Christianity: Coptic Christianity

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Christianity: Coptic Christianity

FOUNDED: 48 c.e.


The Coptic Orthodox Church adheres to the original apostolic traditions. It follows the decisions of the Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431) and uses the original liturgies written by Saints Mark, Basil of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

During the first Christian centuries, when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire, Copts contributed to the development of the monastic life and Christian theology as formulated by the ecumenical councils. After Arab rule replaced the Byzantine Empire in Egypt in 641–42, Christianity was slowly overshadowed by Islam through intermarriage and conversion. The majority of the contemporary Egyptian Muslim population is of Coptic origin. In spite of its minority position, the Coptic Church was able to survive, and beginning in the 1950s Coptic Christianity experienced a religious revival. Concurrent with this revival a movement of Coptic immigration to Western countries started during the 1960s. The majority of the immigrants settled in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. By the twenty-first century more than 180 Coptic churches existed outside Egypt.

The name Copt is derived from Qibt, the Arabic translation of the Greek Aigyptios, itself a derivation of Hikuptah, a reference to Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt.


According to tradition, Christianity was introduced to Egypt by Saint Mark the Evangelist in 48 c.e., and it is to this event that the Coptic Orthodox Church traces its origins. From the first century c.e. Christianity spread rapidly, unleashing violent persecutions by the Roman emperors. So many Christians were murdered during the rule of Diocletian (reigned 284–305) that the Coptic Church started its calendar at the year of his enthronement in order to commemorate the martyrs on whose blood the church was built. After the Edict of Milan (313), Christians were free to worship, and many Egyptians embraced the Christian faith. By the fourth century Egyptian Christians started to with-draw into the desert, eventually creating the monastic movement.

The fourth and fifth centuries were marred by doctrinal controversies, especially concerning the nature of Christ. One of the main issues centered on the teaching of Arius (c. 250–336), who maintained that Christ was created by God and not equally eternal. Arius was declared heretical, and, according to the Nicene Creed (325) that Athanasius (reigned 328–73) helped formulate, Christ was affirmed fully one with God. As different parties refined their ideas about Christ's divinity and humanity, they also came to represent opinions in the eastern and western part of the Byzantine Empire. Various emperors tried to promote a single accepted doctrine but failed. By the seventh century a schism had occurred between the churches of the East, including the Coptic Church, and the churches of Rome and Constantinople. It ran along religious, geographical, and political lines and has endured through modern times.

In 629 Byzantium tried to suppress Coptic Christianity, replacing the Coptic patriarch with a Byzantine church ruler. After the Arabs invaded Egypt in 641–42, the Copts were initially allowed to practice their religion freely. Coptic Christians were Egypt's religious majority until the Middle Ages, although they suffered sporadic persecutions by Muslims. Copts remained in the secondary status of dhimmis (protected citizens) until 1856.

The ruler Mohammed Ali (1805–13) modernized Egypt, providing economic and educational opportunities for the Copts. This represented the beginning of the revival of the Coptic Church that has continued into the twenty-first century. The impetus for this revival came from the Sunday School Movement (1918), which inspired many young, well-educated men and women to serve the church.

Copts fought with the Muslims against the British occupation (1882–1922), and for a few decades relations between Muslims and Christians were relatively good. Twice a Copt briefly served as prime minister. This changed when, in the 1940s, the Islamic Brotherhood started to propagate an Islamic agenda.

The 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdal Nasser introduced land reforms and deprived Copts of 75 percent of their wealth, which led to school closures and deterioration of Coptic possessions. Nasser, however, suppressed the Islamic Brotherhood, and Copts enjoyed relative safety. When Anwar as-Sadat became president in 1970, he allowed the Islamic Brotherhood more freedom, and incidents of religious strife increased again. During Hosni Mubarak's regime, which began in 1981, extremist Islamic groups aggravated this strife.


Cyril I (412–44) formulated the Coptic Christology now known as Miaphysitism, which holds that Christ is truly God and man as his nature is "divine and human—mystically united in one, without confusion, corruption, or change." At the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Western churches accepted the formula that Christ had unity of person but duality of natures.

The center of Coptic Church life is the seven sacraments: Eucharist, baptism, confirmation (with holy chrism), confession and absolution, unction of the sick, matrimony, and consecration into one of the holy orders of priesthood. The Eucharist is at the core of Coptic religious life, and in order to participate in the Eucharist, a person must be a full member of the Coptic Church through baptism and confirmation. A person may receive Communion only after confession and absolution.


Copts developed a moral code of conduct that, to a large extent, conforms with that of its Middle Eastern and Islamic environment. Believers rarely drink alcohol or eat pork, and forms of indulgence, such as overeating or sleeping long hours, are deemed incompatible with the ascetic character of the Coptic Church. Coptic society is patriarchal. Although many contemporary Coptic women are successful professionals, men are considered the head of the family.


