History of the Coptic Church

The term “Copts” is derived from the Greek word “Aigyptos,” which in turns is derived from the ancient Egyptian “Ha-ka-Ptah,” one of the names for Memphis, the first capital of Ancient Egypt.  The modern use of the term “Coptic” describes Egyptian Christians as well as the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language script.  It also describes the distinctive forms of art and architecture that developed as an early expression of the new faith.   The term “Orthodoxy” refers to the preservation of the “Original Faith” by the Copts who, throughout the ages, adhered to the doctrines of the apostles established in the first centuries of Christianity.

The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of St. Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century, a dozen of years after the Lord’s Ascension.  He was one of the four evangelists and the one who wrote the oldest canonical gospel.  Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of St. Mark’s arrival in Alexandria. The Coptic Church, which is now more than nineteen centuries old, was the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says: “In that day shall there be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the LORD”.

Although fully integrated in the modern Egyptian nation, the Copts have survived as a strong religious entity who pride themselves on their contribution to the spread of Christianity and consider themselves as a strong defender of Christian faith.  The Nicene Creed has been authored by one of its favorite sons, St. Athanasius, the Pope of Alexandria.

The Coptic Church has contributed to Christendom in different manners.  From the beginning, it played a central role in Christian theology, mainly in protecting it from the Gnostics heresies. Now libraries, museums and universities throughout the world possess hundreds and thousands of Coptic manuscripts.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest Catechetical School in the world. Soon after its establishment by the Christian scholar Pantanaeus around 190 A.D., the school of Alexandria became the most important institute for the study of Christianity. The scope of education in the school of Alexandria was not limited to theological subjects, because science, mathematics and the humanities were also taught there. They were the pioneer in adopting the “question and answer method of commentary”, the blind scholars also used the wood-carving techniques to read and write 15 centuries before using Braille writing system.

Monasticism was born in Egypt and was fundamental in the formation of the Coptic Church’s character of submission and humbleness, thanks to the teachings and writings of the Desert Fathers of Egypt who were visited by countless pilgrims and emulated their spiritual and disciplined lives. There is even evidence that Copts had missionaries to Northern Europe. The Patriarchs and Popes of Alexandria played leading roles in Christian theology. They were invited everywhere to preach about Christianity. St. Cyril, Pope of Alexandria, was the head of the Ecumenical Council in Ephesus.

The Coptic Church was one of the founders of the World Council of Churches and remained a member of it since 1948 A.D. The Coptic Church is a member of All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC).  The church plays an important role in the Christian movement by conducting dialogues aiming at resolving the theological differences between the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Evangelical Churches.

Today, there are over 15 million Copts (out of 100 million Egyptians) who pray and share communion in daily masses in thousands of Coptic Churches in Egypt.  In addition, there is also 1.2 million emigrant Copts who practice their faith in hundreds of churches all over the United States, Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Brazil, GCC, and many other countries in Africa and Asia. Inside Egypt, Copts live in every province and they are a majority in one of these provinces.   As individuals, Copts have reached prestigious academic and professional statures all over the world.  They include, without limitation, the late Dr. Boutros Ghali, the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations (1992-1997) and Dr. Magdy Yacoub, one of the world’s leading heart transplant surgeons.

Copts celebrate seven major Holy feasts where they commemorate Annunciation, Christmas, Theophany, Palm Sunday, Easter, Ascension, and the Pentecost and seven minor Holy feasts. Christmas is celebrated on January 7. The Coptic Church emphasizes the Resurrection of Christ (Easter) as much as His Advent (Christmas), if not more. Easter is usually on the second Sunday after the first full moon in spring. The Coptic Calendar of Martyrs is full of other feasts usually commemorating the martyrdom of popular Saints (e.g. St. Mark, St. Mina, St. George, St. Barbara) from the Coptic history.

The Copts have seasons of fasting matched by no other Christian community. Out of the 365 days of the year, Copts fast for over 210 days. During fasting, no animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, etc.) are allowed and they neither eat nor drink between sunrise and sunset. These strict fasting rules which have resulted in a very exquisite Coptic cuisine over the centuries are usually relaxed by priests on an individual basis to accommodate for illness or weakness. Lent, known as “the Great Fast”, is largely observed by all Copts. It starts with a pre-Lent fast of one week, followed by 40-day fast commemorating Christ’s fasting on the mountain, followed by the Holy week, the most sacred week (called Pascha) of the Coptic Calendar, which climaxes with the crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday and ends with the joyous Easter. Other fasting seasons of the Coptic Church include the Advent (Fast of the Nativity), the Fast of the Apostles, the Fast of the Virgin St. Mary, and the Fast of Nineveh.

The Coptic Orthodox Church’s clergy is headed by the Pope of Alexandria and includes Bishops who oversee the priests ordained in their dioceses. Both the Pope and the Bishops must be monks. They are all members of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod (Council), which meets regularly to oversee matters of faith and pastoral care of the Church. The Pope of the Coptic Church, although highly regarded by all Copts, does not enjoy any state of supremacy or infallibility. Today, there are over 60 Coptic Bishops governing dioceses inside Egypt as well as dioceses outside Egypt, such as in Jerusalem, Sudan, Western Africa, France, England, and the United States. The direct pastoral responsibility of Coptic congregations in any of these dioceses falls on Priests, who must be married and must attend the Catechetical School before being ordained.

There are two other non-clerical bodies who participate in taking care of Church affairs. The first is the popularly elected Coptic Lay Council, which appeared on the stage in 1883 A.D. to act as a liaison between the Church and the Government. The second is a joint lay-clerical committee, which appeared on the stage in 1928 A.D. to oversee and monitor the management of the Coptic Church’s endowments in accordance with the Egyptian laws. We have confidence in God’s providence in appointing our beloved father, Pope Tawadros the Second, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, to continue a new chapter for our church in its eternal story; a story of endless love that always gives.