Sat 4 Jun 2011
In Cairo, Coptic Christians recently ended a two-week sit-in, held to protest the rising sectarian violence in that country. Since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, there have been attacks on churches, several of which have been closed, and street fights have erupted between Copts and Muslims. The approximately eight million Egyptian Christians – out of a population of eighty million – are understandably nervous about their future in majority Muslim Egypt. All of this raises the question: just who are the Copts and what are they doing in Egypt?
In the West, the story of Christianity with which most people are familiar goes something like this: in its first several hundred years, Christianity consolidated around the Catholic Church in Rome, which did its best to root out any heretical tendencies. In 1054, the Great Schism split the Church between Catholic and Orthodox branches. In 1517, Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses launched the Reformation, which further divided the Church between Protestants and Catholics.
If the Copts (and the Syriac Christians) are missing from this familiar story, it’s because describing the history of Christianity as the history of the Catholic Church and it’s schisms is inaccurate. The Orthodox, Syriac, and Coptic churches did not split off from the Catholic Church. It is more accurate to speak of a parting of the ways, for these churches are just as old as the church centered in Rome (and in most cases their theology is older).
In the early days of Christianity, all bishops were equal, but over time five bishops, or patriarchs as they were dubbed, acquired authority over the other bishops in their diocese. The Patriarch of Rome was the first to exercise such authority, followed by the Patriarchs of Antioch and of Alexandria. The First Council of Nicea in 325 AD officially recognized the special status of these three patriarchs. In 381 AD, the First Council of Constantinople added that city to the list of those with special authority. The Bishop of Jerusalem joined the list of patriarchs in 431 AD at the Council of Ephesus.
None of the five patriarchs – or the Pentarchy, as they have come to be called – had any authority over the others, although Rome was considered the first amongst equals. Other than Jerusalem, all of the patriarchates would go on to found their own Church. Rome, of course, gave birth to the Catholic Church. It was largely the pope’s attempt to spread his authority that would lead the other patriarchs to part ways with Rome. As mentioned above, Constantinople went its own way in 1053, forming the Orthodox Church. (For more on this, see my blog “Schism and Union.”)
The Coptic and Syriac Churches date their independent existence back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Both Antioch and Alexandria rejected the council’s declaration that Christ is in two natures, fully human and fully divine, arguing instead that Christ is of one nature, both human and divine. This might seem like a question of semantics, but it was serious stuff, enough to cause a rift between the patriarchs, with Rome and Constantinople on one side, and Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria on the other.
The Antioch Patriarchate would become the Syriac Orthodox Church, or the Jacobites as they were frequently called in the Crusader era. The Syriac Church still exists, although it is now headquartered in Damascus, and the majority of Syriac Christians live in India. The Syriacs employ the oldest liturgy of any Christian church, using a dialect of Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke.
It was the Patriarchate of Alexandria that would become the Coptic Orthodox Church, headed by the Coptic Pope (who was actually called pope before the pope in Rome). They were called Copts because the original Christians in Egypt spoke Coptic, a late Egyptian language used from the first century AD through around the seventeenth century, when it finally gave way completely to Arabic. (Coptic is still the liturgical language of the Coptic Church.)
The transition to Arabic in Egypt was mirrored by the slow transition from Christianity to Islam. As of 639 AD, when Egypt was absorbed into the Arab-Muslim empire, the vast majority of Egyptians were Coptic Christians. Many of them welcomed their new Muslim rulers, because they received better treatment from them than from the Byzantines, who had persecuted the Copts as heretics. Later rulers would be less kind, though, and the Copts slowly converted. Still, Muslims were not a majority in Egypt until perhaps as late as the 12th century. This fact helps to explain the Crusaders obsession with Egypt, since during the many invasions led by King Amalric, the kingdom of the Nile was almost half-Christian — much more Christian, in fact, than the Holy Land. Even after Copts became a minority in the rest of Egypt, they remained influential in Alexandria, which was administrated by Copts long after the Muslim conquest.
Today, the eight million Copts that remain in Egypt are thus the remnant of what was once a vast majority. These are the people who are currently being persecuted, their churches vandalized and desecrated, their place in Egypt questioned. They are understandably upset by such questions. For far from being outsiders, the Copts are part of a religion and culture that harkens back to pre-Muslim Egypt. They are, in a sense, more Egyptian than the Muslim Egyptians who persecute them. And, given that their liturgy is considerably older than that of the Catholic Church, one might also argue that they are in some ways more Christian than Catholics themselves. Egyptian but not Muslim; Christian but not Catholic; the inheritors of a religion and culture with a history that dates back nearly 2000 years… these are the Copts.