The precise differences in theology that caused the split with the Coptic Christians are still disputed, highly technical and mainly concerned with the nature of Christ. The foundational roots of the Church are based in Egypt but it has a worldwide following. According to tradition, the church was established by Saint Mark the apostle and evangelist in the middle of the 1st century (approximately AD 42). The head of the church and the See of Alexandria is the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy See of Saint Mark, currently Pope Shenouda III. At the moment, 9% of Egyptians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, though other churches also claim Patriarchates and Patriarchs of Alexandria; among them:
- The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria
- The Coptic Catholic Church of Alexandria
- The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem
"When he [Joseph] arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod the Great, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son" (Matthew 2:12–23).The Egyptian Church, which is now more than 1,900 years old, regards itself as the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says "In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border."
The first Christians in Egypt were common people who spoke Egyptian Coptic, there were also Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Saint Mark during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith.
Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark's arrival in Alexandria, as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year AD 200, and a fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. In the 2nd century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.
The Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest catechetical school in the world. St. Jerome records that the Christian School of Alexandria was founded by Saint Mark himself. Around 190 AD under the leadership of the scholar Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning, where students were taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the native Egyptian Origen, who was considered the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. Origen wrote over 6,000 commentaries of the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla.
Many scholars such as Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The scope of this school was not limited to theological subjects; science, mathematics and humanities were also taught there. The question-and-answer method of commentary began there, and 15 centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were in use there by blind scholars to read and write.
The Theological college of the catechetical school was re-established in 1893. The new school currently has campuses in Ireland, Cairo, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, where Coptic priests-to-be and other qualified men and women are taught among other subjects Christian theology, history, the Coptic language and art - including chanting, music, iconography, and tapestry.
Many Egyptian Christians went to the desert during the 3rd century, and remained there to pray and work and dedicate their lives to seclusion and worship of God. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was organized by Anthony the Great, Saint Paul, the world's first anchorite, Saint Macarius the Great and Saint Pachomius the Cenobite in the 4th century.
Christian monasticism was born in Egypt and was instrumental in the formation of the Coptic Orthodox Church character of submission, simplicity and humility, thanks to the teachings and writings of the Great Fathers of Egypt's Deserts. By the end of the 5th century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. A great number of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations to this day.
All Christian monasticism stems, either directly or indirectly, from the Egyptian example: Saint Basil the Great Archbishop of Ceasaria of Cappadocia, founder and organizer of the monastic movement in Asia Minor, visited Egypt around AD 357 and his rule is followed by the Eastern Orthodox Churches; Saint Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin, came to Egypt, while en route to Jerusalem, around AD 400 and left details of his experiences in his letters; Benedict founded the Benedictine Order in the 6th century on the model of Saint Pachomius, but in a stricter form. Countless pilgrims have visited the "Desert Fathers" to emulate their spiritual, disciplined lives.
In the 4th century, an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began a theological heresy about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world and is now known as the heresy of Arianism. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea AD 325 was convened by Constantine under the presidency of Saint Hosius of Cordova and Saint Alexander of Alexandria to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, which is now recited throughout the Christian world, was based largely on the teaching put forth by a man who eventually would become Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief opponent of Arius.
In the year AD 381, Pope Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, to judge Macedonious, who denied the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. This council completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:
"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in One, Holy, Universal, and Apostolic church. I confess one Baptism for the remission of sins and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen."Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who taught that God the Word was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title "Mother of God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be "Mother of Christ" Christotokos.
When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, Pope Saint Cyril I of Alexandria acted quickly to correct this breach with orthodoxy, requesting that Nestorius repent. When he would not, the Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency session and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as "The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril." In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!" Nestorius however, still would not repent and so this led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), over which Cyril presided.
The Council confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Athanasius had said that there is "One Nature and One Hypostasis for God the Word Incarnate" (Mia Physis tou Theou Loghou Sesarkomeni). Also, the introduction to the creed was formulated as follows:
"We magnify you O Mother of the True Light and we glorify you O saint and Mother of God (Theotokos) for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world. Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firmness of the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen." [not dissimilar to the "Axion Estin" Chant still used in Orthodoxy]
When in AD 451, Emperor Marcianus attempted to heal divisions in the Church, the response of Pope Dioscorus – the Pope of Alexandria who was later exiled – was that the emperor should not intervene in the affairs of the Church. It was at Chalcedon that the emperor, through the Imperial delegates, enforced harsh disciplinary measures against Pope Dioscorus in response to his boldness.
In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is "One Nature--the Logos Incarnate," of the full humanity and full divinity. The Chalcedonians' (Mainstream Christianity: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) understanding is that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Just as humans are of their mothers and fathers and not in their mothers and fathers, so too is the nature of Christ according to Oriental Orthodoxy. If Christ is in full humanity and in full divinity, then He is separate in two persons as the Nestorians teach. This is the doctrinal perception that makes the apparent difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Council's findings were rejected by many of the Christians on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, including Egyptians, Syrians, Armenians, and others.
