The History of the Coptic Church

Although most people today think of Egypt as an Islamic country, it is the home of one of the oldest Christian churches in the world – the Coptic Church. Since the time of St Mark the Evangelist in the first century AD Egyptians have practiced their Christian faith, building on their ancient cultural heritage. The name ‘Coptic’ derives via the Arabic ‘qubti’ from the Egyptian word ‘kubti’, which is itself derived from the ancient Greek ‘Aigyptos’, the root of our English word ‘Egypt’. Simply put, the Coptic Church is the Church of Egypt.

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Beginnings (1st Century – 381)

Egypt was the place where Mary and Joseph fled with the young Jesus during King Herod’s persecution, only returning to Judaea on his death (Matt. 2:12-23). After Christ’s Passion and crucifixion, tradition has it that the Apostle St Mark the Evangelist brought the Christian faith to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (AD 37-68), and that the native Egyptians soon began to convert to it in large numbers. The language spoken by Egyptians at the time is known as Buhairic, and this remains the formal language of the Coptic Church today.

Beginning of the Gospel of Mark in a bilingual Coptic-Arabic manuscript
Egypt had been ruled by the Roman Empire since the time of the emperor Augustus (63 BC – AD 14). Seeing it as a threat to their power, the Roman emperors from Nero onwards outlawed Christianity and martyred Christian believers. The penalty for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan Roman gods was death, and thousands were killed in waves of persecution, the biggest of which occurred under the emperor Diocletian (284-305). The so-called ‘Great Persecution’ of 302-303 saw large numbers of Christians across the Empire condemned and executed; the persecution was worst in the Eastern half of the Empire, including Egypt, where the Roman authorities were more anxious about the large numbers of Christians.

Throughout these centuries Christians were forced to practice their faith in secret. However, in 315 the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337), who would go on to become the first Christian emperor, proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which granted religious freedom to all. The fourth century would see numerous setbacks for Christianity, most notably the rise of the Arian heresy, which claimed that Jesus Christ was not God. However, the Egyptian Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria successfully led the resistance to this heresy, which was condemned at the first Great Church Council, which took place in 325 in the city of Nicaea (in modern-day Turkey). Finally, in 380, the emperor Theodosius I proclaimed Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire, and the Great Council of Constantinople in 381 proclaimed the belief that Jesus Christ really is God and gave us what we know today as the ‘Nicene Creed’.

St Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea, 325

Emergence of the Coptic Church (451-642)

However, with Christianity now the official religion of the Roman Empire, questions of theology became politicized and widely disputed even as the empire began to face serious threats from outside powers such as the pagan Goths and the Zoroastrian Sassanids of Persia. In the same century that the Western Roman Empire was progressively conquered by migrating tribes (finally succumbing in 476), the Eastern Roman Empire remained politically strong but became theologically divided. The events of this period would lead to the Coptic Church becoming independent of the official Church of the Roman Empire.

In 428, the Syrian Nestorius of Antioch became the bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Trained in an intellectual philosophical tradition, Nestorius claimed that the Virgin Mary was only the mother of the human Christ and not the divine; thus, he said, Mary could not be called the ‘Mother of God’. Again the resistance to this belief was led by an Egyptian bishop, Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444). Cyril argued strongly that Nestorius’ views implied that the human Christ was separate from the divine Christ, and was a strong proponent of the view that Christ was one person, fully human and fully divine. Cyril was supported by the Great Church Council of Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey) in 431. Nestorius’ views became widespread among Christians to the East of the Roman Empire, in Syria, Persia and India.

St Cyril of Alexandria

Nonetheless, the controversy continued after Cyril’s death and developed into an abstruse and difficult-to-follow debate over the relationship between the human and the divine in Christ. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Roman Empire sadly became divided between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians. Over the course of the 5th and 6th centuries, Egypt became a heartland of non-Chalcedonian (‘Monophysite’) Christianity, while the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches would become the main representatives of Chalcedonianism. Today, it should be noted that the Coptic, Catholic, and Orthodox Churches no longer view this as a significant area of disagreement.

In spite of this division, the Christians of Egypt were very active in spreading Christianity beyond the Roman Empire in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. To this day, the Christians of Ethiopia and Eritrea share the faith and communion of the Coptic Church, although they use their own liturgical language, Ge’ez.

Early Centuries of Islamic Rule (642-969)

Before the Monophysite Christians of Egypt were able to reconcile their differences with their Chalcedonian brethren, the unity of the Eastern Roman Empire was shattered by a series of devastating wars. First, the Sassanid Empire began a war lasting from 602 to 628 in which Jerusalem and Egypt were captured by the Persian armies, only being retaken with great difficulty. Almost as soon as the Roman Empire had defeated the Sassanids and recovered Egypt, it suffered a still more devastating blow that changed the course of history.

Eastern Roman and Persian (Sassanid) Empires, ca. 600

In the 620s, Muhammed spread the newly created religion of Islam (based on Christian and Jewish traditions) across the Arabian peninsula. Within the following century, Muhammed’s successors stunned the world by conquering the entire Persian Empire and seizing Syria, Egypt and North Africa from the Eastern Roman Empire. Eventually the Islamic conquests spread as far as Northern Spain, Southern France, and the Mediterranean islands of Sicily and Crete. The Eastern Roman Empire was reduced to Southern Italy, Greece, and modern-day Turkey, while the Coptic Christians of Egypt found themselves under Muslim rule.