Copts use three liturgies: the Liturgy of Saint Basil, the Liturgy of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, and the ancient liturgy of Saint Mark, also known as the Liturgy of Saint Cyril.

The lectionary (Katamaros), a study of the various stages of Christ's life, is used throughout the liturgical year. The Agbiya, the book of the hours, contains the Psalms, prayers, and Gospels for the seven daily prayers. In addition, Copts use a psalmody, a book of doxologies (praise), and the Synaxarium, a book that commemorates Coptic saints.

Parts of the sacred literature appear in the ancient Coptic language that was derived from the pharaonic times and was spoken and written in a form of the Greek alphabet until about 1300 c.e. Coptic, considered a sacred language, is part of the Coptic culture and identity.


Apart from the Eucharist and liturgies in Coptic, the most sacred symbol in the Coptic Church is the cross, including a tattooed cross on the right wrist. Originally the tattoo was an identification mark so that Coptic children would not be mistaken for Muslims in times of upheaval. In modern times the cross has become a powerful mark of Christian identity in Egypt.


Copts, who have never had access to political power, have rallied around their patriarchs and bishops for guidance in both religious and secular affairs. They have had numerous prominent leaders, including Athanasius, the church father who was exiled five times as a result of political and theological controversies. Patriarch Cyril I (reigned 412–44) violently persecuted non-Christians and fought Nestorius for his refusal to call Mary the Mother of God, since he considered her to be only the mother of the human Jesus. Cyril IV (reigned 1854–61) called the Father of Reform, changed education, including what was offered to girls. Cyril V (reigned 1875–1927) fought against foreign intrusion by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and Cyril VI began the modern revival of the Coptic Church.

Important lay leaders have included Habib Girgis, the founder of the Sunday School Movement (1918), and the Ghali family, which counts among its members former Egyptian prime minister Boutros Ghali and former general secretary of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali.


The catechetical school in Alexandria produced illustrious theologians, such as Clement of Alexandria (born c. 150) and Origen (c. 185–c. 251). They framed their arguments within Greek philosophy, defending Christianity against gnosticism and paganism. Athanasius and Cyril I were both prolific theologians. Saint Anthony (c. 250–356) led the Copts in the development of solitary monasticism, while Saint Pachomius (born c. 290) originated the communal monastic life. Shenute (348–451?) was the first theologian to write in the Coptic language.

In the thirteenth century several writers, known as the Awlad al-Assal, translated Coptic theological texts into Arabic. Father Matta el-Meskeen, the abbot of the Saint Macarius Monastery, is one of the most influential contemporary theologians.


The Coptic Orthodox Church hierarchy is headed by the patriarch of Alexandria and includes approximately 60 bishops, who must be monks and members of the Coptic Holy Synod. The Coptic lay council facilitates relations between church and state, and the lay-clerical committee mediates between clergy and laity.


Coptic churches have the sanctuary oriented to the east. The altar is located behind a screen, or iconostasis. Churches are decorated with icons, wall paintings, carved wood, stuccos, and fabrics. Women sit separately from men. Many churches, monasteries, and convents stand on sites where the Holy Family stayed or that are connected to a saint or martyr.


Coptics hold the Eucharist most sacred. Furthermore, relics and icons of the saints are held sacred. Locally there are hundreds of places dedicated to martyrs, saints, and the Holy Family. Copts carry objects connected to these places or persons, such as holy oil, pictures, and crosses, as sources of baraka (blessing).


The deaths of Coptic saints are commemorated by moulids. These festivals consist of church-related activities and entertainment, and they are sometimes attended by Muslims. Moulids also provide opportunities to make pilgrimages to shrines of saints and martyrs.


Copts typically wear Western clothing. In villages Coptic women wear veils similar to those of Muslim women. Monks and nuns wear a skullcap called a qalansuwa that is divided into two halves, with crosses embroidered on each half. The split symbolizes the struggle Saint Anthony experienced in the desert with the devil, who tore his cap in two.


Copts fast from all animal products, including meat, eggs, milk, and butter, every Wednesday and Friday, as well as during the days of Lent, Advent, and several other feasts, for a total of more than 200 days a year. The aged, children, and pregnant women are not excused from the fasts. Copts also fast for a minimum of nine hours before officiating at, or partaking in, the Eucharist. Fasting is a physical and a spiritual exercise and includes sexual abstinence.


Daily Coptic prayer rituals are directed toward preparation for the Eucharist. Following the book of the hours, the day starts at sunset, in keeping with the time of Christ's death. Throughout the day Copts pray seven times, commemorating Christ's suffering.

