ETHNONYM: Orthodox Coptic Christians
The Copts of Egypt are a religious minority (numbering about 6 million in Egypt) whose church they believe to have been founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist. The Coptic church is the ancient church of Egypt. Outside of Egypt, Coptic communities are found in Sudan (numbering some 100,000), the United States, Great Britain, and other European nations. The name "Copt" is derived from the Greek word "Aiguptioi" (Egyptians). The new faith engendered by Mark's teachings in the first century mingled with the beliefs of other sects, such as that of the Gnostics, and the customs and beliefs of the existing culture in Egypt in the centuries that followed. Biblical papyri and parchment codices found in Egypt provide evidence of the deep penetration of Christianity into Egypt in the early centuries after Christ's death. Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Byzantime Empire. In A . D . 313 Alexandria, in Egypt, became the seat of Christian theological studies, and it was there that the doctrines of what was an amorphous faith were formulated into a systematic theology.
Alexandria was the place where many of the doctrines of Christianity were defined and where the distinctions between Christianity and the Coptic church originated. Constantine inaugurated an ecumenical movement intended to combat heresy with the Council of Nicaea in 325. These and subsequent councils were controlled largely by the authority of Alexandria, and, therefore, the Coptic doctrine that the father (God) and the son (Christ) are of the same essence, and that Christ's divinity and humanity are unified, was confirmed. However, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when Egyptian bishops were in the minority, the Coptic position was condemned. From that point on, the role of the Coptic church in the Christian world was curtailed. Two parallel lines of developement ensued: one, Melchite and Byzantine, accepted the doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon; the other, native Coptic and nationalistic, held the so-called Monophysite interpretation of the nature of Christ.
The outcome of Chalcedon was immediately felt in Egypt. The Byzantine emperors, who aimed for unity within the church, forcibly imposed that unity on the Egyptian people. Persecution of the Copts for their heresy was initiated by the political, military, and ecclesiatical leaders of Alexandria. In opposition to these Greek dictates, the Copts elected their own national patriarch, who had to move from monastery to monastery to avoid pursuing Melchite legionnaires. Excessive taxation, humiliation, and torture were inflicted on the Egyptian Copts from 451 until the Arab conquest in 641.
Muslim rule brought new problems for the Copts and created a new barrier between the Christians of the East and those of the West. Initially, the Muslim minority generally accorded the Copts a certain status as good neighbors and honest civil servants, but an uprising in 830 left Christians in a minority in Egypt for the first time since the early days of Christianity, and from the ninth century onward the Copts were persecuted by their Muslim rulers. Churches were destroyed, books were burned, and church leaders were imprisoned or put to death. By the time the British had taken Egypt in 1882, the Copts had been reduced to only about 10 percent of the total population.
Two important Coptic traditions have survived centuries of history, and exist today as salient features of Coptic culture. The first is martyrdom and the other is monasticism. The martyrs are embedded in the Coptic calendar, which is dated from A . D . 284, in commemoration of the martyrs killed for practicing their faith. In that year, the Roman emperor Diocletian began a wave of persecution that left about 144,000 Egyptian Christians dead. It lasted until 311, when his successor declared an era of toleration. Today Copts begin a new year of the martyrs each 11 September, when they remember the defiance of the early martyrs who maintained their faith in the face of death.
Saint Anthony of Egypt is credited with initiating the strongest monastic movement in religious history. Anthony, following the admonitions of Matthew, sold all of his possessions and gave his money to the poor so that he would find treasure in heaven. He fled to the solitude of the eastern desert, where he practiced a life of austerity and the mortification of the flesh. Others followed his example, and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Somewhat later a converted Christian, Pachobius, modified monasticism by repudiating self-mortification but preserved the monastic vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience. There were numerous Pachomian monasteries, not only in Egypt but in many other places as well, and they took root in Europe by the fifth century A . D . Today the monks are the elite of the Coptic church and are symbols of sanctity as well as wielders of power.
Whereas Coptic monks are revered, Coptic clergy are not always well respected. Coptic priests perform baptisms, marriages, and burials and are given respect for those ritual acts, but the respect often ends there. Most Copts—especially educated Copts—have regarded priests as social inferiors or have been openly disdainful toward them. For the most part, priests and monks have been recruited from the lower classes. Sometimes a recurrent pattern emerges: because the clergy has little prestige, it has attracted recruits with low status, perpetuating the low status of the clergy. Those Copts with higher status tend to find positions in business and the professions.
The present population of the Copts is about 6,000,000 (Minority Rights Group 1990), but this figure may not be accurate because official census counts tend to underestimate their numbers and Coptic nationalists tend to overestimate their numbers.
Present-day Copts speak Arabic. Coptic, the liturgical language of the Coptic church, probably became extinct in the sixteenth century. Culturally, the Copts share many customs with other Egyptians and are found distributed through all layers of the social and economic fabric of Egyptian society. Although intermarriage with non-Copts is permitted, the Coptic church insists on the non-Coptic partner being rebaptized according to Coptic rites, and communion is not shared with non-Copts.
Since the early 1980s, the Copts have again suffered discrimination in Egypt: restrictions have been placed on their religious freedom, Coptic insitutions have been placed under government scrutiny, the role of Copts in the Egyptian government has been reduced, and Coptic communities have been attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. The response of the Coptic community in general has been peaceful, although a small segment seeks political autonomy and self-rule.
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