views updated Jun 27 2018


adherents of the egyptian orthodox church

The Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Yet determining an exact number is extremely difficult. Population counts of the Copts made by the Egyptian government and by the Coptic Church are vastly divergent. In 1975 the Egyptian government placed the number of Copts at 2.3 million, but the Coptic Church suggested a figure of 6.6 million. A United Nations population estimate for Egypt in the year 2000 reckons the total inhabitants at 64,588,000; of this number, 3,128,000 persons are estimated to be Copts who openly acknowledge their faith. However, in addition to active members of the church, many more Copts are registered in church records (baptisms, marriages, deaths, etc.). Thus, a fair estimate of the actual number of all Copts as of 2000 is 9,817,000.

The term Copt comes directly from the Arabic qbt, which appears to derive from the Greek aigyptos (Egypt) and aigyptioi (Egyptians), a phonetic corruption of the ancient Egyptian word Hikaptah, one of the names of Memphis. The Greeks used the native name for the ancient metropolis Memphis as a term to describe the whole country. When the Arabs conquered Egypt between 641 and 643 c.e., they used a similar word to name the country's inhabitants (qibt), the vast majority of whom were Christian. Thus the word Copt began as a geographical and ethnic designation. Later the term qibt came to distinguish the native Christian inhabitants from the Arabs, who were Muslims. When the majority of Egyptians gradually converted to Islam, they naturally ceased to be Christians (qibt). In that sense, Copt and the adjective Coptic are relatively elastic in a historical, ethnic, religious, cultural, and social sense.

In theological terms, Copt describes an adherent of the Egyptian Orthodox church, which had become a national church after the Council of Chalcedon (451 c.e.). The patriarchs and bishops of several Eastern churches, particularly those of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria, refused to accept what has been called the Chalcedonian Definition of Faith. By this exposition, Christ had two natures, human and divine, which coexisted but were not confused with each other. The Western church, with its two seats at Rome and Constantinople, favored this declaration of belief. The patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch believed that this would divide the person of Christ and destroy his essential unity. Both the content of and the differences between Eastern and Western Christology are often exceedingly difficult to understand. The theology that slowly developed among the Eastern churches has been called Monophysite, from the Greek words for "single" and "nature." Notably, Anba Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of

the See of St. Mark the Evangelist (1971), and other ecclesiastical officials of the Eastern churches rejected the term Monophysite.

Perceiving themselves as upholders of the true faith, Copts have always referred to themselves as "orthodox," as the name of their denominationCoptic Orthodoxindicates. Because several other churches that are in communion with Rome also have "orthodox" as a part of their names, scholars use the phrase "Oriental Orthodox Churches" to designate the churches from Egypt, Armenia, Ethiopia, Syria, and India, which refused to acknowledge the Council of Chalcedon. The Ethiopic Orthodox Church is commonly called Coptic with some justification. Historically, it has shared close ties with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, especially in its recognition of the Coptic patriarch, but in modern times it came to exist as a separate entity. The liturgy of the Ethiopic Orthodox Church derives much from its Coptic counterpart, although significant differences give it a distinct identity. Nevertheless, many adherents of the Ethiopic Orthodox Church refer to themselves as Copts. Of the other Christian denominations in Egypt, at least two have the word Coptic in their names: the Coptic Catholic Church and the Coptic Evangelical Church. The former came into being during the late nineteenth century. The Coptic Evangelical Church was established in 1854 by U.S. Presbyterian missionaries. Communicants of both churches represent small minorities that had been drawn from Coptic parishes.

The word Coptic retains its original geographical and ethnic value as descriptive of the art and written language of Egypt in past centuries. The Coptic language is the last phase of the ancient Egyptian language. It is written in Greek letters except for six letters that were taken from Demotic writing. Coptic continued to be the spoken daily language among a considerable segment of the Egyptian population, perhaps as late as the eleventh century c.e., before its gradual replacement by Arabic. Today, Coptic is still used in the liturgy of the Coptic Church.

Coptic art is among the richest and most continuous of the Christian arts in the Middle East. As an independent form, it appeared toward the end of the third century c.e. and survived as late as the fourteenth century. Although Christian themes prevail in Coptic art, both pharaonic and especially classical themes and motifs are also prominent. Coptic art often reflects styles and fashions of the Byzantine world, adapted with originality and local individuality. In the absence of court patronage, it can perhaps be best characterized as folk art. Contemporary Coptic art reflects the deep roots of ancient Egyptian and Coptic theology, art, and culture, and uses several media, including icons, frescos, mosaics, and stained glass windows; icons are produced in the greatest number.

