Coptic Christianity

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"Coptic" is ultimately derived from the Greek word Αγυπτος. The name is applied to the body of Egyptian Christians historically subject to the patriarch of Alexandria.

The patriarch of Alexandria at the time of the Council of chalcedon was dioscorus (c. 454), who defended the monophysite teaching, believing himself to be defending the orthodox teaching of St. cyril. When he refused to recant, Dioscorus was deposed from his patriarchal throne and died in exile. The vast majority of the Egyptian faithful looked upon their disgraced patriarch as a martyr to the true faith. The Council of Chalcedon was rejected.

The Byzantine emperors favored the decrees of Chalcedon, and their followers in Egypt were promptly labeled "King's followers," i.e., melkites. At times the Byzantine emperors maintained a Melkite on the Alexandrian patriarchal throne, though generally a Non-Chalcedonian patriarch occupied it. The desire for national and ecclesiastical autonomy played no small part in this struggle for ascendancy, the native Christian Egyptians firmly believing that they were defending the age-old rights of their venerable see against the inroads of the upstart, Constantinople. The century following the Council of Chalcedon was marked in Egypt by a religious civil war.

After Chalcedon, the bishops who grouped around Dioscorus, refused to recognize Proterius, the Chalcedonian Patriarch. After the death of Dioscorus, they elected Timotheus Aelurus, i.e., "the Cat." He, at the head of the rebels, invaded the cathedral where Proterius was celebrating the offices of Holy Week, slaughtered the patriarch as he hid in the baptistery, and occupied the vacant see. However, being excommunicated, he was sent first to Gangres and then Chersone, and was replaced by the Melkite Timotheus Salofaciakos, "the White," in 460. Timotheus could make no progress in bringing about peace, for he was harassed by the Anti-Chalcedonians, who were supported by the civil authorities.

Meanwhile, Timotheus Aelurus, having committed suicide (or so it was believed), was replaced by Peter Mongus, who at the death of Timotheus Salofaciakos became the sole patriarch.

John Talaya (d. 490) was recognized by the pope, but not by Acacius, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The divisions among the Copts led the Emperor zeno in 482 to issue his henotikon, hoping thus to unify the parties; but his attempts met with failure. Peter Mongus then occupied the See of Alexandria and was upheld by the emperor while John Talaya fled into exile to Rome. He died in Italy; soon after, Accius and Peter Mongus also died. However, the civil authorities continued to create trouble for one party or the other, depending on where their loyalties lay.

Finally, for the sake of peace, Emperor Justin II in 567 recognized two patriarchs of Alexandria: one Melkite, the other Non-Chalcedonian. From that day, the Coptic Church, embracing almost the entire native Egyptian population, became identified with the Non-Chalcedonian faction; its liturgy thenceforth was a modified form of the Alexandrian rite (see coptic liturgy); and its liturgical language until the time of the Arab conquerors was Coptic. The Melkites followed Constantinople and gradually, by the 12th century, dropped their Alexandrian ecclesial and liturgical usages for Byzantine usages.

Before the Arab Conquest. St. john the almsgiv er became the Melkite patriarch in 610; by his charity he succeeded in partly unifying the population. Then came the Arab invasion; and although the Copts were glad to have done with the Byzantine Romans, who had repeatedly subjected the country to fire and the sword, their patriarch was forced to flee to Cyprus, where he died.

Benjamin, the Jacobite patriarch, occupied the See of St. Mark during the first Arab conquest. Having fled in turn, he did not reappear until the departure of the Romans in 644, having obtained a promise of safety from General Amrou. In 662, the year of his death, he became the leader of all the Egyptian Christians.

Cyrus, called by the Arabs El Moukaukas, the monothelite patriarch at the time, betrayed the Romans and delivered to the Arabs the great fortress of Babylon, the key to Upper Egypt.

Arab Period. Even before the Arab conquest, the Copts had tried several times to free themselves from Byzantine domination. They were bitter over the Council of Chalcedon, regarding it as the beginning of all their troubles.

