History of The Coptic Church
Blessed is egypt my people (Isaiah 19:25)
The Coptic Church is the Egyptian Church, Copt and aygipt are the same word. The Coptic Church began its history as established by St. Mark the Evangelist in the first century of Christianity. It is now more than nineteen centuries old. We notice that In the Old Testament we have a prophesy concerning the Coptic Church. As it is written in the Book of Isaiah the prophet, Chapter 19, “there will be an altar in the midst of Egypt.” Why did our Lord choose Egypt for His altar? That is something special.
Egypt was a land of civilization and great history. Its civilization began more than 3,000 years before Christ. The Bible references key people that visited Egypt enriching its civilization. Some of these key figures are:
1) Moses, the prophet, who was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. 2) Abraham, the father of fathers; 3) Jacob; 4) Joseph, Jacob’s son; 5) the twelve tribes of Israel; 6) Jeremiah, and others. The crowning point of the sojourns was the visit of the 7) Holy Family at the beginning of Christianity during the childhood of our Lord.
Egypt was blessed by the visit of our Lord, and it was the only country in the world, except for His birth-land, that our Lord visited. Many miracles took place there during the visit of the Holy Family and many places were blessed. Many churches have been built in the places where the Holy Family lived. These churches are holy places visited by people from all over the world.
THE COPTIC CHURCH AS AN APOSTOLIC CHURCH
The Church of Egypt was established by St. Mark the Evangelist in the year 56 AD. His martyrdom also took place in Egypt in 68 AD and the first church was built in Alexandria at the beginning of the second half of the first century.
The Church of Alexandria, that is the Coptic Church, is one of the four most ancient churches in the world. The mother church of Christianity is the Church of Jerusalem, where Christianity began. The other three churches are the Church of Alexandria, the Church of Rome, and the Church of Antioch. The Church of Ephesus was established by St. John the Evangelist, and the Church of Constantinople was founded in the 4th century.
THE SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA
The School of Alexandria was established by St. Mark in the first century, and thus our Coptic Church was concerned with Christian education from the very beginning of its foundation. The school became very famous in theology, dogmas, history and patrology, instructing many prominent bishops from many areas of the world. It produced scholars such as Athenagoras Pantaenus, Clement, and the great Origenus, who was considered the father of theology and was also active in the field of commentary on Biblical studies. The question and answer method of commentary began in Egypt. It was said that Origenus composed more that 6,000 commentaries on the Bible. In addition to this, he wrote his Hexapla, in which six columns are written in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. He was also responsible for all the translations of his time. St. Didymus the Blind was also associated with the School of Alexandria, heading it at the time of St. Athanasius, the Pope of Alexandria. As a blind man, he learned to read and write using carved wood, fifteen centuries before Braille. St. Jerome once visited St. Didymus, and although he himself was a fine scholar, he wished that he had the time for extensive study with St. Didymus. St. Jerome said to St. Didymus the Blind “Don’t worry and don’t be sad, as you have lost this eyesight in which animals and even the insects share. But remember that you have divine eyesight, with which you can see the light of divinity.”
From the beginning, the Coptic church played a role in Christian archeology. It produced thousands of texts, biblical and theological studies which are important resources for archeology. The Holy Bible was translated into the Coptic language in the second century. Hundreds of scribes used to write copies of the Bible and other liturgical and theological books. Now libraries, museums and universities throughout the world can obtain hundreds and thousands of Coptic manuscripts. It was said that there were about 400 scribes in the monastery of Abba Pishoy in Wadi-El Natrun in the Western Desert of Egypt where 2,400 monks lived at that time.
THE HEROES OF FAITH
When St. Athanasius was only a deacon, he led theological arguments and discussions in the First Ecumenical Council, Nicea I, held in 325 A.D. He was the sole author of the Christian Creed. As a deacon of the Coptic Church, he was the intellectual and spiritual leader of the 318 bishops who were members of the Nicea Ecumenical Council. Four years later, he became the Pope of Alexandria and devoted his life of maintaining and defending the divinity of our Lord. St. Athanasius was the Egyptian hero or faith who defended the divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in his famous four volume work, Contra Arianus. St. Jerome said that if this work had not been written, the whole world would have fallen into Arianism. St. Athanasius was exiled four times because of his views, and he went from country to country, from continent to continent to get the support of the bishops and holy synods to maintain the faith and explain the divinity of our Lord. St. Athanasius was exiled for a fifth time, but the Emperor was not able to carry out the order. Tens of thousands of church members crowded around the Papal residence and said to the commander of the soldiers, “You cannot take our Pope unless you kill every man here.” St. Athanasius was reinstated to the See of St. Mark. When any Christian in the world states that our Lord Jesus Christ is God, he should remember St. Athanasius.
Under the authority of the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople (as opposed to the Western Empire of Rome), the patriarchs and popes of Alexandria played leading roles in Christian theology. They were invited everywhere to speak about the Christian faith. St. Cyril, Pope of Alexandria, was the head of Ecumenical Council which was held in Ephesus in the year 430.