Expansion of the Early Islamic Caliphate, ca. 750

Although Copts experienced periodic persecution, Islam officially tolerates Christians and Jews as ‘People of the Book’. Copts were allowed to practice their faith, but under severe restrictions: they had to pay a special tax for Christians and Jews known as the jizya, they could not preach to Muslims (under pain of death), and they could not build or repair churches without the ruler’s permission. Several of these restrictions technically remain in force today.

Under these conditions, Copts became mostly isolated from the Christians of Europe. However, they still managed to maintain their ancient faith and traditions.

The High Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (969-1800)

The onset of the High Middle Ages saw the Middle East and the Mediterranean world transformed, changing the relationship between Muslims and Christians and setting the scene for the shaping of modern Egypt. The Muslim Caliphate that had ruled Egypt from the 7th century had grown so large that it fragmented, unable to hold its diverse territories together. In 969, the Shi’ite Fatimids of Tunisia conquered Egypt from the Caliphate and established Cairo as the country’s capital for the first time. Meanwhile, other powers circled to try to conquer the divided remains of the Caliphate: first, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantines in the late-10th and early-11th centuries, and then the Seljuq Turks, a powerful group of nomadic tribes from central Asia who swept into the Middle East in the 11th century and would lay the foundations of the future Ottoman Empire and, ultimately, the modern Turkish State.

Eastern and Western Christianity, ca. 1050

Most important of all, perhaps, this period was the era of Crusades. In Western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was beginning to take its modern shape. Claiming authority over all Christians, East and West, the Roman papacy initiated the Crusading movement in the 1090s, which claimed a stunning success in 1099 with the capture of Jerusalem. For Christians, this had the effect of creating long-lasting divisions between Roman Catholics on the one hand, and Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians on the other, who opposed the Crusading movement. For Muslims, the Crusades created the false impression that all Christians were crusaders and thus the implacable enemy. Even Coptic Christians in Egypt, who had no connection to the Crusades, have been viewed with suspicion as an alien ‘fifth column’ ever since.

However, the Crusades were ultimately a failure, and the Middle Ages ended with the fall in 1453 of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks, descendants of the Seljuq Turks who had migrated in the 11th century, whose empire would eventually stretch from Morocco in the West to Yemen in the East. The Egyptian Ayyubid Sultanate had been the main resistance to the Western crusaders, but this was overthrown in 1250 by the ‘Mamluks’ – another group of Central Asian warriors who launched a coup against the ruling dynasty. Yet this group too succumbed; in 1517, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I invaded and conquered Egypt, allowing the Mamluks to stay on as local rulers under Ottoman control. Much as before, Coptic Christians were second-class in Ottoman Egypt, though they were granted a degree of autonomy through the Ottoman ‘millet’ system, which allowed religious minorities to oversee their own affairs in return for payment of the jizya tax.

The Ottoman Empire ca. 1800

Modern Egypt (1800-Present)

The country of Egypt as we know it today did not truly begin to take shape until the beginning of the nineteenth century, however. In 1798, the Ottoman Empire was rocked by the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte, the famous French general. As part of the great battle between the global empires of Great Britain and France, Napoleon invaded Egypt and Syria in an effort to gain a strategic base from which to attack British India. Although British forces managed to defeat Napoleon, he had occupied Egypt for three years; the Ottoman Empire began to weaken, and, even though Egypt technically remained an Ottoman possession, its new ruler Muhammed Ali Pasha established a dynasty of his own in Cairo and began to transform it into a modern state with a government bureaucracy and a modern army.

Napoleon Bonaparte in Jaffa

As part of his attempts to modernise Egypt, Muhammed Ali abolished the jizya tax on Christians and Jews, and Christians were gradually allowed to participate in the government and legal system. From 1867 to 1952 Egypt was a protectorate of the British Empire under the nominal rule of the descendants of Muhammed Ali, and during this time Egyptian Copts played a strong role in the nation’s intellectual life and in the movement for its independence.

However, in 1952 the Egyptian King Farouk, under British control, was overthrown by the army officer Gamal Abdel Nasser, who established the military government of Egypt that remained in power until the 2011 Arab Spring which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. During this period, the Coptic Church has been forced to navigate the difficult waters of Egyptian politics with very little help from the outside world. With the rise of political Islam, which opposes the secular government of Egypt, Coptic Christians have become easy scapegoats for Islamic extremists who view them anachronistically (and wrongly) as foreign ‘crusaders’ like those of the Middle Ages and violently vent their frustrations against them. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government makes little effort to protect Coptic Christians from sectarian violence, and enacts harsh restrictions such as preventing Christians from rebuilding churches that have been destroyed in terrorist attacks.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, 2011

As the 21st century goes on, the faithful adherents of this ancient Christian Church continue to face great hardship and persecution, caught between sectarian Islamic extremists on the one hand and a disinterested Egyptian state on the other. Nonetheless, there remains much hope for Egyptian Christianity: the Coptic Church has been able to withstand thousands of years of attacks from its enemies and remains strong, while groups such as the CCRF fight to raise awareness of the plight of Coptic Christians here in the U.S.