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The Coptic Orthodox Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself, predating Islam and the Arab invasion of the country by six centuries. But for Egypt’s six million Christians, social inequity is increasingly a fact of daily life. Egyptian Christian leaders prefer not to call too much attention to the injustices or the occasional acts of violence; most Egyptian Christians, or Copts (a derivative of the Greek word, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian), live side by side with their Muslim neighbors, particularly in the country’s densely populated cities. They do not isolate themselves in quarters delineated by stone walls; Copts are an integral part of Egyptian life.

Despite 15 centuries marked by periods of persecution and peace, the Coptic Orthodox Church, which embraces more than 93 percent of all Coptic Christians, thrives. Churches are packed with young and old; ancient monasteries flourish with monks and nuns; social outreach programs touch the needy and catechetical programs instill values and a sense of identity for the young – who are increasingly emigrating to the West.

Life of the early church. St. Mark the Evangelist, disciple of the Apostle Peter, brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria – second only to Rome in the ancient world – establishing a church among the Jewish, Greek and native Egyptian communities as early as the year 42.

Though sporadically persecuted by the Romans, the Alexandrian Church grew quickly. By the early third century, its reputation as the primary center of learning, biblical scholarship and theological exploration was unchallenged in the Christian world. Founded by the scholar Pantaenus around 180, the Catechetical School of Alexandria, which also included studies in philosophy, science and mathematics, was led by such influential thinkers as St. Clement (died around 211), Origen (died around 251) and Didymus the Blind (whose life spanned most of the fourth century), a teacher of the great church father, St. Jerome (died 420).

The Alexandrian Church was not confined to the cosmopolitan environment of Alexandria – Christian remains dating to the mid-second century have been found throughout Middle and Upper Egypt. Many Alexandrian Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer and contemplation, fled to the desert and uninhabited hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. Some of these men and women, such as St. Anthony the Great (251-356) and St. Macarius (300-390), inspired hundreds of followers eager to pursue a life of constant prayer, in which even ordinary acts of life, such as eating, were seen as invitations to pray.

It was St. Pachomius (died 345), a follower of Anthony, who first grouped these men and women into monastic communities. This Christian monastic tradition eventually spread to Asia Minor and Syria in the fourth century and to the West in the early sixth century. Several of these monasteries – four located in Wadi Natrun, a valley in Egypt’s Western Desert, and two in the Eastern Desert – remain active centers of Coptic spirituality and learning as well as popular pilgrimage destinations.

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Tags: Egypt Church history Coptic Orthodox Church