Meanwhile Amrou was very generous to the Non-Chalcedonian patriarch, whom he recognized as the sole legitimate incumbent; he showed himself a sincere friend and ally during the conquest of Libya. But his tolerance, fraternity, and collaboration lasted only until the cost of the war depleted the treasury; then the Copts found themselves subject to taxes and tribute. Even the clergy and religious were not exempt. The Christians had to choose taxes, tribute, and possibly death or Islam. So it was that Christians embraced Islam en masse, and many religious left their monasteries, which eventually fell to ruin.

Although all the caliphs did not manifest the same ferocity, none of them exempted the Copts from the onerous burden of tribute. Among these rulers was AbdAllah ibn Marwan, who threw the Patriarch Alexandros II into prison and confiscated all his goods. Abdel Malek forbade (705) the use of the Coptic language; from then on the Copts gradually lost their ancient tongue.

Assama ibn Zeid showed himself intransigent concerning tribute and taxes. He had churches demolished, crosses and icons smashed. The Copts revolted, but the rebellion was drowned in blood. North of the Delta, the Copts called Bashmouri continued to struggle ferociously for several years, but were finally conquered and either massacred or sold as slaves by the army of Mamoun. The Copts never recovered from this defeat; they lost all prestige and have since then remained a minority among the population.

In 837, under Patriarch Eusebius, the Caliph El-Moutawakel ala Allah ordered Christians to wear a black turban and sash, to ride donkeys with wooden saddles, and to wear five-pound crosses around their necks. He had all new churches demolished and forbade Christian education and the solemn celebration of feasts.

The Fatimite caliphs and the Mamelukes were no less cruel. The worst was El-Hakem biamr Allah, who believed himself sent by God to rid the world of the Christian religion, which he considered pagan and polytheistic. He reportedly destroyed more than 30,000 churches and chapels, including the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This sacrilege was one of the causes of the Crusades. The Christians again had to choose between Islam and death, and many emigrated.

Outstanding Figures. Despite the ferocity of these continual persecutions, there were a number of great individuals among the Copts at this period. Severus ibn El Moukafa', Bishop of Ashmounein, wrote in Coptic the history of the patriarchs, basing himself on Eusebius of Caesarea; the work was completed by the Patriarch Michael in 1243.

Cyril III, surnamed Ibn Loklok (123543), was the author of the collection of canons that bears his name. These canons forbid simony and the acceptance of donations by judges; regulate marriage, inheritance, and wills; call for an annual synod of all the bishops on the third Sunday after Pentecost; forbid acceptance of accusations against a bishop or a religious without a previous investigation; declare the immunity of clerics, who are not to be judged by the laity; and forbid the suspension of bishops without three previous warnings.

The "Sons of Assal" were three brothers remarkable for their wisdom, zeal, piety, and influence with the Caliph. (1) Assad Abou-el-Farag Hebat-Allah was the author of several works on Scripture. (2) Saify Abi-el-Fadl el-Amgad compiled the canons known by his name (Ibn al-Assal), which govern the Coptic Church. (3) El moutamen ibn Ishaq composed a résumé for the teaching of the Coptic language, homilies for the feast of Our Lord, and an Arabic-Coptic dictionary.

Ibn Kabar (1319), secretary of Kohn-el-Dine Bibars El Mansour, abandoned his position to serve as a priest of the Moalaka Cathedral of Old Cairo, a church that had formerly served for the coronation of the patriarchs after their transfer to Cairo. He was a learned man and a physician, who composed homilies, sermons, and such works as The Great Ladder (Rome 1644) and The Lamp of the Darkness, an encyclopedia of ecclesiastical and liturgical knowledge. As an author he is known by the name El Kiss-el-Fadel, Shams-el-Rivaasa Abou El-Baraket ibn Kabar.

The Melkite faction of the Coptic Church was represented at the Council of Constantinople in 640, and likewise at the Seventh Council in 787, against the iconoclasts. At the time of Photius, in 1054, after the Great Schism, the Melkite Copts joined the Jacobites.

Turkish Period. The Turkish conquest of 1517 gave the Copts no respite. They were again hunted down without pity. Some scattered, and others were massacred. The Coptic Church suffered tremendously during this period.

