Thursday, September 27, 2012

Coptic Christians

Coptic Icon of St. Mark
Coptic Christians have suddenly been in the news, from a centuries-old fragment of papyrus with a supposed reference to Jesus being married to the maker of a controversial film on Mohammed. Now might be a good time to talk about their history.

According to tradition, St. Mark the Evangelist carried the message of Christianity to Alexandria in Egypt and founded the first communities that became the Coptic Church. There is a fragment of the Gospel of John written in Coptic that dates to the first half of the 2nd century in Upper Egypt, suggesting that St. Mark's efforts bore widespread fruit. The English name "Copt" started being used in the 17th century, from the Latin Coptus (Copt), which derived from Arabic al-ḳubṭ (the Coptsfrom Greek Aigyptios (Egyptian).

Christianity's foothold in Egypt was strong, and has remained so. The Catechetical School in Alexandria has operated continuously since 190 CE, and produced some significant theologians of the first millennium: Athenagoras, Clement, and the prolific Bible commentator Origen all studied there.

Coptic Christianity has been present in this blog before, but hidden in the background. The Nicene Creed, discussed here, was modified at the Council of Constantinople in 381; tradition has it that the new version which is more like what is used today was proposed by the Coptic Christian St. Athanasius of Alexandria (c.298-373). Athanasius was Pope in 352 during the debate over the Arian heresy. He was supported by his fellow Copt, Saint Anthony of Upper Egypt, who is considered the first Christian monk. When John Cassian, the "sometime saint," went to Egypt to learn asceticism from Christian monks, he was visiting Copts who were following Anthony's model. St. Jerome, translator of the Bible into Latin, seen here mocking Pelagius, visited the Coptic Christian community in Egypt around 400.


Coptic Bible
The Copts survived after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640, because the Prophet preached kindness to Egyptians on account of his Egyptian wife. Over the centuries, however, as the Christians in Egypt became a minority, they lost more and more rights. Still, in the long run they were able to maintain their separate religious identity and yet be accepted as citizens of largely Muslim Egypt; Coptic Christians remain <20% of the Egyptian population. The late 20th century is better for Copts, and one even made it to one of the most internationally prestigious positions in the world: Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations (1992-97).

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