24 September 2015
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated in Ayia Zoni Orthodox Church in the Kipseli neighborhood
of Athens. (photo: Don Duncan)
Greece’s constitution opens with an invocation to the Holy Trinity and identifies the Orthodox Church of Greece as the “prevailing” faith community of the nation. This provision acknowledges the role of the church in the formation of the modern Greek state and its influence among the republic’s 10.7 million people, 98 percent of whom profess membership in the church.
Global calls for the elimination of this provision have intensified, especially since Greece joined the European Union in 1981. The statute has remained unaltered, however, despite two emendations since 1975.
While Orthodox Christianity assisted at the birth of modern Greece and has parented it for nearly two centuries, the Greek state actually created the Orthodox Church of Greece, thereby creating inherent church and state issues.
Christianity took root in the Greek-speaking world as the Roman Empire consolidated its hold on Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Romans imposed their own code of law, but permitted the vanquished Greeks a large degree of autonomy, eventually adopting the Greek culture as their own. “Captive Greece,” wrote the Roman poet Horace, “took captive her savage conqueror.”
Interior of the Orthodox cathedral in Phira, the capital of the Greek island of Santorini. (photo: George Martin)
The Apostle Paul’s work among the Athenians, Colossians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians and Thessalonians is well documented. Whether in the Roman provinces of Achaea, Epirus and Macedonia or in the diaspora of greater Greece, these Greek-speaking Christians formed urban communities that evolved into important centers of the Christian faith.
Paul’s churches embraced the culture of the Hellenistic world, which provided the philosophical and theological vocabulary necessary to help them define and interpret the teachings of Jesus Christ. As the church grew throughout the empire, a distinctly Greek school of theology developed alongside a Syriac school that was dominant among learned Semitic Christians.
Often understood as cosmopolitan, the Greek school eventually asserted its preeminence when the Roman emperor, Constantine I, moved his government east, from Rome to the small Greek port of Byzantion on the Bosporus in the year 330.
Officially christened “New Rome,” the imperial capital of Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) took on a distinct Christian identity after Theodosius I established Christianity as the state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire (or Byzantium) in 394. And though the inhabitants of Constantinople would proudly retain their Roman identity for more than 1,000 years, they would also understand themselves to be the heirs of the ancient Greeks.
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22 September 2015
Iraqi, Syrian and Ukrainian Catholics join Athens’ small Byzantine Catholic community for the Divine Liturgy at the neo-Byzantine Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. (photo: Marilyn Raschka)
At least one legacy remains in modern Greece of the Crusaders’ sack of the city of Constantinople in 1204 and their subsequent occupation of Greece: Most Catholics in Greece — some 50,000 people — are Greek-speakers who worship following the Latin rite of the Catholic communion of churches. However, as many as 6,000 people share the Byzantine rites of the dominant Orthodox Church and are in full communion with the pope.
Overwhelmed by the needs of refugees flooding Constantinople in the early 1920’s, Greek Catholic Bishop George Calavassy appealed to his friend, Father Paul Wattson, S.A., to raise awareness and funds in the United States on their behalf. Together, they helped found CNEWA. (photo: CNEWA)
No larger than a typical North American suburban parish, this church is sui juris, or autonomous, within the Catholic communion and is led by two apostolic exarchs, based in Athens and Istanbul, respectively.
If not for the humanitarian and pastoral works of one of its leaders, Bishop George Calavassy (1920-57), this church would barely merit a footnote in the annals of church history. For after the horrors in Asia Minor after World War I, this church and its bishop figured prominently in the care of Armenian, Assyro-Chaldean, Greek and Russian refugees then flooding the Turkish capital of Istanbul, prompting the foundation of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Read a full account of this fascinating history here.
18 September 2015
Assyro-Chaldean Christians attend a liturgy at the cathedral of St. John in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, to commemorate the election of a new catholicos-patriarch.
(photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
Today, in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, the synod of the Church of the East elected Mar Gewargis Sliwa as the new catholicos-patriarch. The patriarch-elect has served as metropolitan of Iraq since 1981 and succeeds Mar Dinkha IV, who died in March. One of the oldest churches in Christendom, the Church of the East has been centered between the Tigres and Euphrates rivers since receiving the faith from the Apostle Thomas.
