Two Complications to Know About the Coptic Church in Egypt

A priest walks in front of St. Samuel the Confessor monastery in Maghagha, about 220 kilometers (140 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, May 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The gospel is said to have taken root quickly in Alexandria, and before Mark knew it, a deeply committed group of believers known as the Coptic Christians emerged to permanently change Egypt and the greater Christian community by establishing the Coptic Church in Egypt.

By the time Mark reached the shores of Alexandria, he had come a long way. Physically speaking, the apostle had likely sailed south from Rome, landed in Libya, and trekked through to Alexandria—Egypt’s burgeoning city of modernity and intellectualism. But spiritually, Mark had journeyed much further. After fleeing the scene of Jesus’s arrest (Mark 14) and cutting his first mission trip short (Acts 13), Mark boldly struck out on his own to jumpstart the church in Africa.

In the Beginning for the Coptic Church in Egypt

In Alexandria, Mark evangelized among Egyptians whose polytheism was a mixture of ancient Egyptian and Roman mythology. It wasn’t long before thousands converted to Christianity. They believed that Egypt was almost ground zero for the Christian faith because a personal acquaintance of Christ had brought the faith to them.

For the next four hundred years, Egyptian Christians—known as Copts, a term for indigenous peoples of Egypt—vigorously participated in shaping the theology of the early church. Copts established the world’s first catechetical school to determine and perpetuate Christian doctrine. Copts are credited with creating Christian monasticism. Coptic leaders oversaw landmark councils that established bedrock doctrine, most notably the Nicene Creed.

Over time, Copts organized and operated the church similar to the Catholic Church emerging out of Rome. They designated bishops to oversee Coptic communities. They even appointed their own pope as the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Just as the apostle Peter was believed to be the first pope of the Catholic Church, Copts reasoned, Mark was theirs.

Coptic Christians Today

Today, little difference exists between Catholic and Coptic theology and practice. Copts venerate martyrs in Christian history and visit sites dedicated to saints. They channel prayers to Christ through these saints and martyrs, they sing to them, and for blessing, they touch relics from their lives that are still considered holy.

Most Copts maintain that salvation is twofold: God has provided it through Jesus’s death and resurrection, and man takes hold of it through persistence in good works. Sins must be dealt with by confession to a priest and sacraments. Babies are baptized into the faith. Priests, called bapas (father), are trained to read and teach from the Arabic Bible, the only acceptable translation for the Coptic Church, which is unfortunately difficult for laypeople to understand.

This introduces the first complication for the Coptic Church in Egypt: identifying a faith that saves. More on that in a minute.

The Dawn of Islam

War changed everything, as it usually does. After six hundred years of fighting heresy and division—and flourishing in spite of it—Coptic Christians were caught in the middle of a physical battle between the Roman Empire and Arab Muslims. With the defeat of the Byzantine army in Egypt came the influence and rule of the Arab world.

The new Arab rulers of Egypt were initially sympathetic or indifferent to Coptic Christians, but each dynasty brought new restrictions or forms of persecution. Copts were subject to taxation that Arabs were not. Coptic art was destroyed because Egypt’s Muslim majority found it to be blasphemous iconography. And in response to the Crusaders sweeping across the Middle East, Muslims responded in kind by rooting out Christians in Egypt and forcing them to convert to Islam or be killed. Most Copts chose the first option.

Over time, Egypt became home for Arabs. They were no longer foreigners who had invaded a country but citizens with the right to fully inhabit Egypt, to become Egyptian. Today as the majority, Muslims hold nearly every seat at every level of government and establish laws that favor Muslims. At the local level, Coptic Christians experience subtle discriminations—everything from not being able to obtain permits for church buildings or being passed over for a spot on an elite soccer team.

Which brings us to complication number two for the Coptic Church in Egypt: identity.

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Source: Church Leaders