Historians speak of a Coptic Period of Egyptian history from the second century c.e.the beginning of the formation of the Coptic languageor from 451 c.e.the Council of Chalcedonto the Arab conquest of Egypt in 643 c.e. However, although the Copts never ruled Egypt, they contributed and still contribute to all aspects of Egypt's culture, with their most important contribution to world civilization being monasticism.

The French expedition of 17981801 under Napoléon is considered a turning point toward Egypt's modernization. Muhammad Ali (18051849) as well as most of his descendants, whose rule of Egypt dominated for decades following the French expedition, were relatively tolerant of the Copts. During the nineteenth century, the Coptic population began to flourish, as they became exempt in 1855 from the traditional poll tax imposed on Christians and Jews living under Muslim rule (the jizya ). This revival was visible in the cultural movement within the Coptic Church sponsored by Patriarch Cyril IV the Reformer (18541861), who established many schools and patronized a revival of the Coptic language.

During the first half of the twentieth century a Coptic elite, educated in the West and in Egypt, came to play a crucial role in the economic and cultural development of the country and strove to establish a more democratic system in Coptic community affairs and in the management of church properties. Meanwhile, the Egyptian nationalist movement was gaining ground among the populace, characterized by its vocal opposition to British rule, which had begun in 1882. Mustafa Kamil (18741908) struggled to make the Egyptian question an international one and formed the Nationalist Party in 1907. Although some leading Copts joined his political movement, most Copts rejected the movement's religious aspect of pan-Islamism and Kamil's support of the Ottoman Empire. In 1910 a Muslim partisan of the National Party assassinated Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, who was a Copt. His assassination sparked serious quarrels between Copts and Muslims; concord and national unity were reached only in the revolution of 1919. In fact, the forced exile of the Egyptian leader Saʿd Zaghlul to Malta by the British government fueled the popular uprising and resulted in the formation of the largest political party, al-Wafd.

One of the most significant achievements of this revolution was national unity among all Egyptians. It was arguably the highest expression of harmony and understanding between Muslims and Copts in the modern history of Egypt. The emblem of this revolution was a crescent enclosing a cross. Zaghlul succeeded in unifying Muslims and Copts in the Wafd party. Muslims as well as Copts were exiled and put in jail in their struggle for independence. The establishment of a secular and liberal trend in Egyptian nationalism paved the way for the integration

of the Copts into the national movement. The promulgation of a constitution in 1923 allowed the formation of a parliament by general election. Zaghlul and most Copts refused a proportional representation of the Copts in the parliament. Thus the number of elected Coptic representatives in the parliament was much higher than a special status would have allowed. In 1923 Copts comprised nearly 44 percent of the Wafd executive committee. In that sense, the "liberal period" between 1923 and 1952 is unique and is indeed a kind of honeymoon in the relationship between Muslims and Copts.

The second half of the twentieth century brought difficulties for the Copts. Although the Egyptian army did not lack Copts, none of the Free Officers of the military coup of 1952 was a Copt. Because of the wide popular support, this military coup is known as the 1952 Revolution. President Gamal Abdel Nasser's land reform in 1952 and his introduction of social measures during the 1960s fell heavily on wealthy Coptic families, the Coptic patriarchate, and land-holding Coptic monasteries. The number of Copts in high government posts decreased dramatically. Nasser's interest in Arab nationalism led to a departure from Egyptian nationalism. During his tenure (19521970), a few Copts had been nominated to the parliament, often in consultation with the Coptic patriarch, so as to keep a formal Coptic representation in the political structure. This led to the gradual abolition of the influence of the Copts in political life and enhanced the role of religious institutions and church hierarchy.

Under President Anwar al-Sadat (19701981) the parliament adopted an amendment to the constitution stating that the Shariʿa (Islamic law) would be the principal source of legislation in Egypt. Sadat furthered the Islamization of national life and, at the expense of political leftists, favored extreme Islamists, whose influence increased dramatically in Egypt, particularly at universities. Muslim militants plundered and burned Coptic shops, especially jewelers and pharmacies at al-Minya and Asyut; some churches were attacked in villages throughout Upper Egypt. In 1981 bloody riots resulted in the burning of three churches at al-Zawiya al-Hamra in Cairo; these incidents affected the community to the extent that Pope Shenouda III canceled Easter celebrations. In September 1981 Sadat arrested eight bishops and four priests, and various Muslim clergy including Muslim Brothers were banned. About 2,500 individuals representing all political leanings were detained. Shenouda was forced to stay in the Monastery of St. Pschoi at Wadi al-Natrun under what was effectively house arrest. Ironically, a few weeks later, militant Muslims assassinated Sadat. In the years to follow, political prisoners were gradually released. Shenouda was not allowed to return to his patriarchate in Cairo until January 1985. However, Muslim militants reorganized themselves and targeted unarmed Christians, plundered shops, and burned churches. During the 1980s and the 1990s, those militants attempted to assassinate a number of ministers and slaughtered scores of foreign tourists in their insurgency against the Egyptian government under President Husni Mubarak. Most Muslim politicians and intellectuals strongly condemned the criminal activities of these militants.

