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Coptic Church

The Christian Church in Egypt traces its birth to St. Mark, and counts as theological ancestors Dionysius, Clement, Origen, and Athanasius. Spearheading the struggle which culminated at the Council of Chalcedon (451) was Cyril of Alexandria* (d.444). At stake in the debate over Nestorianism* were the unity of the incarnate Christ and the eternal preexistence of the Logos,* both of which Cyril deemed threatened by Nestorius's emphasis on two natures. To Cyril this implied two persons. At the council, Dioscorus* (d.454) led the Monophysite cause in an effort that was defeated by Roman Pope Leo's doctrine of two natures in one person and Byzantine Emperor Marcian's political ambitions. Dioscorus died in exile, a hero- martyr to most Egyptians, who rejected the Chalcedonian symbols and the puppet patriarch, Proterius.

Egyptian opposition to Chalcedon was more than theological. Politically Dioscorus's defeat meant the triumph of the younger see of Constantinople over the ancient throne of Mark. Culturally Chalcedon seemed the triumph of Greek language over the indigenous culture of Egypt. The very name “Coptic” Church and the persistent use of the Coptic language in liturgy and literature show the vigor of the Egyptian fight for national identity.

In Egypt, the century after Chalcedon was scarred by religious civil war. Possession of the throne of St. Mark became a game of musical chairs, alternately occupied by Melchites* (Chalcedonian Christians still loyal to the Byzantine emperor) and Monophysites,* depending on the emperor's ability to support his man against the hostile Copts. Emperor Zeno's attempts at compromise to bring unity to the Christians of the East were a failure (482). So were the efforts of Justin II to recognize two patriarchs of Alexandria-one Melchite, one Monophysite. Virtually the whole population was Monophysite by this time (567).

The Muslim invasion of 642 nearly broke the battered church, sorely weakened by decades of religious strife. Though the Copts found temporary relief in freedom from Byzantine pressures, the cure proved worse than the disease. The Arab conquerors used heavy taxations and other threats to persuade Copts to become Muslims-tactics that induced mass conversions.

Under the Caliphs, especially El-Haken biamr Allah (c.1000), the destruction of churches and monasteries and the massacre of Christians helped to spark the Crusades. By about 1100 Arabic had replaced Coptic as the common language. To maintain identity, the Copts instructed the faithful in their traditional canon and civil law (cf. the major compilation of Patriarch Cyril III, c.1236).

The coming of the Turks in 1517 expanded the history of persecution. By 1700 Monophysites had been reduced to five per cent of the population. Of the once influential monastic community, only a handful of monasteries survived. Even before Chalcedon, Egyptian Christianity exhibited a strong ascetic side which has persisted to the present. The reforms of Muhammad Ali (c. 1840) and additional concessions from the Turks in 1911 allowed some Coptic participation in government and permitted the establishment of schools and printing presses. During the recent decades of independence, Egypt has been officially free from religious intolerance. Yet Copts tend to feel that opportunities for political and economic progress are denied them by the Muslim majority.

Copts still worship and observe sacraments according to the Alexandrian Rite, with some monastic and Syrian modification. The Eucharist is usually offered in one kind, and baptism is combined with confirmation as a prominent sacrament. Masses are frequently two hours in length, scented with lavish use of incense and punctuated by triangles and cymbals which set the rhythm for the chanting.

Current figures estimate a Coptic population of about four million in twenty-four dioceses and a Roman Catholic population of 85,000 including over 100 priests. The Coptic patriarch, called Pope of Alexandria, Pentapolis, and Ethiopia, is elected by the people through a religious tribunal, subject to confirmation by the government. His dominion over Ethiopia has been sine cura since 1959 when the Ethiopian Church declared its autonomy by consecrating its own bishop or abuna.

E.L. Butcher, The Story of the Church of Egypt (2 vols., 1897); W.A. Wigram, The Separation of the Monophysites (1923); E.R. Hardy, Christian Egypt: Church and People (1952); R.V. Sellers, The Council of Chalcedon (1953); D. Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East (2 vols., rev. ed., 1961); E. Wakin, A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt's Copts (1963); A.S. Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity (1968).