After his consecration in Erbil on 27 September, Mar Gewargis III will return the see of the patriarchate to Iraq after a period of exile in the United States.
17 September 2015
An overflow crowd of Ukrainian Orthodox believers gathers for the Christmas liturgy in
Kosmach, Ukraine. (photo: Petro Didula)
Confusion characterizes Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine. Not one but three groups claim legitimacy as the national church of a land that traditionally identifies with Eastern Christianity.
Led by Metropolitan Onophry Berezovsky, the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate” is an autonomous jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Canonically, it is the only Orthodox jurisdiction recognized by the rest of the Orthodox world, maintaining the largest number of parishes in Ukraine (perhaps some 11,300). It prevails, however, in the country’s Russian-speaking areas in the central, southern and eastern portions of Ukraine, where religious identity is weakest. Church Slavonic is the predominant language used in the celebration of the sacraments.
The “Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kiev Patriarchate” is led by Patriarch Filaret. Once a rising star of the Moscow patriarchate, he was excommunicated for advocating a national and independent Orthodox church in Ukraine. According to the 2006 findings of the Razumkov Centre — a Ukrainian think tank — about half of the Ukrainians who claim a religious affiliation belong to this community, which uses both Church Slavonic and modern Ukrainian in the celebration of the sacraments. Since the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, the Kiev Patriarchate has grown at the expense of the church associated with the Moscow Patriarchate, which is considered pro-Russian.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, his wife Maryna and son Mykhailo, light candles on 23 August as they attend a service in the mother church of Ukraine, the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Kiev, commemorating Ukrainian Independence Day. (photo: CNS/Mikhail Palinchak, pool via EPA)
The “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church” is the smallest of the three Orthodox bodies. It is led by Metropolitan Makariy Maletych, who formerly led an eparchy in the western city of Lviv, which is the epicenter of Ukrainian nationalism and where the church of three million is strongest. This community, which also uses Church Slavonic and modern Ukrainian in the liturgy, is in active dialogue with the Kiev Patriarchate seeking unification.
In its well-regarded survey on religious affiliation in Ukraine, the Razumkov Centre found more than 62 percent of the country’s 44 million people did not declare any membership in any of the churches listed above. The authors report that, while many who did not self-identify with any group were Orthodox Christian, most were unaware either of the issues or of the divisions embroiling Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
Why then this schism among Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians? In short, the polarization of the Ukrainian church reflects questions of Ukrainian identity and of Ukraine’s relationship to its domineering neighbor to the east, Russia, with which it now finds itself at war.
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15 September 2015
Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, major archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, greets the mother of a deceased soldier in July 2015. (photo: John E. Kozar)
“Reborn” and “renascent” are frequently used to describe the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. While such adjectives may describe correctly the situation of the church in Ukraine since it resurfaced from the catacombs of the Soviet Union, they fail to describe the circumstances for the entire church, which has flourished in the Americas, Oceania and Western Europe for up to a century. No longer the faith community of a central European people, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a worldwide body bonded by tradition and perseverance.
Modern Ukrainians share the same origins as Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns and Russians, all of whom regard the realm of the Kievan Rus’ as their own.
In the ninth century, the Varangians — a Scandinavian tribe known for their ferocity and piracy — swept into central Europe, settling among and intermarrying with the Eastern Slavic natives. Collectively called the Rus’, they established towns along the Dnieper, Dniester and Don rivers, asserted control of the trade routes from the Baltic to the Black seas and developed uneasy commercial relations with Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire, commonly known as Byzantium.
A young man is ordained a priest in the Church of the Transfiguration in Kolomyja, Ukraine. (photo: Petro Didula)
One such town, Kiev, became dominant and its leader took on the title of grand prince. The grand prince controlled the city and its surroundings, while Rusyn relatives scattered from Novgorod (a city near modern St. Petersburg) to Halych (now a town in southwestern Ukraine) swore him allegiance.