Despite the guarantee of religious equality before the law contained in article 40 of the Egyptian constitution, Copts suffer discrimination, particularly concerning the appointment to governmental leadership positions such as provincial governors, city managers, police commissioners, university presidents, and directors of educational districts. Scarcely any Copts are appointed to posts in the judicial system, police ranks, or army. Copts are not proportionally represented in the People's Assembly: only 2 out of 444 are Copts. Restrictions on the building of churches often means that building projects take years or even decades. Still, the Coptic community, because of its relatively pacifist attitude, its economic success, and its members' profound attachment to their Christian faith and church, has sustained itself throughout 1,350 years under Islamic rule.

see also cyril iv; free officers, egypt; kamil, mustafa; mubarak, husni; nasser, gamal abdel; sadat, anwar al-; shenouda iii; wafd; zaghlul, saʿd.


Atiya, Aziz S., ed. The Coptic Encyclopedia, 8 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1991. See esp. Bahr, Samira, "Modern Egypt, Copts in," vol. 5; BehrensAbuseif, Doris, "British Occupation of Egypt," vol. 2; Boutros-Ghali, M., "Ethiopian Church Autocephaly," vol. 3; Du Bourguet, P. "Copt," vol. 2; Frend, W. H. C., "Monophysitism," vol. 5.

Atiya, Aziz S. A History of Eastern Christianity, rev. ed. Mill-wood, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1980.

Barrett, David B.; Kurian, George T.; Johnson, Todd M., eds. World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, 2 vols, 2d edition. New York and Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Patrick, Theodore Hall. Traditional Egyptian Christianity: A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Greensboro, NC: Fisher Park Press, 1996.

Pennington, J. D. "The Copts in Modern Egypt." Middle Eastern Studies 2 (1982): 158179.

Tagher, Jacques. Christians in Muslim Egypt: An Historical Study of the Relations between Copts and Muslims from 640 to 1922. Altenberge: Oros Verlag, 1998.

Tamura, A. "Ethnic Consciousness and Its Transformation in the Course of Nation-Building: The Muslim and the Copt in Egypt, 19061919." Muslim World 75 (1985): 102114.

Watson, John H. Among the Copts. Portland, OR; Brighton, U.K.: Sussex Academic Press, 2000.

Donald Spanel

Updated by Milad Hanna and Gawdat Gabra


views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYM: Orthodox Coptic Christians

The Copts of Egypt are a religious minority (numbering about 6 million in Egypt) whose church they believe to have been founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist. The Coptic church is the ancient church of Egypt. Outside of Egypt, Coptic communities are found in Sudan (numbering some 100,000), the United States, Great Britain, and other European nations. The name "Copt" is derived from the Greek word "Aiguptioi" (Egyptians). The new faith engendered by Mark's teachings in the first century mingled with the beliefs of other sects, such as that of the Gnostics, and the customs and beliefs of the existing culture in Egypt in the centuries that followed. Biblical papyri and parchment codices found in Egypt provide evidence of the deep penetration of Christianity into Egypt in the early centuries after Christ's death. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Byzantime Empire. In a.d. 313 Alexandria, in Egypt, became the seat of Christian theological studies, and it was there that the doctrines of what was an amorphous faith were formulated into a systematic theology.

Alexandria was the place where many of the doctrines of Christianity were defined and where the distinctions between Christianity and the Coptic church originated. Constantine inaugurated an ecumenical movement intended to combat heresy with the Council of Nicaea in 325. These and subsequent councils were controlled largely by the authority of Alexandria, and, therefore, the Coptic doctrine that the father (God) and the son (Christ) are of the same essence, and that Christ's divinity and humanity are unified, was confirmed. However, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when Egyptian bishops were in the minority, the Coptic position was condemned. From that point on, the role of the Coptic church in the Christian world was curtailed. Two parallel lines of developement ensued: one, Melchite and Byzantine, accepted the doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon; the other, native Coptic and nationalistic, held the so-called Monophysite interpretation of the nature of Christ.