THE COPTIC CHURCH, AND THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON
The Coptic Church was misunderstood at the council of Chaicedon which was held in the middle of the 5th century. Perhaps the bishops of the Council understood the Church correctly, but they wanted to exile the Church to isolate it and to abolish the Egyptian Patriarchate for political reasons. The Coptic Church was accused of following the teachings of Eutyches, who believed in monophysitism. This doctrine maintains that the Lord has only one nature, the divine, not two natures, the human as well as the divine. How do the Copts explain the two natures of our Lord? We believe that He is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity are united in one nature, which we call “the nature of the incarnate word.” We believe that His divinity never parted from His humanity not an instant nor a twinkle of an eye. The unity of His divinity and His humanity is perfect, yet without mingling confusion or alteration. This was reiterated by St. Cyril of Alexandria. To the Coptic Church, faith is more important than anything and that others must know semantics and terminology are of little importance to us. St. Dioscorus of Alexandria was sent into exile and the political motives of the Council of Chalcedon became apparent when the Emperor Marcianus interfered with matters of faith in the church. St. Dioscorus told the Emperor, “You have nothing to do with the Church,” and in the year 45l, the Coptic Church established its independence, but has remained very strict and steadfast in its faith.
Our people in Egypt were persecuted by their brothers for believing in the two natures of Christ during the years between 451, the year of the Council of Chalcedon, until 641, when Islam entered Egypt. Many thousands of people were killed. It was a tearful time, and our popes were exiled. They went from place to place to strengthen the faith of their people, and they succeeded in keeping the faith. When Islam entered Egypt, the 38th Pope of Alexandria, Benjamin the First, had been in exile for about 13 years. Many of the Popes of Alexandria were forbidden from praying in their churches and were persecuted for being monophysites.
THE MEANING OF CARRYING THE CROSS IN THE COPTIC CHURCH
Among the greatest glories of the Coptic Church of Alexandria is its Cross. By this I mean the willingness of the Copts to accept persecutions, hardships, and sufferings for Christ who said, “if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) The Coptic Church carried the Cross all through its history from the time of St. Mark through every generation of Christianity. The Church has remained steadfast and unchanging in its faith up to this time.
THE COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH AND THE MONASTIC LIFE
Egyptian monasticism entailed a life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship, and purity of heart. Monks had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God alone. They lived a calm and quiet life abiding in the Lord. They were detached from everything. Every man was bound to the Lord alone.
The Church of Alexandria was the source of monasticism which began during the last years of the third century and flourished in the fourth century. St. Anthony (251-356 AD), the world’s first monk, was a Copt from Upper Egypt. St. Bachomius (292-348), the founder of the cenobitical system of Monasticism, was also a Copt. He was an Egyptian soldier in the roman Army who converted to Christianity after the compassionate treament he got from the christians of diospolis (modern day Esna in Upper Egypt). He became a disciple of St. Palemon, and later established many monastries for monks and nuns with more than 8000 disciples. When St. Athanasius visited him and tried to ordain him priest, he refused. He performed many miracles during his life and after his departure. His main monastry in modern day Edfu, upper Egypt is very active today
The Development of the Monastic Forms
1. In the Apostolic age, many believers practiced asceticism, seeking the perfection of the Gospel, but without withdrawal of their family or community.
2. The eschatological attitude of the church reflected the believers eager longing for their Bridegroom’s advent, thus lived in virginity and devoted all their time for worshipping, as a spiritual preparation for the heavenly wedding feast.
3. Some felt they were in need not only to live as virgins, but to be in a spiritual atmosphere. Men preferred to leave the cities and live in simple huts in villages. They were called ‘devotees’ as the word ‘monk’ was unknown. ‘They lived on their own orders.
4. Then, St. Anthony outlined the pattern of the anchoretic life.
Monasticism flourished in Egypt. There were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian deserts.
Among the founders of monasticism were St. Macanus of Egypt (300-390 AD) and St. Shenouti the Arch, mandrite (348-466 AD) who accompanied St. Cyril of Alexandria to the third canonical Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. The great St. Pishoy, whom God appeared to several times, was born in 320 AD, became a monk at the age of twenty, and departed during the first half of the fifth century (417 AD). John Cassian, the founder of the monastic life in France in the first half of the 5th century, said that a person traveling from Alexandria in the north to Luxorin the south could hear the monks, hermits, and anchorites praying and singing hymns in the deserts, monasteries, and caves along the entire route.
The world’s first anchorite was St. Paul, the Egyptian hermit. He lived without seeing the face of any man for about eighty years.
The news spread about their spiritual life, which sought a true homeland in Heaven. This is what we have inherited from our fathers; the first church in Alexandria inherited the glory of civilized Egypt, and we have inherited the glory of the Church of our fathers.
THE COPTIC CHURCH TODAY
The church has gone through difficult times to get where it is at the present time. There are many generations when our Church suffered weakness and isolation, but it enjoyed a real revival during the last years of the 19th century. There are two reasons for this revival: The first is the re-establishment of the Theological College in 1893. It began its new history with five students, one of whom became the president of the college. The second reason is the activity of the Sunday schools, which provide pastoral care for our children from the very beginning or their lives. We now have tens of thousands of Sunday School teachers – young men and women, all of whom are volunteers. There is no age limit for Sunday school students or teachers and young people may either study in classes or teach them.
