Coptic Orthodox Church

views updated

Coptic Orthodox Church

According to tradition, the Coptic Orthodox Church was established in Alexandria between 55 and 68 c.e. by St. Mark the Apostle. Coptic means "Egyptian" and "orthodox" means "original/straight faith." The doctrine of the church follows New Testament teachings, as does Coptic Christology. Copts were the first Christians to establish monasticism in both its solitary and its communal forms, following the example of St. Antony of Egypt (251?–356). Another Copt, St. Pachomius (290–346), wrote the first rule for Christian monks, which influenced such later monastic leaders as St. Basil in the East and John Cassian and St. Benedict in the West.

The Coptic Orthodox Church practices the seven sacraments observed by other Eastern churches as well as by Roman Catholicism. Copts venerate the saints, especially the Virgin Mary. The Coptic Church believes that the Holy Trinity is of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One. Both faith and works are required for salvation, along with the sacraments. Copts believe in the resurection of the dead and a final judgment. The Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the New Testament, as well as traditions of the Disciples, Apostles, and Fathers of the Church are followed. The church believes in divine intercession, recognizes Sunday as its holy Sabbath, and observes the feasts of Christmas, baptism, and Easter; the memorials of the martyrs and the saints; and the appearance of the angels. Copts practice fasting, prayers, and offering incense during worship, both in churches and in private homes. Hymns and other music are used in worship.

The Coptic Church has seven Holy Orders: bishop, hegumenos (archpriest or abbot of a monastery), priest, archdeacon, deacon, subdeacon, and reader. The patriarchs or popes of the church had their seat in Alexandria, but in the eleventh century the pope moved his seat to Damru in the Nile delta. Ultimately the patriarchate was settled in Cairo, although the popes retained their title "Our Most Holy and Most Blessed Father, Pope . . . Patriarch of the great city of Alexandria and of all the Land of Egypt, of the City of our God, Jerusalem, or the Pentapolis, of Libya, Nubia, Ethiopia, and Africa."

The Coptic Church of Egypt started during the Roman Empire and continued under the Byzantine Empire, and thereafter under Islamic rule until modern times. From Egypt, the motherland of the faith, the Coptic Church was established in other countries, such as Ethiopia, where it has continued to the present. The Copts endured ten persecutions during the church's first three centuries. Indeed, Coptic Christianity is defined in important ways by its twin legacies of monasticism and martyrdom. And, in the Coptic communion's long history, the monastic establishment and the laity have been in a close, mutually supportive relationship; monks regularly return to society to serve parishes, and laypeople observe retreats in monasteries and convents.

The popes of Alexandria and the Coptic societies that were established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have worked together in modern times for the benefit of their community worldwide. Some of the societies work with youth and the new generations, supplying them with libraries, teaching them doctrine, preaching, interpreting the Bible, and giving public lectures. Some of these societies, as well as many individual Coptic parishes, have Sunday schools. Adjoining such local churches are day care centers for children and sports clubs for youth. From time to time other churches arrange bazaars or organize trips to visit archaeological sites, monasteries, and old churches in Egypt. Coptic congregations sometimes also travel to the Holy Land of Israel to visit the historic Jewish and Christian sites.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the current spiritual leader of all Copts, oversees churches and communities in Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, Central America, South America, and Australia. The pope and bishops visit churches in those global regions occasionally and ordain priests and bishops to serve the churches worldwide.

The Coptic pope works with the heads of other Christian churches, seeking Christian unity and encouraging Copts in each nation to build churches and monasteries. American Copts are building or have built a cathedral in nearly every state, and some states have more than one Coptic parish church. The Coptic Church of Egypt is involved at home in building and rebuilding churches, monasteries, chapels, altars, and houses of retreat, as well as sending missions of priests, monks, and bishops worldwide. The church has established a theological seminary, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, the Didymus School, the Coptic Museum and Library, papal libraries, Sunday schools, the University Families, and nurseries, and has encouraged scholars to establish La Société de l'Archéologie Copte. The church is offering its services not only for the Copts or other Christians of Egypt but also for non-Christians as well as international visitors, especially in locations where monasteries and convents exist. These institutions have built schools for both children and adults and have opened the churches of monasteries and convents to visitors. The villages and their Christian and non-Christian families that are near these monasteries and convents have benefited in many ways, including financial support.

Coptic societies, in Egypt and elsewhere, have established factories, hospitals, and dispensaries as well as girls' schools and boys' schools open to the general public. Other societies publish newspapers, bulletins, books, monographs, newsletters, and special reports about the Coptic legacy. Copts also are involved in excavating archaeological sites in Upper and Lower Egypt. Many other Coptic societies are supporting the poor, orphans, handicapped people, and the elderly. Moreover, the Coptic Church and its societies provide employment opportunities, nursing homes, day care for children, investment in economic projects, participation in the construction of apartment buildings, assistance to newlyweds in setting up households, stipends for those temporarily unemployed, and free medicine for those in need. American and other Coptic communities contribute millions of dollars annually in support of the patriarchate, the bishoprics, and Coptic societies. There are approximately twelve million Copts in the world, with about five hundred thousand in the United States. Sizable Coptic populations exist in New York, Michigan, and southern California.

See alsoEastern Orthodoxy; Liturgy and Worship; Practice.


Atiya, Aziz S. A History of Eastern Christianity. 1968.

The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by Aziz S. Atiya. 8 vols. 1991.

Elmasry, Iris Habib. Introduction to the Coptic Church. 1977.

Elmasry, Iris Habib. Survey of the Coptic Church. 1961.

Kamil, Murad. Coptic Egypt. 1968.

Boulos Ayad Ayad