The outcome of Chalcedon was immediately felt in Egypt. The Byzantine emperors, who aimed for unity within the church, forcibly imposed that unity on the Egyptian people. Persecution of the Copts for their heresy was initiated by the political, military, and ecclesiatical leaders of Alexandria. In opposition to these Greek dictates, the Copts elected their own national patriarch, who had to move from monastery to monastery to avoid pursuing Melchite legionnaires. Excessive taxation, humiliation, and torture were inflicted on the Egyptian Copts from 451 until the Arab conquest in 641.

Muslim rule brought new problems for the Copts and created a new barrier between the Christians of the East and those of the West. Initially, the Muslim minority generally accorded the Copts a certain status as good neighbors and honest civil servants, but an uprising in 830 left Christians in a minority in Egypt for the first time since the early days of Christianity, and from the ninth century onward the Copts were persecuted by their Muslim rulers. Churches were destroyed, books were burned, and church leaders were imprisoned or put to death. By the time the British had taken Egypt in 1882, the Copts had been reduced to only about 10 percent of the total population.

Two important Coptic traditions have survived centuries of history, and exist today as salient features of Coptic culture. The first is martyrdom and the other is monasticism. The martyrs are embedded in the Coptic calendar, which is dated from a.d. 284, in commemoration of the martyrs killed for practicing their faith. In that year, the Roman emperor Diocletian began a wave of persecution that left about 144,000 Egyptian Christians dead. It lasted until 311, when his successor declared an era of toleration. Today Copts begin a new year of the martyrs each 11 September, when they remember the defiance of the early martyrs who maintained their faith in the face of death.

Saint Anthony of Egypt is credited with initiating the strongest monastic movement in religious history. Anthony, following the admonitions of Matthew, sold all of his possessions and gave his money to the poor so that he would find treasure in heaven. He fled to the solitude of the eastern desert, where he practiced a life of austerity and the mortification of the flesh. Others followed his example, and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Somewhat later a converted Christian, Pachobius, modified monasticism by repudiating self-mortification but preserved the monastic vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience. There were numerous Pachomian monasteries, not only in Egypt but in many other places as well, and they took root in Europe by the fifth century a.d. Today the monks are the elite of the Coptic church and are symbols of sanctity as well as wielders of power.

Whereas Coptic monks are revered, Coptic clergy are not always well respected. Coptic priests perform baptisms, marriages, and burials and are given respect for those ritual acts, but the respect often ends there. Most Coptsespecially educated Coptshave regarded priests as social inferiors or have been openly disdainful toward them. For the most part, priests and monks have been recruited from the lower classes. Sometimes a recurrent pattern emerges: because the clergy has little prestige, it has attracted recruits with low status, perpetuating the low status of the clergy. Those Copts with higher status tend to find positions in business and the professions.

The present population of the Copts is about 6,000,000 (Minority Rights Group 1990), but this figure may not be accurate because official census counts tend to underestimate their numbers and Coptic nationalists tend to overestimate their numbers.

Present-day Copts speak Arabic. Coptic, the liturgical language of the Coptic church, probably became extinct in the sixteenth century. Culturally, the Copts share many customs with other Egyptians and are found distributed through all layers of the social and economic fabric of Egyptian society. Although intermarriage with non-Copts is permitted, the Coptic church insists on the non-Coptic partner being rebaptized according to Coptic rites, and communion is not shared with non-Copts.

Since the early 1980s, the Copts have again suffered discrimination in Egypt: restrictions have been placed on their religious freedom, Coptic insitutions have been placed under government scrutiny, the role of Copts in the Egyptian government has been reduced, and Coptic communities have been attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. The response of the Coptic community in general has been peaceful, although a small segment seeks political autonomy and self-rule.


Burmester, Oswalt Hugh Ewart (1967). The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Publications de la Société d'Archéologie Copte. Textes et Documents. Cairo: Société d'Archéologie Copte.

Eliade, Mircea, ed. (1986). Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan.

Groves, Charles P. (1964). The Planting of Christianity in Africa. 4 vols. London: Lutterworth Press. Originally published 1948-1958.

el-Masri, Iris Habib (1978). The Story of the Copts. Cairo: Middle East Council of Churches.

Meinardus, Otto F. A. (1965). Christian Egypt: Ancient and Modern. Cairo: Cahiers d'Histoire Égyptienne.

Minority Rights Group (1990). "Copts of Egypt." In World Directory of Minorities, 186-187. Chicago: St. James Press.

Wakin, Edward (1963). A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt's Copts. New York: William Morrow & Co.