major feasts. The church also celebrates what are known as the Seven Minor Feasts: the Circumcision of the Lord, Entrance into the Temple, Entrance into Egypt, Transfiguration, Holy Th ursday, Th omas Sunday, and Great Lent.


Copt babies are traditionally washed during a special service eight days after their birth and baptized in the church. A special liturgy is recited in the new child's honor. The death of a congregation member results in two services—a funeral that takes place at the church and a special prayer three days after the death at the home of the deceased.


Most Egyptians take a relaxed, patient approach to life. The term ma'alesh translates to mean “don't worry” or “never mind.” The phrase is used when conflicts arise, as a way of pointing out that the concerns are not serious and will soon pass. A sense of community and the importance of generosity are emphasized among all Egyptians and personal needs at times are dismissed as secondary to community needs. Social relationships between Coptic Christians and Muslims are generally cordial, and Copts in Egypt follow the prevailing Egyptian attitude toward life.

Copt families historically lived separately from Muslims in Egypt. Cities contained certain quarters where Copts would congregate, and some villages were inhabited entirely by Copts. That practice of separation has declined considerably since the modern Egyptian nationalistic movement of the early twentieth century, and most Copts are fully integrated into modern Egypt's Islamic-based society. The Coptic Orthodox Church, however, bans marriage between Coptic Christians and Muslims and will excommunicate those who marry outside the church. The church also prohibits intermarriage between Copts and Jehovah's Witnesses, although Copts are allowed to marry people of other Christian denominations.


Living conditions have been improving in Egypt since the mid 1960s. The death rate has fallen from 19 deaths for every 1,000 births in 1965 to approximately 5 deaths for every 1,000 births as of mid-2007. Life expectancy in mid-2007 was estimated at 74.2 years for women and 69 years for men.

Medical facilities still are limited in rural areas. As a result, diseases such as typhoid and bilharzia continue to be problems. Doctors and volunteers visit villages with medical caravans, and the government has established a daily four-hour satellite television program on health topics. Although every city has a hospital, it is only the private, most expensive hospitals that are equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

A large gap between the wealthy and poor continues to exist in Egypt. This is reflected in housing found in the country. Housing conditions range from the spacious, elegant villas for the wealthy to dirty, slum-like dwellings for the poor. Many people live in apartment buildings in Egypt's crowded cities. While the buildings are often unattractive and dirty on the outside, the interiors are well maintained and clean. As more people crowd into cities, shanty towns have sprung up. Conditions in these areas are unclean and unsafe. Huge cemeteries surround Cairo, and some of the poorest residents have begun to inhabit old tombs illegally.

Rural homes tend to be small and built as closely to each other as possible so that Egypt's sparse agricultural land can be used for farming.


Egyptians value both the nuclear and extended family. Brothers are required to protect their sisters and often accompany them in public. While extended families traditionally lived in one household, the increased urbanization in Egypt's cities is making the nuclear household more common. Marriages often are arranged between cousins, and many young adults will care for their parents in old age. Coptic Christians share similar family values.

Coptic life also centers around the church. An entire family customarily will choose a priest as a family counselor and will make regular personal confessions to that priest. Worship is family oriented, with both male and female adults as well as children participating actively in the service.


Copt weavers developed many fabrics that contained ornately designed patterns in pre-Islamic Egypt. The patterns often contained images of landscape scenery, animals, and religious iconography. Long, loose-fitting tunics displayed the intricate, colorful work.

Today, most Coptic Christians dress as Muslims and others in Egypt do. The traditional dress of men in Egypt is the gallabeyya, which is a long robe. Males continue to wear the traditional dress in cities but also will wear Western business suits and more casual Western attire. Copt women usually follow the tradition in Islamic countries of covering the body in public, although they will wear Western styles of clothing occasionally in cities. Copt women in rural areas particularly will wear black headscarves and long, loose-fitting dresses that drape the entire body. In churches, it is common for worship-pers to remove their shoes before entering.


Foods among Coptic Christians are flavored with spices such as cumin, garlic, onion, and allspice, and many vegetarian dishes have emerged in the Coptic Christian cuisine because of the fasting rules that the church observes. In the Coptic tradition, a partial fast and abstinence from meat are recommended on nearly 200 days out of each year. Meals during these fasting periods often include fava beans, lentils, grape leaves, tomatoes, and potatoes.

During non-fasting periods, Copts, like other Egyptians, eat rice, bread, fish, lamb, chicken, and turkey.

It also is customary to pray before and after a meal. Even when the meal does not contain meat, menus are quite elaborate. It is customary throughout Egypt not to eat everything placed on a plate as a way of complimenting the host for providing such an abundance of food. Foods are generally eaten with the fingers of the right hand, although Western utensils are used for eating occasionally in cities.


Copt children attend schools in Egypt, which are free through the university level. The UN Development Program estimated that 91% of all Egyptian children were enrolled in primary schools in 2003 and that 88% were enrolled in secondary schools. In addition, Egypt has twelve public universities and 8,674 privately funded schools and universities. The country also has 125 technical and vocational schools. As of 2005, about 1.76 million students were enrolled in higher educational institutions. Class sizes in Egypt are quite large with as many as forty-three to sixty-two students being taught by a single instructor. The government plans to build 2,000 additional schools by 2012 and has initiated a program for teacher training.

