While Egypt’s Copts share a common national culture with their Muslim compatriots, they remain acutely conscious of their separate identity. Intercommunal marriages are extremely rare and bring problems from both sides. The Coptic church belongs (along with the Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian churches) to the Monophysite branch of Christianity, which split from Eastern and Roman Catholic orthodoxy very early on, and the Copts even have their own pope, chosen from the monks of Wadi Natrun. The Coptic Bible (first translated from Greek c.300 AD) predates the Latin version by a century. While Coptic services are conducted in Arabic, portions of the liturgy are sung in the old Coptic language descended from ancient Egyptian, audibly prefiguring the Gregorian chants of Eastern Orthodoxy.
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Christianity in Egypt
Tradition holds that St Mark made his first Egyptian convert (a Jewish shoemaker from Alexandria) in 45 AD. From Jews and Greeks the religion spread to the Egyptians of the Delta – which teemed with Christian communities by the third century – and thence southwards up the Nile. The Christian faith appealed to Egyptians on many levels. Its message of resurrection offered ordinary folk the eternal life that was previously available only to those who could afford elaborate funerary rituals, and much of the new religion’s symbolism fitted old myths and images. God created man from clay, as did Khnum on his potter’s wheel, and weighed the penitent’s heart, like Anubis; Confession echoed the Declaration of Innocence; the conflict of two brothers and the struggle against Satan echoed the myth of Osiris, Seth and Horus. Scholars have traced the cult of the Virgin back to that of the Great Mother, Isis, who suckled Horus, and the resemblance between early Coptic crosses and pharaonic ankhs has also led some to argue that Christianity’s principal symbol owes more to Egypt than Golgotha.
Emperor Constantine’s 313 AD legalization of Christianity eased matters until 451, when the Copts rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon that Christ’s human and divine natures were unmixed, insisting that his divinity was paramount. For this “Monophysite” heresy (monophysite meaning “single nature”) they were expelled from the fold, and persecuted by the Byzantines. Most Egyptians remained Christian long after the Arab conquest (640–41) and were treated well by the early Islamic dynasties. Mass conversions to Islam followed harsher taxation, abortive revolts, punitive massacres and indignities engendered by the Crusades, until the Muslims attained a nationwide majority (probably during the thirteenth century, earlier in Cairo). Thereafter Copts still participated in Egyptian life at every level, but the community retreated inwards and its monasteries and clergy stagnated until the nineteenth century.
The Copts today
In recent decades the Coptic monasteries have been revitalized by a new generation of well-educated monks, and community work and church attendances are flourishing, but Coptic solidarity reflects alarm at rising Islamic fundamentalism and sectarianism. In Egypt religion is recorded on official ID cards (Egyptians may only be Muslim, Christian or Jewish), and it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. There have been several cases of Christian children being abducted and “converted” to Islam, making it extremely difficult for them to return to their original faith. To build or even repair a church requires permission from the local governor, usually denied, and even when given, it often results in sectarian attacks from local Muslims. The Mubarak regime happily pandered to sectarian sentiment, using the 2009 swine flu epidemic, for example, as an excuse to slaughter all of the country’s pigs and close down all butchers selling pork, despite the fact that swine flu cannot be caught from pigs, and that pigs played a vital role in Egypt’s rubbish recycling.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s liberal intelligentsia became more vocal in their opposition to sectarianism, satirizing it, for example, in a 2008 movie, Hassan and Morqos, starring Omar Sharif and Adel Imam. During the revolution (which came shortly after a bomb attack on an Alexandria church that killed 21 people), intercommunal solidarity was a theme commonly voiced by those in Tahrir Square, symbolized by a ubiquitous crescent-and-cross symbol. Salafists and regime supporters had different ideas, however, with attacks by Salafists on Christian communities in Upper Egypt leading to a demonstration in Cairo in October 2011 which was in turn attacked by regime supporters and soldiers, leaving 24 dead. In the face of this, the high vote obtained by the Salafists in the elections has heightened the fear now felt by Egypt’s Christian community. The most forthright reporting on this comes from the Coptic diaspora, especially in the US, with regular updates at w copts.com and w freecopts.net.