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A formal union between the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox churches took place under the octagonal dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence on 4 February 1442. The act was rejected in Egypt, however, particularly among the monks, who wielded tremendous power and influence among the Coptic Orthodox people.

Ironically, the failure of these reunion efforts influenced the development of a Catholic ecclesiology that “vigorously emphasized the necessity of the direct jurisdiction of the pope over all the local churches,” wrote Paulist Father Ronald Roberson in The Eastern Christian Churches.

“This implied,” he continued, “that churches not under the pope’s jurisdiction could be considered objects of missionary activity for the purpose of bringing them into communion with the Catholic Church.”

Those groups of Eastern Christians who accepted union with Rome were thus absorbed into the Catholic Church, but grouped by “rite,” enabling them to maintain their liturgical traditions, canonical disciplines and privileges.

The Franciscans had long established a presence in Egypt, but Catholic pastoral activity commenced in earnest with the foundation of a Capuchin mission in Cairo in 1630. With the support of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, Capuchin friars preached in Coptic parishes and monasteries. In 1675, priests of the Society of Jesus established a house in Cairo and initiated theological exchanges with Coptic scholars. These exchanges ended the church’s isolation and encouraged warmer relations with Catholics.

An 18th-century Coptic bishop of Jerusalem, Amba Athanasius, pledged fidelity to the bishop of Rome and abjured the “heresies” of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Accordingly, in 1741, Pope Benedict XIV appointed him apostolic vicar for those few Copts who had entered the Catholic Church. A line of apostolic vicars succeeded Athanasius — who eventually returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church — but the community remained small and poor. Most Catholic Copts were fellahin, illiterate peasants who tilled the soil along the Nile River in Upper Egypt. A minority included families of peasant origin in Cairo’s Faggalah quarter. All worshiped in modest Latin churches lent by the Franciscans.

A hierarchy is constituted. The Holy See erected a Coptic Catholic patriarchate in 1829, but it remained inoperative; a Coptic Catholic aide to Muhammad Ali, the “father of modern Egypt,” led the Holy See to believe Ali wished for its creation.

Five years later, Ali permitted Coptic Catholics to build their own churches, but the community lacked the financial and personnel resources to undertake any projects. Consequently, they languished.

In 1893, the Franciscans gave the Catholic Copts 10 churches for their exclusive use. Pope Leo XIII grouped these churches into three eparchies, appointing a bishop, Amba Cyril Makarios, as administrator.

Leo XIII reestablished the patriarchate and in 1899 appointed Amba Cyril as patriarch, who assumed the name and title “Cyril II of Alexandria of the Copts.”

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