Introduction

Coptic Christianity immediately raises definitional questions. Is it the Church of ethnic Egyptians in Egypt and elsewhere in the world? Is it Christianity originally expressed in the Coptic language? Is it a separate denomination with respect to belief and practice? Is it simply to be equated with the Coptic Orthodox Church, whose patriarch lives in Egypt while bishops and clergy serve a worldwide diaspora?

All of these descriptions fit, yet are not separately adequate. 'Copt' and its adjective 'Coptic' developed from Greek Aigyptos/Aigyptios (Egypt/Egyptian). This became Arabic Qibt; thus, English 'Copt'. It would then be correct to say that all Egyptians are Copts -and this has been said by various people in modern times for political purposes - but common understanding defines Copt as 'Egyptian Christian'. As Arabic replaced Coptic in daily life and the majority of Egyptians became Muslim, labelling Egyptian Christians as Copts or Coptic Christians followed.

For centuries, Coptic Christianity was mainly embodied in the Coptic Orthodox Church, formed by the rejection of the Christological formula of the Council of Chalcedon (451). A minority in Egypt remained in communion with Constantinople and Rome, the centres of Chalcedonian faith, and became the Melkite Church with its own patriarch in Alexandria (now known as the Greek Orthodox (Melkite) Church of Alexandria). A small Coptic Catholic Church was founded in the eighteenth century when the Coptic Orthodox Metropolitan of Jerusalem became a Catholic. Protestant missions to Egypt began in the nineteenth century in significant numbers and, after little success converting Muslims, focused on the Coptic Orthodox. Hundreds of Protestant congregations exist in Egypt, the largest of these is the Coptic Evangelical Church. In this chapter, Coptic Christianity will refer to the characteristics of the Coptic Orthodox Church, supplemented where necessary by reference to the other groups: Melkite, Catholic and Protestant.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is centred in Egypt and organized into a patriarchate (Alexandria) and a system of bishoprics, both inside and outside Egypt. Especially since the 1960s, Coptic emigration in reaction to Islamic fundamentalism and poor economic conditions in Egypt has created a diaspora church that is strong in the United States, Canada and Australia. Smaller groups exist in Latin America and Africa (mainly East and South), in Gulf Arab states, and in Europe (the European Coptic Union). Numbers are difficult to estimate. The Egyptian census of 1986 found 3,300,000 Copts (8 per cent of the population), but this figure is unreliable since both Muslim authorities and Copts want to minimize Coptic presence. At the same time, the Church announced 11 million members, on the basis of baptismal registers. Some sources suggested 7 or 8 million in 1990 or 8 million in 1992. Of this number, perhaps 200,000 are Coptic Catholics and 150,000 Coptic Evangelicals. Outside Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church numbers about 1,200,000. And the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Christian minority in the Near East, in any Islamic state.

Language use has evolved throughout the history of the Coptic Church. When the first Christian missionaries came to Egypt in the first century, they contacted Greek-speaking Jews and pagans. Only in the third century is there clear evidence of conversion to Christianity by individuals with Egyptian names, probably Coptic-speaking (Eusebius 1993). Arabic enters with the conquest (641), yet Greek and Coptic remained the languages of the Church for a considerable period. But by the tenth century the majority of Christians no longer understood Coptic and Christian literature (with a few exceptions) was written in Arabic. The liturgy was translated into Arabic, apart from certain phrases in Coptic and Greek, two centuries later. Recently there has been an effort to promote the study of Coptic by Coptic Orthodox Christians. Though the Church proudly traces its roots to the first century (to Mark the evangelist) it is Coptic, not Greek, that is the focus of instruction, which is consistent with the focus on the Egyptian ethnicity of Copts.

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