Coptic Christians in Egypt are Suffering; But What Is Coptic Christianity Anyway?

The growing civil unrest in Egypt has resulted in tension among the factions of the country’s Muslim population, but it has also resulted in increased threats and violence against the nation’s Christian minority, most of which is Coptic. When American Protestants hear about such violence, our natural and appropriate response is outrage, but it also leads to a question many Evangelicals are no doubt asking: What, exactly, is a Coptic Christian?

Understanding the origins of Coptic Christianity requires a dip into Church history. Christianity in Egypt is traditionally traced back to the Gospel writer Mark, and in the early centuries of the faith, the Egyptian city of Alexandria was one of the most important Christian centers. Some philosophical tensions were evident early, however. Alexandria was an outpost of “eastern” Christianity, which tended to emphasize Christ’s transcendent deity. “Western” Christian centers, on the other hand, stressed His humanity more heavily. These differences in theological emphasis — coupled with the late Roman Empire’s geographical politics — all came to a head in 451 A.D. at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon.

The details of Chalcedon are almost absurdly technical. While imperial politics played a major role in the proceedings and aftermath, the immediate theological issue the council tried to answer was just what happened when God the Son became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Did He exist (1) with two natures (human and divine) in radical distinction, (2) two natures commingling without losing their individual integrities, (3) a single divine nature, or (4) a composite of the human and the divine that formed a new type of nature?

Whatever Chalcedon’s complexities, the result was that the second position was upheld, leading to the famous “Chalcedonian Definition of Faith“. The Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus, was disgraced, in part for his role in attempting to defend Eutyches, a monk accused of holding the fourth position (“monophysitism“). Alexandria and its surrounding sites never accepted the Chalcedonian Definition. They rejected the label “monophysite,” but also opposed Chalcedonian Christology, arguing instead for a middle “miaphysite” position.

These events were the origins of the Coptic Church as distinct from broader catholic Christianity. Indeed, the divide represents one of the first major Church splits, predating the Great Schism with Eastern Orthodoxy by over 500 years and occurring more than a millennium before the Protestant Reformation. As a result, the Coptic Church developed on an almost parallel course to Catholicism, with its own succession of popes and its own distinctive liturgy. Also, similar to Eastern Orthodoxy, it contains a distinctly ethnic facet: Copts consider themselves the original Egyptians, rather than the country’s largely Arab Muslim population.

Islamic forces took Egypt decisively in the early 640s, but the Copts, weary of Roman and Byzantine Christianity’s periodic crackdowns against its Christology, were not entirely unwilling. During the last 1,400 years, Muslim majority rule of Egypt has at times entailed prejudice or persecution for the Copts, but at other times has allowed for a substantial degree of tolerance and coexistence. In the meantime, various attempts have been made to reconcile the Coptic Church with the churches from which it broke.

Attempts at rapprochement with the Catholic Church faltered during the Crusades and again at the Council of Florence in 1441. Recent developments, however, have been more positive. Forty years ago, Pope Paul VI met with Coptic Pope Shenouda III, leading to a clarifying of key Christological terminology. And earlier this year, the Coptic Pope Tawadros II met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, leading to further solidarity. Since the 1980s, meanwhile, relations between the Coptic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have also thawed, to the extent that the two groups will now accept one another’s sacraments. The Coptic Church’s relationship with Protestantism was initially strained: 19th century missionaries were regarded as rivals rather than allies. Given recent persecutions, however, the groups appear more willing to acknowledge each other’s faiths as legitimate.

Throughout their history, the Coptic Christians of Egypt and its neighbors have been no strangers to suffering, and we need to pray and work for their perseverance through these most recent trials.

Image via Lollylolly78.

About Geoffrey Reiter

Geoffrey Reiter is Assistant Professor of English at the Baptist College of Florida. He holds a B.A. in English from Nyack College and a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University, along with an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

  • Guest

    Very interesting, thank you. I never knew the copts had their own pope before.

  • Jonathan Tobias

    The phrase “absurdly technical” is inappropriate. It glosses over real concern about the meaning of salvation: is it the deification of humanity, in all its potentiality and lostness? or is it some cheaper, shallower juridical understanding that avoids the necessity of hard things like fasting and sacraments?

  • Clay

    The Coptic Pope is not parallel to the Roman Pope. The Coptic Church is in full communion with other Oriental Orthodox Churches, but the Coptic Pope does not claim to have authority over them. This is unlike the Roman Pope who claims universal authority over the whole Church.

  • Anon E. Mous

    I don’t think the description of Chalcedon is accurate or helpful here. First of all, the question of Christology hinged a different (and older) understanding of salvation, which was held jointly by both sides of the orthodox, catholic divide. You can’t understand much of the great Christological controversies including Nicea (I and II) or Chalcedon without understanding Salvation expressed in terms of recapitulation and theosis. Moreover, both “sides” believed they were affirming the theology of Christ articulated by St Cyril of Alexandria. If anything, the Church of Alexandria was more conservative in this regard. The fact that Oriental and Eastern Orthodox regularly practice intercommunion at the parish level with the blessing of hierarchs (this would be inconceivable for either with respect to Rome or the splinter sects that developed from Roman Catholicism) should help illustrate this.