According to the 12th-century Rus’ Chronicles, Grand Prince Vladimir I (956-1015), eager to abandon the polytheistic beliefs of his people, sent out emissaries to learn about Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But Christianity as practiced in Byzantium had the edge: Olga (879-969), Vladimir’s grandmother, had embraced Christianity while in Constantinople. But Olga had failed to instruct her son or her people in the Byzantine Christian faith.
Another likely source for Vladimir’s interest in Byzantine Christianity was the work of two missionary brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Charged by the patriarch of Constantinople to work among the Slavs of Moravia (862), the brothers created a Slavonic alphabet, translated scriptural works into Slavonic and introduced a Slavonic liturgy based on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. While the disciples of Sts. Cyril and Methodius were later banished from Moravia, they established Byzantine Christianity among the Southern Slavs and Bulgars of the Bulgarian kingdom. Buttressed by this church, the Bulgarian state developed into a powerful empire that rivaled Byzantium and Kiev.
Ultimately, it may have been Vladimir’s interest in an alliance with Byzantium that led to his baptism in the Byzantine tradition. Yet the Rus’ Chronicles credit the Divine Liturgy, as celebrated in Constantinople’s Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), as the inspiration for Vladimir’s acceptance in 988 of Byzantine Christianity: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” the annals record the emissaries as saying, “surely God dwells with the Greeks [as the Byzantines were known].”
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10 September 2015
Steeped in legend, Etchmiadzin Cathedral in Armenia is the mother church of the
Armenian people. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Thousands of tribes and peoples litter the pages of world history. Most have distinguished themselves as conquerors or settlers, eventually passing from the scene and leaving behind as their legacy a tablet, a ruin or a reputation. The Armenians, whose ancient homeland now encompasses eastern Turkey, parts of the Caucasus and northwestern Iran, have endured for more than 3,000 years — despite the challenges of living along the East-West trade routes. Squeezed between Asia and Europe, Armenians have outlived more powerful neighbors, who repeatedly and relentlessly sought to subjugate and even obliterate them.
How have the Armenians survived, when far more powerful peoples — Romans and Parthians, Byzantines and Ottomans — vanished? Most historians would credit the resolve and resourcefulness of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a powerful faith community that has either defined or impacted all aspects of Armenian society, language and culture.
Incontestably, Armenia was the first nation to adopt the Christian faith. A Roman scribe, known to history as Agathangelos, recorded the events of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of King Tiridates III based on contemporary sources more than a century after the deaths of the principals. What is not documented, however, is the origin of Armenian Christianity. Ancient tradition credits the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus as the source of the Christian faith in Armenia. Armenian Christian familiarity with Syriac and Greek Christian customs — before the era of Gregory — point to Armenia’s links to the ancient churches of the eastern Mediterranean.
Sunday morning liturgy is celebrated at St. James Monastery in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Armenian Christianity prospered, charting its own course as it navigated the troubled waters of neighboring Byzantium and Persia. This quest for independence did not, however, require the severance of commercial or cultural relationships with the Christian Byzantines or the Muslim world. For centuries, trade flourished. Byzantine emperors and Muslim leaders employed Armenian scribes. Armenians engineered defense systems and restored the dome of Haghia Sophia, the Great Church of Eastern Christendom. The medieval Armenian capital city of Ani — now a ghostly ruin just inside Turkey’s border with Armenia — demonstrates the architectural sophistication and artistic wealth of medieval Armenia. Described in contemporary chronicles as the “city of a 1001 churches,” Ani’s surviving churches are technical wonders, utilizing architectural devices — such as blind arcades and ribbed vaults — that would later support Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. Surviving frescoes and sculpted panels depicting kings and catholicoi, saints and angels, birds and crosses, reveal Arab, Byzantine, classical Greek and Persian influences.
Even after the Ottoman Turks supplanted the Byzantines, capturing Constantinople in 1453, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire thrived well into the modern era. Armenian catholicoi, patriarchs and bishops guided their eparchies, which until the eve of World War I numbered 52. But the rise of national movements throughout 19th-century Europe, which began in Ottoman provinces in the Balkans, significantly altered the position of the empire’s Christian minorities, especially its Armenians.
