Anthony Omahony

Christian presence in modern Egypt

The word Copt derives from the Greek for an inhabitant of Egypt (AïyunToç), arabisedinto 'Qibt' and thence into 'Copt', and has been used in modern times, especially since the sixteenth century, to designate the Christian inhabitants of Egypt and the language used by them in their liturgy.1 According to the church historian Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2: 16, 24), reflecting the traditions of his day, the evangelist Mark first preached the Gospel in Alexandria, and the Coptic Church claims an unbroken succession of patriarchs from that time to the present.2 Since the fourth century the church in Egypt has dated events from the accession of Diocletian as emperor in 284, heralding a period later referred to as the age of the martyrs because of the numerous victims of persecution, who included the patriarch Peter (d.311).3 The Arab invasion and conquest of Egypt in the seventh century was marked by a series of Coptic revolts, which were suppressed with increasing severity and violence.4

By the twelfth century, the Christians had ceased to be a majority. Thereafter the Copts continued to decline as a proportion of the overall population, until stabilising in the early nineteenth century.5 As a sign of their submission

1 Pierre duBourguet, 'Copt', in The Coptic encyclopaedia, ed. Aziz Atiya (New York: Macmil-lan, 1991), 11, 599-601.

2 U. Zanetti, 'Les chrétientés du Nil: Basse et Haute Egypte, Nubie, Ethiopie', in The Christian East: its heritage, its institutions and its thought: a critical reflection, ed. R. F. Taft [OCA 251] (Rome: Pontificio istituto orientale, 1996), 181-216.

3 Annick Martin, 'Aux origines de l'Eglise copte. L'implantation et le développement du christianisme en Egypte (Ier-IVe siècle)', Revue des Etudes Anciennes 83 (1981), 35-56.

4 O. Meinardus, 'The attitude of the Orthodox Copts towards the Islamic state from the 7th to the 12th century Ostkirchliche Studien 13 (1963), 153-70; J. Tagher, Christians in Muslim Egypt: an historical study of the relations between Copts and Muslims from 640 to 1922 [Arbeiten zum spatantiken und Koptischen Agypten 10] (Altenberge: Oros, 1998).

5 The evidence from the papyri, for instance, suggests that much of the population was still Coptic during the twelfth century See G. Frantz-Murphy 'Conversion in early Islamic Egypt: the economic factor', in Documents de l'Islam médiéval: nouvelles perspectives de

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