Instruction in Egyptian schools is primarily in Arabic, although English and French also are taught. The role of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt is largely ignored in primary and secondary schools. As a result, Copt children learn about their language and culture primarily at home or through the church. Some steps are being taken to change that situation. The American University-Cairo recently established a Coptic Studies program in which the language, literature, and culture of the Copt community is taught.

The Copt's ancient school, the Catechetical School of Alexandria, was destroyed in the early Islamic era. It was reestablished, however, in 1893 and currently has campuses in Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt and in New Jersey and California in the United States.


There is a rich heritage of Coptic Christian chants, music, iconography, and tapestry associated with the Coptic Orthodox Church. Much of this heritage has been ignored by Egypt's Muslim-majority community until recently. Now, efforts are underway to revive and restore Coptic arts. Many churches are receiving money from the government and international aid groups to restore the distinctive architecture of their sites. Paintings on the walls of the churches and in monasteries in Egypt's deserts also are being restored. A Coptic museum in Cairo also is being renovated, and religious sites have been added to a governmental list for restorations.

Much of the cultural revival of Coptic arts, language, and literature has resulted from the growth of Copt communities overseas.


Egypt's educational system emphasizes rote learning over critical thinking. That style of education, coupled with a lack of trained teachers, has not prepared young Egyptian adults well for the labor market of the early 21st century. The adult literacy rate was 55.6% in 2003, which is extremely high relative to other countries.

Most Egyptians work in the government, and many, including many Coptic Christian men, are conscripted to complete a term of service in Egypt's military. Approximately one-third of Egyptians works in agriculture and grows corn, wheat, cotton, rice, barley, and fruits. Others work in tourism or at ports along the Suez Canal, an important source of income for Egypt. Much of the population lives below the poverty line. Women account for only one-fourth of Egypt's income.


Soccer is Egypt's national sport. Besides playing soccer, Egyptians enjoy playing tennis, swimming and horseback riding. Although a tradition of playing sports does not exist in Copt communities, Coptic Christians also take part in similar activities.


Egyptian cities have a number of cinemas where Egyptian and foreign films are shown. Egypt's film-making and television programming have received acclaim throughout the Middle East. Television plays a big part in daily leisure lives, even in the rural areas. Men often gather at coffee shops to play back-gammon and dominoes and to converse with friends. Women tend to socialize primarily in the home or at places such as markets.

For Copts, the church is a center of social life. Churches organize summer camps for youth, pilgrimages to holy sites within Egypt as well as the rest of the Middle East, and offer many opportunities for socializing before or after services. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and resulting attacks on Copts has prompted many Copts to turn inward and isolate themselves from the Muslim mainstream. Many have turned to their churches for protection and solace.


The Coptic tradition of pattern weaving in the early Christian era led to the creation of many elaborately designed bed sheets and covers, towels, napkins, tablecloths, curtains, and wall hangings. Much of this textile work continues today, and is marketed in tourist centers. An “s-twist” of thread characterizes the Coptic textiles. Flax fibers used to make thread are washed and then spun into thread in a counter-clockwise direction. Many Coptic crafts developed in monasteries, and practices of weaving, leather binding, painting, and woodwork continue into the present day.


Egypt revised its constitution in 1981 so that legislative principles would draw their source from the Islamic Sharia. About 90% of Egyptians are Sunni Muslim and look to Islam to govern decisions on marriage, divorce and inheritance. However, tensions are growing between secularists and fundamentalist Muslims in Egypt. While secularists support a state that allows for religious difference, a free press, and cultural diversity to flourish, some religious fundamentalists within Islam would like the government to enforce a great adherence to Islamic principles in schools, public policies, and the arts. Egypt's growing population, limited natural resources, and reliance on the Nile River for water are straining the country's resources. Nearly one out of five Egyptians lives below the poverty line, and even though less than 3% of the country's land is usable for agriculture, nearly one-third of the people draw their income from agriculture. Islamic fundamentalists believe that more compliance with Islamic law could help alleviate Egypt's problems.

The fight over secularism has generated some hostilities against Coptic Christians since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. president George W. Bush has referred to the war against terror as a “crusade.” The term “crusade” evoked memories of the centuries of bitter warfare between Muslims and Christians for some fundamentalists who have responded by looting Copt businesses, attacking churches, and harassing Copt individuals. Coptic Church leaders have tried to quell the hostility by appealing to the Quran and its calls for compassion. Pope Shenouda III is the present head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He frequently infuses his prayers with references to Arab poetry and Muslim religious messages. His goal is to press for national unity in which Copts will remain free to practice their faith under a benevolent Islamic state.


Egypt enacted a family reform law in 2000 that allowed for women to initiate divorce from a spouse. Although the law made it possible for a woman to leave an abusive spouse, it does not allow for the woman to collect alimony and requires that she return any money that was given to her or her family at the time of her marriage.

Rules against divorce are even more prohibitive in the Coptic Christian community. The Coptic Orthodox Church prohibits divorce and strictly forbids women to have abortions. In recent years, some women have converted to Islam in order to divorce their husbands. These conversions have presented difficulties in the Coptic community because Egypt's Islamic code often forces children of a parent who converts to Islam to abandon the church and become Muslim. The Coptic Orthodox Church also has condemned marriage between gays and lesbians.


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—by H. Gupta-Carlson