18th Century Developments. The Copts by 1700 had lost almost all influence, especially in Cairo, although they were found in large numbers in Assiout and its environs, and also near Aswan. There were about 100,000 Oriental Orthodox Copts in a population of three million; they were divided into 12 dioceses, mostly in Upper Egypt, whereas, it is claimed, there had been 70 at the time of the Arab conquest. The few religious lived in four or five dilapidated monasteries. As for the priests, they had all married and were engrossed in making a living rather than in caring for souls. Their ignorance was abysmal, but they were pious and attached to the faith. However, religion, for them, had become reduced to prayer and fasting. The Turks despised them and considered them even lower on the social scale than they did the Jews.

And yet, during this period, several great Copts left their mark on history: Jacob Hanna (17451801), surnamed "the General," shone during the French conquest by his courage and victories against the Turks. He died at sea, after the departure of the French, having requested voluntary exile. Ibrahim El-Gohari (d. 1797) and Guiguis El-Gohari, his brother, succeeded in gaining the sympathy of the governor, Mohammed Aly, who revived the prestige of the Copts by retaining the services of Guiguis, and later of El-moalem Ghaly. Peter VII, known as El-Gawly, was the first patriarch consecrated and crowned in the church of Ezbekiyah. He himself later consecrated 25 bishops for the different dioceses and was the first to send a bishop to the Sudan. Cyril IV (185462) was called "the Reformer." He founded Coptic schools and the first school for girls, bought a printing plant for Coptic liturgical books, and lived in friendship with all the religious leaders. Demetrius II (186274) rejected the invitation of Pope Pius IX to attend Vatican Council I. Under the pontificate of Cyril V (18741927) the first religious tribunal (Maglis Melli) was erected. Its members did not agree with the patriarch, and the Khedive was forced to intervene and define their powers in 1883. The Tewfick society, which cared for the goods of the patriarchate, was instituted at this time.

In 1911, the Copts, feeling more powerful, met in a synod at Assiout and demanded their civil and religious rights. (1) The Christian religion should be taught to Christians in all schools. (2) Christian ecclesiastical tribunals should be subsidized by the state in the same manner as were the Muslim. (3) Sunday should be a free day for all Christian employees of the state. (4) Christians should have the right to promotion in all occupations. These decisions remained a dead letter, but they gave impetus to such Coptic works as schools, printing plants, and newspapers.

Throughout the 20th century, the Coptic Church was subjected to varying degrees of persecution. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt caused much problems as Islamic fundamentalists attacked churches and harassed Christians. The Egyptian government was accused by Coptic Christians of discrimination at all levels. From 19811985, the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat placed Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church under house arrest. Notwithstanding these harassments, the Coptic Church has grown slowly but steadily. By the end of 2000, membership was estimated at about eight million, a figure many experts considered to be an undercount.

Canonical Sources. The Oriental Orthodox hierarchical lineage was begun in 567 with the elevation of Patriarch Peter of Alexandria. From that time on, there has been a continuous line of Coptic Oriental Orthodox bishops. However, they were constantly persecuted by the Byzantine emperors and from 639 by the Arab Muslims. The Copts accepted the early Church canonical documents common to all churches before the Council of Chalcedon. These included the pseudoapostolic writings such as the Canons of the Holy Apostles, the Didascalia, and the Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. All of the canons of the Ecumenical Councils of nicaea i (324), constantinople i (381), and ephesus (431) were accepted. St. Athanasius had published the canons of the local Council of Sardis in 346 and accepted the canons from five other local synods of the East during the 4th century, i.e., Ancyra, Neocaesarea, Antioch, Gangres, and Laodicea. Other canonical sources were the recorded decisions of various bishops of Egypt during the 5th and 6th centuries. The most important collection is attributed to the Patriarch Timothy (381384), who treated in 56 canons chiefly the liturgy and Sacraments.