The marriage ceremony is ruled by Coptic canon law and includes prayers and readings that lead to the al-iklil (the crowning ceremony), wherein the couple is crowned with two diadems that symbolize the high spiritual status of marriage.

Funeral liturgies vary according to the status (clergy or lay), age, and gender of the deceased. Burial occurs on the same day as death. Copts believe that the soul lingers for three days, and thus they perform a ritual for the spirit on the third day. On the 40th day after death, there is a church ceremony in front of a portrait of the deceased.

Coptic Monastic Life and Church Renewal

The renewal of the Coptic Orthodox Church began through the activities of well-educated lay Copts who became impatient with the lethargic attitudes of patriarchs after the reformer Cyril IV of the mid-1800s. They adopted the model of Protestant Sunday schools to teach Coptic children about their faith, history, and culture. By the 1950s former Sunday school students, after obtaining graduate degrees from universities, were joining the church as priests, monks, or nuns. Under Patriarch Cyril VI (reigned 1959–71) these developments were consolidated into a reform movement, which has continued under Shenouda III, who took office in 1971.

The central developments in this movement include daily celebration of the Eucharist, a strengthened monastic movement, new options for women to serve the church as active nuns and deaconesses, intense Sunday school programs, and new seminaries to educate priests. In addition, church renewal has reclaimed the Coptic archeological and cultural heritage.


The most important rites of passage initiate children into the community and church. One week after birth a cluster of celebrations is held called subu', or seventh-day feast, which is celebrated by Muslims and Christians alike for good luck and protection. The child is given a name, and the child's status changes from newborn to family member. These ceremonies for Copts often include the salawat al-tisht (wash-basin prayers), at which time a priest gives the child its first bath while chanting prayers and verses from the Bible. Circumcision for boys and for many girls is performed sometime during early childhood. Having received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Communion, a boy becomes a full member of the church on his 40th day and a girl on her 80th. The new mother, whom the church considers unclean after having given birth, undergoes a cleansing ritual.


Copts are forbidden by Islamic law to proselytize. Church growth within Egypt is purely demographic, while outside Egypt intermarriage adds new members. In the late twentieth century the Coptic Church started missionary activities in sub-Saharan Africa and established several churches there. The Coptic Church participates in ecumenical dialogues and was among the founding members of the World Council of Churches.


The Egyptian state is not based on Islamic laws and, in principle, allows Copts full rights as citizens. Copts, however, are not allowed to practice their religion openly. Special governmental permits are needed to build a new church or repair an existing one. Churches cannot be established in the vicinity of a mosque. Copts suffer numerous forms of hidden discrimination when seeking employment or scholarships.


The Coptic Church has designed vocational training and special Bible studies for the poorest of the poor. It also has worked on interfaith and peacemaking activities through youth workshops and integrated schools for Muslim and Coptic children. Coptic leaders have been active in protesting the practice of female circumcision.


The sacrament of marriage sanctifies a physical and spiritual union that cannot be broken. The family unit is considered the core of the Coptic faith. It is considered indivisible and functions like a small church that experiences the work of God and holds specific spiritual responsibilities. The family transmits the extensive Coptic tradition and teaches children the faith.


The Coptic Church allows the practice of birth control but forbids abortion. It condemns homosexuality. Women are considered care-givers who raise the future generation. The Coptic Church still follows some Old Testament laws that deem a woman impure during menstruation and after childbirth. These rules, in combination with specific interpretations of the New Testament, bar women from holding official, ordained offices in the church hierarchy. Women can be Sunday school teachers, pastoral workers, and nuns.


Christianized themes on shrouds and textiles of antiquity represent the beginning of Coptic art. The most important monuments of early Coptic art are monasteries and the frescoes preserved within them, such as those in the Wadi Natroun Oasis and in the Monastery of Saint Anthony. In the eighteenth century a fertile period of icon painting began, and in the 1970s Isaak Fanous established a school for neo-Coptic iconography. Early Coptic sculpture depicts people with wide-set eyes, a characteristic that has returned in contemporary iconography to reflect the idea that the saint has grasped a divine truth.

Nelly van Doorn-Harder

See Also Vol. 1: Christianity


Atiya, Aziz S., ed. The Coptic Encyclopedia. 8 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Cannuyer, Christian. Coptic Egypt: The Christians of the Nile. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Doorn-Harder, Pieternella van. Contemporary Coptic Nuns. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Doorn-Harder, Pieternella van, and Kari Vogt, eds. Between Desert and City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004.

Hassan, Sana. Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Kamil, Jill. Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church. London: Routledge, 2002.

Watson, John H. Among the Copts. Sussex, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2000.

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Christianity: Coptic Christianity

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Christianity: Coptic Christianity