The Christians of Egypt

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Egyptian Christianity is as old as Christianity itself. Tradition places Mark the Evangelist – the disciple of Peter and Paul – in the city of Alexandria, where he preached the Gospel to the Jewish community. It is commonly believed that St. Mark established the church in Alexandria as early as 42 A.D. and in 63 was martyred there.

Although the Romans harassed and persecuted Christians, Egyptians embraced the faith quickly. Many of these early Christians fled to the desert to lead uninterrupted lives dedicated to prayer and contemplation. St. Anthony of Egypt, whose life inspired the monastic development of the churches of the East and West, settled near the Red Sea at the end of the third century. There he lived and prayed, while his reputation spread throughout Egypt. Pilgrims and would-be disciples, seeking his counsel, settled around their role model.

In Upper Egypt, St. Pachomius founded religious houses where men and women embraced poverty and lived, worked and prayed together in community. These first monasteries attracted thousands of followers, thereby establishing Egypt as the center of monastic life and spirituality.

Meanwhile Alexandria developed into the leading school of theology in the East, with Origen and St. Clement as its leaders.

However after Constantine extended toleration to Christians and moved the capital of the empire from Rome to the Greek town of Byzantium, the influence of the Church of Alexandria began to wane. As the power of the new Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) grew, so too did its influence over the Alexandrian Church.

Weary of efforts to hellenize the church, the non-Greek-speaking Coptic population. which included the majority of believers, broke away from the established church of the empire after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. For more than a century a contest ensued as the two parties – Coptic and Greek – struggled to place their candidate on the patriarchal throne.

Despite the Byzantine emperors attempts to unite the church forcibly, the Copts flourished. The desert monks, most of whom did not speak Greek, supported the local church. The liturgy, which originated from the Greek liturgy of Alexandria, developed along monastic lines and was celebrated in the Egyptian vernacular, Coptic. Although rendered in Greek script, Coptic is a semitic tongue representing the final stage of evolution of the ancient language of the pharaohs. Meanwhile the creation of icons and other forms of liturgical art thrived in these monastic communities.

In 567, the Byzantine emperor was forced to recognize two distinct Christian churches in Egypt: the Coptic and the Melkite, or king’s men, most of whom were officials of the empire and of Greek descent.

The Arab invasion (640-642) radically altered the state of Egyptian Christianity. Before the invasion, Christianity was the faith of Egypt. The Melkites numbered about 200,000 believers, while the Coptic Church totaled more than three million.

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Tags: Egypt Christianity Coptic Orthodox Church