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Definition: Coptic Church from Philip's Encyclopedia

Largest Christian Church in Egypt. Its members form 5-10% of Egypt's population. Of ancient origin, the Copts trace the history of the church to Saint Mark. As a result of its Monophysite creed (denying the humanity of Christ), the Coptic Church was declared heretical by the Council of Chalcedon (451) and was isolated from other Christian Churches. The Arab conquest of Egypt brought mass conversion to Islam.


Summary Article: Coptic Christianity from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

The term Coptic Christianity refers to the various forms of Egyptian Christianity, in particular the Coptic Orthodox Church. Originally, the word Coptic, from the Greek Aigyptos (“Egyptian”), referred to Egyptians in general. However, as Islam became the dominant religion in Egypt, the term evolved to refer specifically to Egyptian Christians. Coptic is also the name of their liturgical language, a form of Egyptian written with Greek and Demotic characters. Of the 10-15 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world, the majority are still located in Egypt, with only 2 million spread out among various other countries.

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces itself back to the first century CE. According to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, St. Mark traveled to Egypt following Jesus’ death to preach the gospel and founded the Apostolic See of Alexandria. Over the following centuries, Alexandria became one of the most important centers of Christianity, producing key figures such as Athanasius, Cyril, Clement, and Origen. The Egyptian church also played an important role during the fourth century in determining which texts would be included in the Christian Old and New Testaments. Even Christian monasticism had its roots in Egypt, later spreading to other lands within the realm of Christianity.

Theological controversies within Christianity during the fourth and fifth centuries eventually led to a schism between the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Roman Catholic Church and even to a divide within Coptic Christianity itself. The Church of Alexandria split itself into two groups in 451 after a disagreement over Jesus’ human and divine nature. The majority of Egyptians followed the beliefs of what is now known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, under the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark, while others agreed doctrinally with the Roman and Byzantine Churches and formed what is now the Oriental Orthodox Church under the Greek Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa. Neither group recognized the other's authority, and both tried aggressively to gain the upper hand until Arabs invaded Egypt in 639 and brought the new Islamic faith with them. As Islam gained in popularity, Coptic Christianity waned, becoming the minority religion in Egypt by the ninth century. Under Muslim rule, Coptic Christians in Egypt faced targeted taxation and fluctuating periods of toleration and persecution, including the confiscation of church property, the destruction of churches and monasteries, and the removal of Coptic civil servants from office. Their situation began to improve in the 19th century under Muhammad Ali's dynasty but deteriorated again following political upheaval in the 1950s, and in many ways, Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to face marginalization in the second decade of the 21st century.

See also

Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Islamism (Political Islam), Roman Catholicism

Further Readings
  • Capuani, M. (2002). Christian Egypt: Coptic art and monuments through two millenia. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.
  • Kamil, J. (2002). Christianity in the land of the pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church. London: Routledge.
  • Ballmes, Victoria J.
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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