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The Coptic Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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 apostolic activity beyond the city’s prosperous Jewish community. He called for the city’s 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 the cenobitic and hermitic variants of 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 Copts today form the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Embracing an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80.3 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.

For several reasons, including immigration and the accrual of more accurate statistics, the accounting of Catholic Copts has fluctuated recently. According to the 2007 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the annual yearbook of the Holy See, there are 161,327 Coptic Catholics in seven eparchies in Egypt, down from 265,500 in 2006. Today, these Catholics are led by the former bishop of Minya, Antonios Naguib, who was elected patriarch in March 2006.

Catholic missionary activities. The ascent of Latin Catholic Europe, coupled with the advance of Islam and the decline of Eastern Christian Byzantium, hardened the divorce between the Latin West and the Christian East. Efforts to restore the full unity of the church took place in councils in Lyon in 1274 and Florence in 1439. But these efforts failed: The papacy typically offered economic and political support as the reward for reunion, support welcomed by beleaguered monarchs and hierarchs, but largely rejected by the rank and file.

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