Saturday morning’s news reported the death of Pope Shendouda III leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The 88-year-old passed away in Egypt after leading the church for 40 years.
I first heard the phrase Coptic Christians as the Arab Spring wafted into Egypt last year. Not remembering if I had ever heard the phrase before I mentally filed it away to look into someday. What are Coptic Christians? Most of the new reports regarding Coptic Christians involved murders, beatings, and burning of their property but the stories were secondary to the revolution in that country. When I did do some research I found the Coptic Orthodox Church to be one of the oldest Christian Churches on the earth.
The word “Coptic” comes from Arabic and means Egypt or Egyptian. The Coptics accepted or tolerated conquest by the Arabs in 640 CE because they offered protection from the Byzantine Empire that had waged an unsuccessful war against them for 200 years.
Some trace the roots of the church to the visit of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt. Historically, the origins of the church are traced to Mark’s preaching in Egypt in the first century. He was murdered by a Pagan mob about 68 CE in Alexandria. The pagans, unsatisfied with his death, attempted to destroy his remains but were thwarted by a miraculous hail storm which allowed the Coptic Christians to collect and bury his remains. The remains were stolen and interred in the Venice Cathedral in 828 CE. In 1970 Pope Paul VI returned Mark’s body to St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo.
The division of the Catholic and Coptic Christians occurred in 451 CE at the Fourth Ecumenical Council. One writer on religion defines the Coptic Church as:
The Church of Egypt, a more or less tolerated minority in Egypt since the coming of Islam in CE 642. The Church is ‘monophysite’, i.e. it rejects the teaching about the incarnation of Christ agreed at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
The decision of the Chalcedon Council was rejected by those who aligned themselves with the teachings of Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Despite the claim that the differences between the dissenters and the Council are semantic the Coptics remain apart from the Catholic Church. It is also reported that the Coptic Church has never officially believed in monophysitism the way it was portrayed in the Council. There are allegations that the claim of the Coptic monophysitism was set forth by those who wished to abolish the independent Egyptian Pope. The Coptic Church has continued since the division to search for reconciliation. Pope Shenuouda III had stated: “To the Coptic Church, faith is more important than anything, and others must know that semantics and terminology are of little importance to us.”
The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs brought relative peace to the Coptics, not acceptance, but some tolerance. One of the basic tenants of the Coptics is a separation of church and state abiding by Jesus’ guidance to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” For four centuries of rule the Islamists allowed the Coptics to practice their religion at the price of a special tax “Gezya.” Those who were unable to pay the tax were given the option of converting to Islam or death. With the second millennium the fortunes of the Coptics began to change as new rules were implemented that frustrated their practice of religion and limited the building of new churches and repairing old ones. The Gezya tax was finally lifted in 1855 and Coptics began serving in the Egyptian army. Since that time the Coptic’s numbers have increased both in Egypt and on other shores. The recently removed Mubarak regime seemed to have brought a period of hope for the Coptics that has been dashed.
The future of the Egyptian Coptic Church and Egypt itself is unclear.