Medieval Canonical Sources. Egypt's conquest by the Arabs had a double consequence for the Coptic Church. Since Muslim authority gradually recognized the Copts as a nation and permitted their religious leaders to judge their civil cases, they were forced to develop a code of civil law. Second, the Arab language began to supplant the dead language of Coptic, which explains how the translations of many Arabic canonical sources soon found their way into Coptic canonical sources. Christodoulos, Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria from 1047 to 1077, promulgated 31 canons that touched mostly ritual questions, administration of the Sacraments, and fasting customs. Babril II Ibn (113145) collected the most important series of canonical texts. One series touches regulations for the liturgical services in the Alexandrian churches; a second looks to the whole Coptic Church. At this time Arabic was substituted for Coptic, as seen in the nomocanon collection of Michael, Bishop of Damiette (d. c. 1180). The 13th century marked a literary renaissance in Egypt. Patriarch Cyril III ibn Laklak helped in bringing about the definitive nomocanons for the Coptic Church. He requested the priest Abul Fadail ibn Al Assal to compose in 1236 his Collection of Canons (Kital al qawanin ), which contains the ecclesiastical canons of all the former Coptic sources as well as the civil law up to that time. Also deserving mention is Abul Barakat ibn Kabar for his Lamp of Darkness, which is an encyclopedia of Coptic canonical sources.


The first formal attempt to effect a union between the Copts and the See of Rome took place at the Council of florence (1439), the representative of the Coptic Church, in the name of the patriarch, signed the document of communion with Rome on Feb. 4, 1442. However, this act was not ratified by the church leaders in Egypt, and nothing came out of it.

At the end of the 16th century, the Holy See erected a vicariate apostolic for the Coptic Church under control of the Franciscans. At the same time, the Roman College of the Propagation of the Faith opened its doors to the Copts. Among its students were the seminarians Abou-el-Keir Bicharah, and Raphael el Toukhy. The latter had the Coptic liturgical books reprinted at Rome and composed a Coptic-Arabic dictionary in 1746.

Catholic Coptic Patriarchate. Efforts to reestablish unity among the three Christian Churches of Egyptnamely, the Oriental Orthodox Copts, the Byzantine Orthodox, and the Eastern Catholic Coptshave enjoyed little success through history. When, however, in 1741, the Coptic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Athanasius, recognized papal primacy, he was placed over the Coptic Catholics in Egypt, numbering at the time no more than 2,000. It was the first breath of the resurrecting Coptic Catholic Church, but Athanasius was not allowed to set foot in Egypt.

In the 19th Century, Eastern Catholicism was encouraged by Mohammed Aly, thanks to Prime Minister El-Moalem Ghaly, himself an Eastern Catholic Copt. The Holy See appointed as bishops Theodoros Abou-Karem in 1815, Maximos Gayed (apostolic administrator) in 1824, Athanasios Khousam in 1834, and Aghapios Bichay in 1866. In 1895 Leo XIII erected the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate and in 1899 appointed Cyril Makraios as Patriarch of the Catholic Copts. He was deposed in 1910 as a result of his having fallen into schism, but he submitted to Rome in 1921. However, the Catholic patriarchal see remained vacant from 1910 until 1947, when Pius XII named as patriarch Mark Khouzam, the patriarchal administrator, who died Feb. 2, 1958. His successor was his Beatitude Stephanos I Sidarous.

Coptic Catholics are found mainly in upper Egypt. The Coptic Catholic Patriarch, styled "Patriarch of Alexandria of the Copts" resides in Cairo.

Bibliography: makrizi, Geschichte der Copten, ed. h. f. wustenfeld (Göttingen 1845), text in Arabic. j. maspero, Histoire des patriarches d'Alexandrie (Paris 1923). a. j. butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last 30 Years of the Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902); The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, 2v. (Oxford 1884). e. renaudot, Historia patriarcharum Alexandrinorum Jacobitarum (Paris 1713). c. macaire, Histoire de l'Èglise d'Alexandrie (Cairo 1894). j. tagher, Aqbāt wa-Muslimūn (Cairo 1951), Copts and Muslims. ibn al 'assal, Kitâb al Qawanin, ed. g. f. aouwad (1st ed. Cairo 1908). e. l. butcher, The Story of the Church of Egypt, 2 v. (London 1897). w. riedel, Die Kirchenrechtsquellen des Patriarchats Alexandrien (Leipzig 1900). f. j. cÖln, "The Nomocanonical Literature of the Copto-Arabic Church of Alexandria," Ecclesiastical Review 56 (1917) 113141. r. roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, 6th ed (Rome 1999).

[a. h. scandar/eds]