The empire’s Armenian communities, whose aspirations were nominally supported by France, Great Britain and Russia, were violently targeted, beginning with isolated pogroms in 1894 and 1895. Eventually, these incidents spread throughout the empire, fueled after the Ottoman Turks entered World War I as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary. By 1923, some 1.5 million Armenians perished in what many today call the Armenian Genocide. Those who survived, perhaps a quarter of a million people, fled to Lebanon and Syria.
Click here to learn more about this church, and how it has survived the violence of the last century.
8 September 2015
Maaloula is the one Syriac–speaking Christian village that survives in modern Syria.
(photo: Mitchell Prothero)
Just five years ago, the eastern Mediterranean was littered with sleepy provincial towns and archaeological ruins that obscured a glorious past. But in the last few years, in its genocidal march through what was once the commercial, cultural and political heart of antiquity, ISIS has laid waste to huge swaths of territory, killing and maiming human life even as it destroys humanity’s common patrimony.
The center of the East (as understood by the Romans) was Antioch, today a provincial city of 150,000 people in the southern Turkish province of Hatay. In antiquity, however, Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria and, at its height in the first century A.D., home to more than 500,000 people.
Inhabited by Greeks and Jews, Macedonians and Syrians, Phoenicians and Nabataeans, Roman Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Greco-Roman era. Those who lived in Syria’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus.
A sophisticated city, Roman Antioch proved to be fertile ground for new ideas, philosophies and faiths, such as the teachings of Jesus. Many of these new ideas faded, but Christianity took root and flourished.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, believers fleeing the persecution of the Jewish authorities brought the Gospel to Antioch. These disciples worked among Jews and Gentiles and built up a community of believers. Barnabas and Paul nurtured it further and, around A.D. 44, Peter settled there, directing the life of the church for seven years before leaving for Rome. In time, this community achieved an identity. Again, according to Acts, “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”
This image from May 2014 shows damaged icons in the ancient monastery of St. Thecla in Maaloula — a sign of the recent destruction scarring the region’s glorious past. (photo: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
And it boomed. For the next 500 years, the Antiochene church fostered anchorites (Maron, Simeon Stylites), bishop martyrs (Babylas, Ignatius), poets (Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist), scholars (Flavian, Theodoret of Cyr, Theophilus) and theologians (John Chrysostom, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia). And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.
The bishops of Antioch also assumed leadership among the bishops of the East, who increasingly referred to the Antiochene prelates as “patriarchs,” a title of honor once reserved in the Old Testament for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob and King David. Increasingly, Antioch’s patriarchs governed a mighty church that stretched beyond the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire into India.
But the unity of the church of Antioch crumbled as cultural, linguistic and theological nuances took on political associations. Antioch had begun to decline long before its conquest by Muslim Arabs in 638. Earthquakes in the fifth and sixth centuries devastated the city, killing many and driving others away. After the Arabs took the city, the region’s Syriac-speaking Christian community prospered. After more than three centuries of stability under the Arabs, however, war occupation and natural disaster nearly finished the city of Antioch. By 1517, when the Ottoman Turks captured Antioch, its walls sheltered fewer than 300 inhabited houses, almost all Muslim Turks.
Christian merchants had long since left.
In 1034, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch of Antioch settled in a monastery in southeastern Asia Minor. In the late 14th century, the Melkite patriarch of Antioch settled in Damascus. Both patriarchates, though no longer centered in Antioch, remained of Antioch. Today, both retain the name of the ancient city as the name of their respective sees; yet, they live in the same quarter in the besieged Syrian capital of Damascus.
To learn more about this church, centered in what remains of Syria, click here.
3 September 2015
The faithful celebrate the liturgy at the Church of St. Nicholas in Kampala, Uganda.
(photo: Tugela Ridley)
African Christianity has apostolic roots. St. Mark the Evangelist brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria — second only to Rome in the ancient world — and established a church there as early as A.D. 42.
Though sporadically persecuted by the Romans — Mark died a martyr’s death around A.D. 67 — the Alexandrian church blossomed. It provided the universal church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for its explosive expansion, introduced variants of monastic life and peopled the Christendom with some of its greatest saints and scholars.
