An Ancient Church Faces New Threats; Coptic Christians Struggle in Egypt amid Hardline Islamists

By Faith Perspectives > Mike Tsichlis | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

An Ancient Church Faces New Threats; Coptic Christians Struggle in Egypt amid Hardline Islamists


Faith Perspectives > Mike Tsichlis, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt is one of the oldest Christian ecclesiastical bodies in the world, claiming a lineage that dates to at least the second century after Christ. Indeed, tradition traces the founding of Christianity in Egypt to the time of Mark the evangelist, the named author of the second Gospel who traveled to the area as a missionary.

Christianity grew in Egypt as the faith spread throughout the Roman Empire. Many of the church's great early theologians came from there, including Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and Athanasius, who during the fourth century steadfastly upheld what became the orthodox theological position that Christ the Son of God was of "one essence" and co-eternal with the God the Father, not merely a being created at one point in time. This view continues to be expressed in the near-universal Christian proclamation of faith known as the Nicene Creed.

In the fifth century, divisions occurred over the church's formulation of the humanity and divinity of Christ. These differences led to a schism after the fourth ecumenical council held in Chalcedon (in modern Turkey) in 451, giving rise to what became known as the "non-Chalcedonian" Orthodox churches, including the Coptic church of Egypt. Today, after nearly 50 years of ecumenical dialogue, many believe that both sides in the debate were trying to say the same thing, only using different terminologies.

Egypt eventually lost its predominantly Christian identity after the Arab conquest of North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries. Remaining Christians dwindled to a minority, becoming second-class citizens under Muslim law, paying a required tax for the privilege known as the jizya.

The Coptic language, which was the vernacular tongue of the ancient Egyptians, was also lost, eventually replaced by Arabic. Today the use of Coptic survives only in Coptic Christian worship services and in specialized areas of academe. As part of a liturgical custom of their homeland, Copts take off their shoes before entering a church sanctuary in imitation of Moses' removing his shoes before he approached the vision of God as a burning bush on Mount Sinai.

Today, about 12 percent of Egypt's 82.5 million inhabitants, or about 10 million people, are Coptic Orthodox Christians. Put in context, that number is greater than the population of countries such as Austria and Switzerland. It's almost four times the size of the St. Louis metropolitan region.

Institutional discrimination against the Coptic Christian population of Egypt has been long-standing. …

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