Copts & Egypt
August 18, 2013 15 Comments
‘Copt’ simply means ‘Egyptian’ – it was first used by the Roman rulers of the province of Egypt. Alexandria, the second city of the Empire after Rome, was a great cosmopolitan metropolis. Founded by Alexander the Great, its population always included Greeks and Jews, and it was one of the first places where the Gospel of Jesus was preached; it was the only part of the Middle East other than Judea, where Jesus lived; he and the Holy Family took refuge there when Herod was murdering the Holy Innocents.
The Church in Egypt was founded by St Mark – yes, the man who wrote the Gospel. He was one of St Peter’s right hand men, and his Gospel is based on what he was told by Peter, and what he noted of the great Apostle’s teaching; St Mark died a martyr’s death. That is so much the story of Christianity in Egypt. So much is this the case that the Coptic calendar starts from the persecution of the reign of Diocletian when more than 3000 Christians were killed.
Alexandria became the power-house of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. Its great library and theological school made it the ‘go to’ place for scholars, and its Patriarch was always asked to set the date for Easter. It was the home of Monasticism, with St Antony, the founder of monasticism setting up the first monastery there in the early fourth century. It was the home to two of the greatest Christian saints, Athanasius, the man who defended the Nicene Creed against the world, and Cyril of Alexandria, the man who established the dogma that Mary was the Mother of God (the Theotokos). It was, after Rome, the most important patriarchate in the ancient church.
After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Alexandrian Church, in common with many in the region, refused to accept the definition of the two Natures of Christ promulgated by Pope Leo of Rome and accepted by Constantinople and the Church in the West and the Balkans and Anatolia. This led to a great schism which, despite many attempts to heal it, remained in place until the seventh century, when an event occurred which has meant it remains unhealed to this day. That event was the Muslim conquest of the region.
Islam conquered Egypt in 640-641, and for a while it seemed as though little had changed. The Coptic Church had been periodically persecuted by the Church in Constantinople, and there were those who welcomed the invaders as a break from that. But over time, successive Muslim rulers subjected the Christians to cruel persecution and forced conversions, with the result that across the centuries, the Copts became a minority religious group in their own country.
But they have held to faith in Jesus in the face of all of this, and the recent atrocities committed against them are but the latest in a long and dismal line of persecution by Islam. Not all Muslims join in this persecution, but the Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged assaults on Christians as part of its campaign to cleanse Egypt of all Christians. There is a war being waged against the Copts, and more than 40 churches have been destroyed, including one from the time of St Athanasius.
It is clearly too much to hope that the Governments of the US or Europe will do anything about this, but I hope that those who are Christians will pray for these faithful servants of the Lord Jesus. And, even if it won’t help, do get in touch with your Congressman or Senator and let him or her know how you feel.