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Ancient Roots Modern Church: The Orthodox Copts

by Elena Serocki

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According to tradition, Christianity was brought to Egypt in 48 A.D. when St. Mark the Evangelist came to Alexandria to convert the Egyptians and establish a Church there.

St. Mark’s first convert is said to be a Jewish shoemaker named Annianus. After Mark miraculously healed him of a wound, Annianus and his family accepted the faith and were baptized shortly afterwards. Others in Alexandria were soon converted, and Annianus’ house became the first church in the city. The Egyptian Christians came to be called “Copts,” from the Greek word aigyptos, meaning “Egypt.”

St. Mark established the Catechetical School in Alexandria which became the intellectual and spiritual center of the Christian world. Among its great scholars and saints were Clement, Origen, Cyril and Athanasius. The Church in Alexandria, however, separated from the Roman Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The disagreement centered upon the person and natures of Jesus Christ. Catholics accepted the statement of the Council that Christ has two natures, human and divine, but the Church of Alexandria disputed the wording of the statement. Misunderstanding flared into argument. At first the problem was one of semantics and not of faith; the Copts believe that Jesus Christ is both human and divine. But the problem was not resolved; instead, it grew into a controversy over doctrine. As a result, a schism took place between the Coptic and other Oriental Churches and the Church of Rome.

After the schism the Copts were persecuted, especially by the Melkite Catholics, until the Muslims conquered Egypt in 627. Copts enjoyed only a brief period of religious freedom under the Muslims, who eventually tried to convert them to Islam. Even in the face of persecution, however, the Copts held tenaciously to their faith.

During the Crusades, the Franciscans established a house in Alexandria and in Old Cairo and the Copts again had contact with the Holy See. Some Coptic Church members signed an act of union at the Council of Florence (1438-1445) acknowledging the primacy of the Pope, but the act was never effective. The separation remained between the Church in Rome and the Copts.

There is, however, a Coptic Catholic Church with approximately 76,000 members. Catholic Copts are united to Rome in faith, acknowledging the authority of the Pope, but they follow the customs and ritual of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Traditional Coptic church architecture is similar to the Byzantine style. The interior of the church is divided into four sections: the sanctuary (separated from the rest of the church by a wooden screen called the iconostasis), the choir, the nave, and the narthex, or vestibule. An altar covered with a silken cloth stands in the middle of the sanctuary; some churches also have one or two altars in the side sanctuaries. In some Coptic churches, men and women may sit together in one part of the nave, but another section is reserved exclusively for women.

Coptic churches do not use statues. They are decorated instead with colorful icons on the iconostasis and on the walls.

The Coptic liturgy is stately and proceeds very slowly. Hymns and chants are sung in Arabic or Coptic, sometimes accompanied by cymbals and triangles. The priest’s vestments are very colorful.

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