    Also, the Eastern Orthodox Faith does not have an “ethnic facet.” There are regional Churches, responsible for canonical administration within their territory, but this is a normal part of good order. North American may be a mess, but the local Church is the local Church for everyone.

  • Kate

    Not bad… as a Coptic Christian with a degree in Patristic theology I can’t complain about the representation… A solid conversation between a Copt & a Catholic really does ultimately reveal that we have the same English definition for different Greek words – simply put… we really do agree about the nature of Christ.

    Looking forward to the fulfillment of His prayer – “keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.”

  • Stephen Manning

    Interesting theological issues aside, the plight of the Copts reveals the eventual fate of any Christian Church under Muslim rule.

  • frjohnmorris

    The definition of of the 4th Ecumenical Chalcedon in 451 is not absurdly technical. It is a very important theological issue because it is necessary for our salvation that Christ is fully human and of one essence with humanity and fully God. The deification of Christ’s human nature by its union with the divine nature makes our salvation (deification) possible. The monophysite heresy taught that Christ’s human nature was absorbed by His divine nature so that He ceased to be fully human and therefore ceased to be of one essence with humanity. The opposite extreme is Nestorianism which so separates the human and divine natures of Christ that Jesus is only an inspired man. The Eastern Orthodox Church has always recognized the Sacraments of the Copts and other Oriental Orthodox. The real issue was not doctrinal, but linguistic the Copts did not distinguish between “nature” and “person” so when they heard Chalcedon as affirming Christ as one person with two natures they heard a Nestorian Christology. Coptic Christology is based on the writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria. In a failed effort to heal the schism, the 5th Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II in 553)specified that Chalcedon must be interpreted in conformity with the teachings of St.Cyril.The Copts consider Dioscoros a saint and we Orthodox consider him an heretic. However, relations between the Copts and Easter Orthodox are very close and efforts are being made to restore communion between the Copts and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

  • frjohnmorris

    Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are close, but are still not in Communion. However, Eastern Orthodox receive Oriental Orthodox by Confession and a simple profession of Faith.Which is what usually happens if an Oriental Orthodox moves to a town where there is no Oriental Orthodox Church. Whereas Catholics and Protestants have to be received by Chrismation (Confimation) or Baptism. I really do not think that it is fair to describe American Orthodoxy as a mess. We are working together through the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North and Central America to bring administrative unity to American Orthodoxy. On the local level Orthodox clergy from different jurisdictions work closely together as one Church despite our different administrations. Remember to Orthodox sharing a common Faith is what is really important and all Eastern Orthodox all over the world share a common Faith.

    Archpriest John Morris

  • Anon E. Mous

    That’s a very generous assessment of our situation in the US right now.

    In any case, what I have observed in practice in OCA, GOA, and ROCOR parishes (and been told by one Bishop is the norm) is that Oriental Orthodox are allowed to receive Holy Communion without any formalities beyond proper preparation – which does generally involve Confession. The OCA handbook for reception of converts does say that Oriental Orthodox are received by profession of faith, but it is a stretch to call this “reception” into the Eastern Orthodox Church (we all affirm the Symbol of Faith anyway…), esp. since they generally continue to participate freely in the Sacraments in their own Communion. Obviously priests may not concelebrate the Divine Services together, but let’s be honest – at this point there is effective intercommunion, if only by economia. As I say, one can’t imagine any way this might happen between Orthodox and Roman Catholic/Protestants.

    The only reason I point this out is to underscore the same point you are affirming: we are *very* close.

  • frjohnmorris

    Reception of non-Chalcedonians by confession and profession of faith is not economy. Economy dispenses with the canon law or regular practice of the Church. Canon 95 of the Council in Trullo in 692 mandated that non -Chalcedonians be received by profession of faith and confession, therefore this practice is in strict adherence to the canons and which is classified as akrivia. Because there are few non-Chalcedonians in the US we Orthodox usually minister to non-Chalcedonians because they do not have a Church of their own. However, if there is Coptic Church in the vicinity, the Coptic priests tell their people not to receive the Eucharist from Eastern Orthodox clergy.

  • Anon E. Mous

    Not trying to be argumentative and perhaps the practice is more rigorous in the Antiochian Church, I have no experience there. Here is how it was explained to me by my Bishop:

    Strict adherence to the canons would indeed involve reception into the Church, which would imply acceptance of Chalcedon on the part of the received. This virtually never happens (I have never seen that happen personally). Hence economia.

  • frjohnmorris

    I agree that in cases where they have no Church of their own in the area we practice economy and minister to non-Chalcedonians. However, in places where there is a non-Chalcedonian Church there is no intercommunion. The Copts are stricter than the Eastern Orthodox. They require Chrismation of Eastern Orthodox, while we only require Confession and a Profession of Faith.

  • Gene

    No mention of the Catholic Coptic jurisdiction in the Byzantine Catholic Rite here. how come?

  • Jeff Thomas

    The suffering has only intensified since the Aug. 14 military crackdown on pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo. World Watch Monitor has published a detailed photo gallery of the destruction — and resilience — of Egypt’s Coptic, Catholic and evangelical churches in the heavily damaged Minya region, here: http://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2013/09/article_2687095.html/


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