Example: In one church in Shubra, one of the districts or Cairo, there are 155 Sunday School teachers teaching more than 120 classes. How could we find room for 120 classes? We use all the rooms in the church, even administrative rooms, the meeting rooms, the library, the kitchen – any room. We also use the rooms of the Coptic societies around the church.
We teach our children on Sunday and Friday which are the days off in Islamic countries. Every day there are classes at 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00. Hundreds of boys come in and go out all the time on Sundays and Fridays. We have classes on Wednesday for young women and classes on Thursday for young men. We teach our children not only to have Christian knowledge, but to experience God’s love as well. After the students of Sunday schools become Teachers, they also remain as students in higher classes in order to take refresher courses which remind them that they have not advanced beyond discipleship. We also have pastoral care for the Christian students in the university. The revival of Sunday school teaching in our Church has helped prevent deep problems with our young men and women. They are taught the Christian education, faith, and simple principles of theology, history and the Creed.
Our churches are full of believers. We celebrate the liturgy at least 3 times a week, if not daily. We build new churches every year to accommodate to accommodate the increasing numbers of believers attending.
Our monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations. The young men and women who go to the seminaries retreat houses, and Sunday schools are prepared to give their lives for the Lord. At one time we had only one theological college which was located in Cairo. Now we have seven theological colleges in Cairo, Alexandria, Upper Egypt and the Delta.
The Coptic Church also played a role in the ecumenical movement during this century.
The Coptic Church is an active member in all the councils of the world today. To name a few:
WCC World Council of Churches
AACC All African Council of Churches
MECC Middle East Council of Churches
NACC National American Council of Churches
The church plays an active role in the Christian movement by exchanging visits between Patriarchs, and by conducting dialogues with the Catholics, the Greeks, the Presbyterians, and the Evangelicals.
EXTENDING PASTORAL CARE TO COPTS AROUND THE WORLD
After the 1967 war and due to the difficulties that Christians faced in Egypt, they had to look for new opportunities outside Egypt. As a result, tens of thousands left Egypt looking for a better life and vocation.
The mother church then provided pastoral care for them. We have 45 churches in America and Canada as of 1989. Churches were established a few years ago in Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya. We have churches in Algeria, Nigeria, and we have a diocese in East Africa. In Europe we have 25 churches. We have 12 churches in Australia, and several more in Asia. We have a metropolitan church in Jerusalem, and churches in Palestine, Kuwait, Bagdad, Oman, Abu Dhabi and, Dubal. We have two dioceses in Sudan.
We want to witness for the Lord where ever we can. But we confess that we still need the help of God to maintain our strength, to meet our goals, and to meet the needs of our people.
THE COPTIC CULTURE
The Pharaohs were known by their exceedingly religious attitudes, and their love towards life to come, although they did not know the reality of this life. At the same time, they were interested in science and they did many scientific marvels which modern science could not unfold their mysteries till now. Thus, the Egyptians believed in the religious life and in the development and progress in all aspects of knowledge and science. This belief had its reflection on the Christian school of Alexandria, which was encyclopedic in its teaching, presenting the whole series of profound Sciences besides studying the Holy Scriptures.
The Copts accepted the Christian faith that sanctifies all that is human and develops it, therefore they were genius in music, iconology, architecture, textiles, literature, astronomy, etc…, and their culture and arts had their effect all over the world.
Art and Worship
Worship in its essence is the expression of man’s response towards God’s infinite love. Man feels that mere words are unable to express this response; therefore he uses his gifted arts in worship.
For the Christians who live in the cities and countries the Christian faith penetrated into their life, even in their eating, drinking, literature, and arts. There is evidence that Christian symbols and images were inscribed on their rings painted on their walls, doors, cups, plates, chairs, etc…. As an example, at the Coptic Museum in Cairo there is a Coptic ivory comb dating from the fifth century. It has three etchings on each side. In one etching, Lazarus appears in the shape of an Egyptian mummy, another drawing shows Jesus Christ bearing a cross, and another representation is the “healing of the blind man”. Also on the other side of the comb, there is a mounted Coptic Saint enclosed irrationally within a wreath supported by angels.
It is man’s desire to offer his life and devote all his culture to express his deep and unspeakable love towards his God. At the same time, it is God’s beneficence that He longs to sanctity man’s being, life, and culture. God loves man as a whole and accepts his soul as His dwelling place, and does not despise his body which was made from dust and human culture which is man-made. For these both, human body culture, can be sanctified by the Holy Spirit to act spiritually as instruments of righteousness for the edification of God’s Church on behalf of the heavenly kingdom.
The blessings of God, granted to Egypt thousands of years ago, were and still are the source of flourishing, that nourishes the life of the Copts, from generation to generation, and throughout the ages to come.
Glory to GOD forever amen.