What is the difference between Coptic Christians and Christians in other parts of the world? Are there major doctrinal differences? Why do they seem to suffer more persecution than most Christians in the world do?
What is a Coptic Christian?
Who or what is a Coptic Christian? Maybe you’ve heard of them and if so, you probably heard about them being persecuted. A Coptic Christian is called “Coptic” because this is the Afro-Asiatic language of the Copts, which survives only as a liturgical language of the Coptic Church. Others define Coptic as “Egyptian” so a Coptic Christian could be called an Egyptian Christian or a Christian in the Middle East or Afro-Asiatic region. Coptic Christians are Christians as far as their beliefs are held. The fact that they are Christians and living in a predominantly Muslim part of the world is reason enough for them to be persecuted more than most Christians in the West. The Coptic’s are believed to have originated in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. John Mark, the author of the gospel of Mark and believed to be one of the earliest of the four gospels, is thought to be the founder of the Coptic Christian Church. Although John Mark wrote this gospel, the vast majority of biblical scholars firmly believe it is actually Peter’s gospel with Mark being the author of it. This is the same John Mark that traveled throughout the Asiatic region with Paul and Barnabas so it is not beyond belief that John Mark may have went to Alexandria and planted a church there.
What do Coptic Christians Believe?
The fact that they rely so much on the gospel of Mark reveals that they believe in the divinity of Christ. They believe in the resurrection and the miracles of Christ. They believe in the bodily ascension of Christ and that He was the sinless Messiah and will come again to gather together the Body of Believers worldwide and take them into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Coptic or Egyptian Christians essentially believe what any other Christians do but since they are in a region that is predominantly Muslim they see more of the persecution that Jesus warned was to come. Jesus said that if they persecuted Him they will also persecute His followers (John 15:20). The Coptic’s have lived with this persecution for about 2,000 years now. They have seen their churches regularly burned down and they have seen many of their members die by the hands of radical Muslims who see Christians as infidels that are opposed to the Islamic faith. They have seen more persecution in a year’s time than most Christians will see in their lifetime.
The Coptic’s were one of the earliest Christian groups to see Christ as being both God and Man or what is called “one hypostasis in two natures.” Only later would the Eastern Orthodox, the Catholic and the Protestant churches come to this conclusion. The Coptic Christian tradition says that when John Mark took a missionary expedition to Egypt he was well received because many of the Egyptians had already believed in eternal life but in a different setting. They were more eager and willing to believe this because this was not that different than what they believed happened after death; that they passed from death to the Underworld and then to the next life. This was the primary reason why the Pyramids were built…to supply provisions for the Pharaohs so that they could pass from this life into the next as well as protect their valuable treasures.
The Coptic Christian Explosion
Relatively few Coptic Christians remain where they began, that is in Alexandria. Today they are estimated to range in numbers from between 10 to 60 million members worldwide but most are not far from the Middle East or Asia Minor. The exact numbers of Coptic Christians is hard to determine because many worship in secrecy for fear of persecution and regular threats of death in the more radical regions of the world where the Islamic faith is the dominant religion. Some believe that they are more closely associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church because they emphasize meritorious works as part of their salvation. That is they lean on liturgical rituals rather than a personal relationship with Christ by which salvation is possible. Due to pressures from the Muslim world, many Coptic Christians converted under pressure to Islam which is the dominant religion in their part of the world. Those who remain staunch in their Christianity often pay dearly for it.
No matter what Christian persuasion you are, you belong to Christ. Differences in beliefs that are not different in the essentials should not divide us. The main tenants of Christ’s divinity, His sinlessness, His redeeming work on Calvary, His resurrection and ascension into heaven and His offer of salvation by faith alone should serve to unite us. We need to be praying for our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, especially those who are suffering from severe persecutions, some even dying for their faith. These include the Coptic Christians, those who are in hiding in parts of Asia, those who have house churches in China, and those who are based in Muslim countries. These Coptic Christians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They may do things somewhat differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean that they are not part of the Body of Christ.
Jack Wellman is Senior Writer at What Christians Want to Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Blind Chance or Intelligent Design