The Alexandrian church was not confined to cosmopolitan Alexandria. Its bishops, who still hold the title of “pope and patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa,” had jurisdiction throughout the African continent: the churches of Eritrea and Ethiopia, for example, are daughter churches.
But as the Egyptian church grew, cultural and linguistic differences — especially between the Copts and Greeks — divided the church. Rival parties struggled to secure the papal see of Alexandria. Finally, in 567, the Byzantine emperor recognized two claimants: the Copt, to whom the vast majority of Egypt’s Christians owed allegiance, and the Melkite (from the Syriac, meaning of the king), who led the Greek-speaking minority.
People approach St. George Orthodox Church in Cairo. (photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
Scholars believe that by the eve of the Muslim Arab invasion in 641, Alexandrian Christians included up to 18 million Copts and some 200,000 Melkites, mostly Greek-speaking bureaucrats, merchants and soldiers. Both churches used the distinctive rites of the Alexandrian church. The Copts, however, adapted these liturgies for monastic use, which survive to this day. Eventually, the Greek-speaking church replaced these ancient rites with those from the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.
After the Arab Muslim occupation of northern Africa, Egypt’s Greek-speaking Christians suffered for their loyalty to Byzantium. Their numbers declined. Until the middle of the 19th century, most of the Greek Orthodox men who held the title of pope and patriarch of Alexandria lived in Constantinople and were appointed by the ecumenical patriarch.
Yet in the 19th century, the situation changed as Orthodox Christians from Greece, Lebanon and Syria began to settle in cities throughout the African continent. There, they built churches as their communities grew in size and wealth. The port city of Alexandria drew tens of thousands of Orthodox emigrants, particularly as Egypt won a form of autonomy from Great Britain. By the 20th century, the British estimated that nearly 200,000 Greeks lived in Egypt. Flush with assets, the Greek Orthodox popes and patriarchs of Alexandria gained considerable influence in Egypt and beyond.
Until the middle of the 20th century, Orthodoxy’s reach throughout “All Africa” ended at the Sahara. The story of how it penetrated the continent, to Kenya and Uganda in particular, is not the familiar one of European missionaries and colonizers. Rather, it began as a spontaneous movement by African Christians seeking a form of Christianity untainted by European colonization with roots in the early church.
To learn more about this African church, click here.
1 September 2015
Syriac Catholics, most of them Iraqi refugees, receive communion at a Divine Liturgy in a makeshift church in Amman, Jordan. (photo: Cory Eldridge)
As with most Christian communities of the Middle East, the Syriac Catholic Church has suffered severely as the region’s stability has deteriorated in the last 100 years or so. During Iraq’s civil war (2006-2007), thousands fled the violence in Baghdad and Mosul, where they had once enjoyed relative prosperity. The displaced found security in their remote ancestral villages near ancient Nineveh.
Now, these once proud centers of the church — the source of many of its vocations to the priesthood and religious life — have been lost, too, as Islamic extremists invaded the Nineveh Plain in August 2014, displacing more than 100,000 Christians, as well as Yazidis and other minorities. Civil war in Syria has uprooted thousands more, while economic stagnation and political uncertainty in Egypt and Lebanon have encouraged some Syriac Catholic families to emigrate to the West.
A small church, numbering about 207,000 people worldwide, the Syriac Catholic Church somehow endures, despite the repeated conflicts and cycles of persecution in the last 120 years.
Together with the much larger Syriac Orthodox Church (which numbers some 4.2 million people, including 3.7 million in India), the Syriac Catholic Church shares in the heritage of the Syrian city of Antioch, the political and socioeconomic center of the eastern Mediterranean in the ancient world. Though inhabited by a diverse population — Greeks and Macedonians, Romans and Jews, Syrians and Nabateans — Antioch was culturally Hellenic and its lingua franca, Greek. But those who lived in Syria’s rural interior spoke Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic nurtured in the city of Edessa.
