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Copt: Coptic Icon of St Mark

Copts are members of the Coptic Christian church of Egypt. 


 The Coptic church is an offshoot of the ancient Egyptian Christian church, one of the oldest Christian churches. In 451 the Copts split  from the Catholic church after the Council of Chalcedon, following the Monophysite ("one nature") doctrine of the nature of Christ. The Coptic church is the by far largest Christian group in both East as well as North Africa/Middle East, with over ten million adherents. The name "Copt" (gupt in Arabic) is derived from Ayguptos - the Greek word for Egypt.


Coptic services are conducted in the Coptic language rather than Arabic. Coptic is the last surviving remnant of ancient Egyptian.


Copts believe that Christianity was introduced to the Egyptians by Saint Mark in Alexandria (protrayed at right), during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. A large Christian community arose quickly in Alexandria, which was one of the major cities of the ancient world.  From Alexandria, Christianity spread in Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark's arrival in Alexandria. A fragment of the Gospel of John in Coptic from the early second century  was found in Upper Egypt. Other New Testament writings found in Oxyrhynchus, in Middle Egypt,  date form around  200.


By the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., Christianity had spread to the majority of Egypt’s population, and the Church of Alexandria was recognized as one of Christendom's four Apostolic Sees. It is the   oldest church in Africa.


The Copts initiated the  Catechetical School of Alexandria in 190 AD, the oldest catechetical school in the world. Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the great Origen taught there. The school also taught science, mathematics and humanities. The question-and-answer method of commentary borrowed from ancient Greek dialogue was adapted there to Christian teaching.


Copts also originated  monasticism. Monasteries, hermit caves and monastic cells spread quickly throughout Egypt. The Coptic church played major roles in the first three, and most famous, ecumenical councils. The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) was led by Pope Alexander of Alexandria, along with Saint Hosius of Córdoba. Athanasius, future Pope of Alexandria, led in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.  recited today in all Christian churches of different denominations.

The Council of Constantinople (381 AD) was presided over by Pope Timothy of Alexandria, while the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) was presided over by Pope Cyril of Alexandria.

Copts split from the Catholic Church


The Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D, resulted in expulsion of the majority of Copts from the Catholic church.  Those relatively few who accepted the terms of the Council became known as Chalcedonians or Melkites. Those who did not follow the consensus on the nature of the trinity were labeled Monophysites by the church, but  Miaphysites by themselves. Most Copts belonged to the Miaphysite branch, and most of Asia except Asia minor adopted the Monophysite faith, leading to their exclusion from and persecution by the Byzantine church.


Copts under Muslim rule


This split may have contributed to the easy conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in 641, but there were several revolts against Muslim rule. These include the Beshmonite revolt in the eight centural and a larger revolt crushed by Al Ma'mun in the ninth century, as well as a local revolt in Qift in 1176. This last was suppressed by the hanging of 3,000 Copts.

In keeping with Muslim law, the Arabs imposed a special tax, known as Jizya, on the Christians who acquired the status of dhimmis, and all non-Muslims were prohibited from joining the army. Egyptian converts to Islam in turn were relegated to the status of Mawali. Heavy taxation was one of the reasons behind Egyptian organized resistance against the new occupying power, as well as the decline of the number of Christians in Egypt. It was the Arabs apparently, who coined the term "Gupti" or "Copts." Eventually this was applied only to Monophysite Christians, while the Chalcedonian Church remained with the appellation "Melkite." The Arabs did not initially interfere much with the practice of Christianity beyond the dhimmi laws. There was a profuse output of Coptic art work in monastic centers in Old Cairo (Fustat) and throughout Egypt. This changed after the various revolts in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Muslims banned the use of human forms in art and destroyed many Coptic paintings and frescoes in churches.


During the Fatimid period Egypt was generally tolerant, except during the violent persecutions of caliph Al-Hakim. Copts were employed in the government, and churches and monasteries were constructed or renovated. There was a flourishing of Coptic art word for a period. However, following the Crusades, the Mameluk rulers initiated persecutions. These included forced conversions and occasional raids and destruction of monasteries.


The position of the Copts only began to improve under  the rule of Mehmet Ali in the early 19th century.  Mehmet Ali abolished the Jizya and allowed Egyptians to join the army. In the first half of the twentieth century, under British occupation and early Egyptian independence, Copts flourished once again. They  participated and led the Egyptian national movement  Makram Ebeid, a Copt, was ecretary General of the Wafd Party, and they occupied many influential positions in government and politics. Following the 1952 coup d'état by the Free Officers (Nasser's revolution) , conditions for the Copts slowly deteriorated. 


Copts are the majority of the Egyptian Christian population. The term Coptic remains exclusive however to the Egyptian natives, as opposed to the Christians of non-Egyptian origins. Some Protestant churches for instance are called "Coptic Evangelical Church", thus helping differentiate their native Egyptian congregations from churches attended by non-Egyptian immigrant communities such as Europeans or Americans.


Copts constitute about 10% of the population of modern Egypt. Officially, they enjoy full equality, but in fact, there is often friction with the government. Copts complain that no new churches have been permitted to be built, for example. Minor repairs to churches require government permission. Egyptian law makes it difficult or illegal to convert from Islam to the Coptic faith.

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The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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