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Ethnic Egyptian Christians — known as Copts, which derives from the Greek “Aigyptios,” meaning Egyptian — are proud of their ancient roots. They received the Gospel from St. Mark, who in the middle of the first century sowed the faith in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, second only to Rome in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Centuries before the ascendancy of the Arabs and Islam, Alexandrian Christianity blossomed. It provided the universal church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for Christianity’s explosive expansion in the Greco-Roman world. Alexandrian Christianity introduced the cenobitic and hermitic variants of monastic life and peopled the church with some of its greatest saints and scholars.

Demographics. Egypt occupies a choice position. It lies mainly in northeast Africa, but also includes the Sinai Peninsula. It controls the Suez Canal, which provides the shortest commercial shipping route between Asia and Europe.

About 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Though the state is secular, the central government champions Sunni orthodoxy and remains on guard for any signs of dissent, such as Shiism or Saudi-inspired fundamentalism. The government supports the country’s mosques (which number over 75,000) and selects the head of the preeminent center of Sunni learning in the world, Al Azhar University in Cairo.

The Copts today form the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Embracing more than 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 80.5 million, the Copts belong to three groups.

About 95 percent belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is led by Shenouda III, Pope and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark. This church developed independently after breaking communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Despite centuries of relative isolation and on-again off-again discrimination, the Coptic Orthodox Church has, since the middle of the last century, experienced a revival.

Other Copts belong to the Coptic Catholic or Coptic Evangelical churches. Other Christian communities are found mostly in the urban centers of Alexandria and Cairo. The largest is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Alexandria and All Africa, led by Theodoros II, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria. Others include the Anglican; Armenian Apostolic; Chaldean, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac Catholic; and Syriac Orthodox churches.

Sociopolitical situation. Modern Egypt was born when a military coup d’état in 1952 ousted King Farouk and the remnant of British imperial authority, which had controlled Egypt since the late 19th century. Shortly after the coup, its chief architect, Gamal Abdel Nasser, assumed power as president. Over the years of his long presidency (he died in 1970), Nasser initiated reforms that included the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the centralization of economic planning.

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Tags: Egypt Middle East Christians Emigration Coptic Orthodox Church Northeast Africa