Parishioners pray at Our Lady of Deliverance Church in central Baghdad on 7 November 2010. Just a week earlier, 46 worshipers were massacred during the celebration of the Liturgy. (photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
In the seventh century, Syriac Christians generally welcomed the invading Muslim Arabs, who accepted them as “People of the Book.” Syriac Christianity flourished. Poets composed hymns that simplified complex ideas. Scholars translated ancient Greek texts and wrote biblical commentaries. Monks explored grammar, medicine, philosophy, rhetoric and science. Theologians and poets continued the tradition of creating liturgies, borrowing elements from the Byzantine and other traditions.
Arab Muslim leaders employed Syriac scholars, who were largely responsible for the Arab world’s familiarity with ancient Greek astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and philosophy — disciplines that eventually reached Europe via Arab Sicily and Spain.
In the 18th century, a renewed Catholic presence in the Middle East, bolstered by the presence of French and Italian missionaries, formed a Catholic community within the Syriac Orthodox Church. The growth of this new church ended, however, as the long and painful decline of the Ottoman Turkish Empire coincided with the rise of European colonial ambitions. Suspicious of collusion, the Ottomans murdered more than 25,000 Syriac Christians between 1895 and 1896.
During World War I, the Christian subjects of the Ottoman sultan were caught between two opposing cultures — their Sunni Muslim superiors and the Allied “Christian” powers of Great Britain, France and Russia, which encouraged separatist movements. The consequences were grave. Hundreds of thousands were killed, including some 50,000 Syriac Catholics and six of the church’s bishops. Survivors, including the patriarch, sought refuge in cities, especially Beirut, which remains the seat of the Syriac Catholic patriarchate.
Click here for a full account from the pages of ONE magazine.
27 August 2015
Near Alexandria, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word care for orphaned or disadvantaged children from Egypt’s large Coptic Christian community. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Egyptian Christians — known as Copts, a derivative of the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian — are proud of their ancient roots. They received the Gospel from St. Mark the Evangelist, who brought the faith to the city of Alexandria, second only to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world. There, he died a martyr’s death around the year 67.
The evangelist extended his activity beyond the city’s prosperous Jewish community. He called for the city’s populace, mainly Copts and Greeks, to adopt “the way,” the early Christian description for discipleship in Jesus Christ.
Mark sowed the Christian seed on fertile ground. Centuries before the Arab advent in the eastern Mediterranean, and with it the rise of Islam, Egyptian Christianity blossomed. It provided the church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for its explosive expansion in the Greco-Roman world, introduced monastic life and peopled the universal church with some of its greatest saints and scholars, including Pantaenus, Clement, Origen, Anthony, Macarius, Didymus, Athanasius, Arius, Cyril and Dioscorus.
The Coptic Catholic Church offers a wide variety of assistance to people with special needs, including those with addictions. (photo: Shawn Baldwin)
The Copts today form the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Embracing an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 88.5 million, the Copts belong to three groups. The majority belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church. This church developed independently, breaking communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople, after the Council of Chalcedon (451) attempted to solve the Christological clashes of the early church. Despite centuries of relative isolation and on-again off-again discrimination or persecution, the Coptic Orthodox Church is experiencing a revival.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, European and North American missionaries — Catholic and reformed — competed for influence among the Orthodox Copts, especially after their evangelical efforts among Muslims failed. The goals of these missionaries — to educate the largely illiterate laity, bolster the formation of the clergy and work for the reunion of the churches — were well intended. But their efforts splintered the Coptic Orthodox Church, eventually forming Coptic Catholic and Coptic Evangelical communities.
In the first decades after Vatican II, the Coptic Catholic Church grew considerably. Much of this growth may be attributed to the many social service activities of the Coptic and Roman (Latin-rite) Catholic churches. These include schools (more than 100 parishes sponsor primary and secondary schools), orphanages, clinics and medical dispensaries. Most of these institutions are located in the poorest and remotest villages of the Nile Valley, which remains the center of Coptic Catholic life.
And while for decades relations between the Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic churches had been frosty, the rise of militant Islam and its violent targeting of all Christians has now united all Copts, highlighting what they hold in common: their faith in Christ.
Click here for more on the Coptic Catholic Church from the pages of ONE magazine.