Who are the Copts?
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the most ancient churches in the world, founded in Egypt in the first century by Saint Mark the Apostle and writer of the second Gospel of the New Testament. A conservative church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form. It is a faith that has been passed down through generations,always remaining true to the apostolic doctrines and patterns of worship. The church’s spiritual approach emphasizes holiness, divine mysteries and fellowship, rooted firmly in the canons of the holy scriptures, the apostolic and orthodox creeds, the teachings of the church fathers and the first three ecumenical councils.
Egypt is a land rich in history, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ himself. In His infancy,during their flight from Israel at the instruction of the angel, the Lord visited Egypt with His mother Saint Mary, and Saint Joseph Naturally, Egypt became their second home and a place of refuge (Matthew 2:13-14). The word ‘Copt’ is derived from the Pharaonic word ‘gypt’ and the subsequent Greek word ‘Aigyptus’ meaning ‘Egypt’. Copts are the Christian and indigenous peoples of Egypt, direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, a people with perhaps the longest history on record.
When Saint Mark travelled to Egypt on two separate occasions, he preached the Christian message to many in the land. During his first journey, he met with Ananias, who expressed knowledge of the concept of ‘one god’, and when this was further explained by Saint Mark within a Christian context, he accepted the faith and was baptized along with his household. Soon after, many others pronounced their newfound belief and Ananias’ house became a meeting place for the faithful. After witnessing for seven years, Saint Mark was martyred in AD 68 when followers of Serapis (the Serapion-Abbis Greek Egyptian god) attacked the church in which he prayed and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria for two consecutive days.
Like any other traditional sacramental church, the Sacraments are considered to be sacred actions.Believers receive an invisible grace, through material or visible signs and elements. The Coptic Church observes seven Sacraments:
Repentance and Confession
Unction of the Sick
In Eucharistic liturgy, the faithful gather in union to pray, and to partake of the Eucharist, believed to be the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The liturgy is chanted in the Coptic language, alongside the language of the land in which the church is based.A musical composition dating back to the Pharaonic Erais used. The three divine liturgies celebrated in the church today are those of Saint Basil, Saint Gregory, and Saint Cyril all based on what Saint Mark used in the first century.
Parish communities and churches are served by married priests who are nominated from within the parish. Once nominated, their names are presented to the bishop who then approves and ordains them for the ministry. Bishops on the other hand, including the Pope, are celibate and are selected from within Monastic communities.
Monasticism was founded by Saint Anthony the Great towards the end of the third century and thrives in the Church to this day. Those living the Monastic life within any church or denomination in the world can trace their roots back to the deserts of Egypt. Although monks did not record their own history, many people travelled from around the world to benefit from their words, seeking spiritual guidance and documenting their teachings. Western Monastic fathers, including Saint Benedict and Saint John Cassian, came to the deserts of Egypt to solitary life they introduced the way of the monks the West, where the way of life was then embraced and became the foundation of Monasticism in these parts of the world. Those living the Monastic life became tangible sermons, faithfully embodying the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship and purity of heart and Asceticism.
Stemming from these Monastic principles is a deeply rooted Ascetic life that is expressed through the practice of fasting( another principle in the life of the church of the 365 days of the year, Copts fast for over 210). These periods of fasting are considered times of spiritual growth and reflection based on prayer and scripture, during which people abstain at the beginning of the day and followed by a vegan diet. The major fasting periods in the Coptic calendar are Lent, leading to the Feast of the Resurrection, and Advent, leading to the Feast of the Nativity.
Prayer is a fundamental part of life of in the church and the Agpeya is the name of the book containing the seven prayers rehearsed daily. Arranged to commemorate various events in the life of Christ and the church, they help to guide the faithful in daily reflection, and are labelled as the first, third,sixth, ninth, eleventh, twelfth and midnight hour. The veil is a separate daily prayer only observed by those practicing a Monastic life. Other forms of prayer include the Raising of Evening and Morning Incense, Midnight Praises, and Morning and Evening Praises. Within the context of non-ritual gatherings and prayer meetings, contemporary forms of prayer and worship are also used.
Seeking the intercession of saints is a valued component in Orthodox practice, although it is sometimes misunderstood as the worship of those saints. The understanding behind intercession is that strength and encouragement can be found in commemorating the life of those who lived faithfully, including the martyrs who died for their faith, and that there is value in asking for their prayers.
‘Church of the Martyrs’
Historians have named the Coptic Church the ‘Church of Martyrs’, because of the many people who died for their faith. During the reign of Emperor Diocletian almost one million men, women, and children were killed as a result of their faith in Egypt.To commemorate their sacrifice, the church was determined to commence its calendar, known as ‘Anno Martyrii’, or ‘Year Of the Martyrs,’ in the year 248 AD, which is the year Emperor Diocletian began his reign.
Another wave of persecution arrived when Islam entered Egypt in the seventh century,unveiling a fresh set of challenges for Christians and the church.A new requirement was made for the payment of Gezya tax by non-Muslims in exchange for the receipt of ‘protection’. Those who could not pay were forced to choose whether they wished to convert to Islam or losing their civil right for that protection, which resulted in a countless number of deaths . By the beginning of the second millennium AD, in addition to Gezya, Christians suffered from specific limitations, such as restrictions against the repair of old churches and the building of new ones, testifying in court, public conduct, adoption, inheritance, public religious activities, and dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt changed from predominantly Christian to predominantly Muslim.
Despite persecution,the Coptic Church has never been controlled, nor has it allowed itself to control the governments of Egypt.The position of the church in regards to the separation between state and religion stems from the words of the Lord Himself, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s ” (Matthew 22:21).
Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church has the largest Christian presence in the Middle East, with approximately 10-15 million members in Egypt, representing about 15 per cent of the population. They vibrantly, actively and faithfully fill their churches and monasteries, living as productive and faithful members of their communities. The Coptic Orthodox Church has also experienced rapid growth in the lands of immigration over the past 30 years, in the United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australia. There are now over 15 dioceses and 500 parishes outside Egypt, and the Church continues to flourish by the grace of God. It is important to make mention of the fact that we do not consider our communities living abroad as a diaspora, since 90 per cent of Coptic Christians still live in their native Egypt.
This flourishing ministry is the direct result of the church’s focus on Christian education at every level over the last few decades,These efforts include, vibrant and wide-ranging Sunday school movement, an active and engaging youth ministry and adult education within theological colleges,seminaries and local parish settings.
In addition to its focus on Christian education,the church also has a deep-seated and historical focus on mission. The mission work of the church is not limited to early centuries, but extends to active and vibrant ministries today. Our philosophy is not to aggressively seek to convert people to the Faith, but rather to follow the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, when He instructs us by saying “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”. We believe that by following the Lord , we will attract others to Him . The principal function of the church is to care for its flock and to be “a light to the whole world”, attracting people to Christ. We are alive in the world as the body of christ and the church provides a source of hope for all.
The Coptic Orthodox churches in North America have a set of uniform by-laws that outline the hierarchy administration and duties of the church.
A copy of these by-laws can be found here.