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Despite the formulation of the Nicene Creed, however, Christological debates continued. They assumed an increasing ethnic, linguistic and political tone, disturbing the unity of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. The indefatigable pope and patriarch of Alexandria, St. Cyril (376–444), took the lead in stirring debate. He irritated the emperor Theodosius II, who resented the reach and influence of the prelate even in the imperial capital of Constantinople.

To restore peace and unity within the church and empire, Theodosius’ successor called another ecumenical council. The Christological formulations of the Council of Chalcedon — which in 451 asserted that in Jesus two natures exist, “perfect in Godhead, perfect in humanity … like us in all things but sin” — suggest a victory for the Alexandrian church’s position. But the emperor deposed and exiled the champion of Cyril’s theology, Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria (who succeeded Cyril after his death in 444), for an alleged breach of canon law and for his political opposition.

Significant portions of the church of Alexandria, particularly the Coptic–speaking communities of Egypt’s rural interior, supported the exiled Dioscorus. Led by monks, they opposed the decrees of the council and resented the heavy–handedness of the emperor, who attempted to wipe out all forms of dissent.

For more than a century after Chalcedon, Egypt’s Coptic and Greek Christian parties struggled to secure the papal see of Alexandria. Finally, in 567, the Byzantine emperor recognized two claimants: the Copt, to whom the vast majority of Egypt’s Christians owed allegiance, and the Melkite (from the Syriac, meaning of the king), who led the Greek–speaking minority in Egypt’s cities.

Imperial recognition institutionalized the schism in the Alexandrian church and encouraged the creation of other non–Chalcedonian churches. Commonly known today as Oriental Orthodox, these groups include the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara Syrian and Syriac Orthodox churches. Theologians generally agree this schism reflected cultural, linguistic and philosophic differences more than differences in matters of faith.

Scholars believe that by the eve of the Muslim Arab invasion in 641, Alexandrian Christians included up to 18 million Copts and some 200,000 Melkites, mostly Greek–speaking bureaucrats, merchants and soldiers. Both churches used the distinctive rites of the Alexandrian church. The Copts, however, adapted these liturgies for monastic use, which survive to this day. Eventually, the Greek–speaking church of Alexandria replaced these ancient rites with those from the Byzantine tradition.

Decline and progress. Egypt’s Coptic majority by and large welcomed the Arabs, preferring their rule to that of the Byzantines, who remained hostile to Coptic Christianity. For centuries, Egypt remained primarily Christian. Conversion to Islam was gradual. The Arabs retained the civil structures set up by the Byzantines; employed Coptic bureaucrats; sanctioned the development of a Coptic code of civil law and later a code of canon law; and approved the construction and refurbishment of churches and monasteries.

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