From that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the non-Chalcedonian native Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark and the "Melkite" or Imperial Patriarch, now known as the Greek Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa.
Almost the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the Council of Chalcedon and remained faithful to the native Egyptian Church (now known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria). Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading churches of Rome and Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Oriental Orthodox Church.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria regards itself as having been misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon. There was an opinion in the Church that viewed that perhaps the Council understood the Church of Alexandria correctly, but wanted to curtail the existing power of the Alexandrine Hierarch, especially after the events that happened several years before at Constantinople from Pope Theophilus of Alexandria towards Patriarch John Chrysostom and the unfortunate turnouts of the Second Council of Ephesus in AD 449, where Eutichus misled Pope Dioscorus and the Council in confessing the Orthodox Faith in writing and then renouncing it after the Council, which in turn, had upset Rome, especially that the Tome which was sent was not read during the Council sessions.
To make things even worse, the Tome of Pope Leo of Rome was, according to the Alexandria School of Theology, particularly in regards to the definition of Christology, considered influenced by Nestorian heretical teachings. So, due to the above mentioned, especially in the consecutive sequences of events, the Hierarchs of Alexandria were considered holding too much of power from one hand, and on the other hand, due to the conflict of the Schools of Theology, there would be an impass and a scapegoat, i.e. Pope Dioscorus.
It is also to be noted that by anathemizing Pope Leo, because of the tone and content of his tome, Pope Dioscorus was found guilty.
Copts also believe that the Pope of Alexandria was forcibly prevented from attending the third congregation of the council from which he was ousted, apparently the result of a conspiracy tailored by the Roman delegates.
Chalcedonians call the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites" and the Chalcedonian doctrine in turn came to be known by the Copts as "dyophysite".
A term that Copts now say comes closer to Coptic Orthodoxy is miaphysite, which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria believes that Christ is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word", which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria.
Copts, thus, believe in two natures "human" and "divine" that are united in one hypostasis "without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration". These two natures "did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye" (Coptic Liturgy of Saint Basil of Caesarea).
The Muslim invasion of Egypt took place in AD 639. Despite the political upheaval, the Egyptian population remained mainly Christian. However, the gradual conversions to Islam over the centuries changed Egypt from a Christian to a largely Muslim country by the end of the 12th century.
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit. In 1855 the jizya tax was abolished. Shortly thereafter, the Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Coptic Church underwent phases of new development. In 1853, Pope Cyril IV established the first modern Coptic schools, including the first Egyptian school for girls. He also founded a printing press, which was the second national press in the country. Pope Cyril IV established very friendly relations with other denominations, to the extent that when the Greek Patriarch in Egypt had to absent himself for a long period of time outside the country, he left his Church under the guidance of the Coptic Patriarch.
The Theological College of the School of Alexandria was reestablished in 1893. It began its new history with five students, one of whom was later to become its dean. Today it has campuses in Alexandria, Cairo, and various dioceses throughout Egypt, as well as outside Egypt, in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne and London, where potential clergymen and other qualified men and women are taught many subjects, among which are theology, church history, missionary studies, and Coptic language.
The current Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy See of Saint Mark is Pope Shenouda III.
There are about 20 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world. Between 7 and 10 million of them are found in Egypt under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
There are also significant numbers in the diaspora in countries such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Sudan. The number of Coptic Orthodox Christians in the diaspora is roughly 4 million. In addition, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 native African adherents in East, Central and South Africa. Although under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church, these adherents are not considered Copts, since they are not ethnic Egyptians.
Some accounts regard members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (roughly 45 million), the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church (roughly 2.5 million), as members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is however a misnomer, since both the Ethiopian and the Eritrean Churches, although daughter churches of the Church of Alexandria, are currently autocephalous churches.
In 1959, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was granted its first own Patriarch by Pope Cyril VI. Furthermore, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church similarly became independent of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church in 1994, when four bishops were consecrated by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria to form the basis of a local Holy Synod of the Eritrean Church. In 1998, the Eritrean Church gained its autocephelacy from the Coptic Orthodox Church when its first Patriarch was enthroned by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria.
These three churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Oriental Orthodox churches. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church do acknowledge the Honorary Supremacy of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, since the Church of Alexandria is technically their Mother Church. Upon their selection, both Patriarchs (Ethiopian & Eritrean) must receive the approval and communion from the Holy Synod of the Apostolic See of Alexandria before their enthronement.
Since the 1980s theologians from the Oriental (Non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox and Eastern (Chalcedonian) Orthodox churches have been meeting in a bid to resolve theological differences, and have concluded that many of the differences are caused by the two groups using different terminology to describe the same thing (see Agreed Official Statements on Christology with the Eastern Orthodox Churches).
In the summer of 2001, the Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria agreed to mutually recognize baptisms performed in each other's churches, making re-baptisms unnecessary, and to recognize the sacrament of marriage as celebrated by the other. Previously, if a Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox wanted to get married, the marriage had to be performed twice, once in each church, for it to be recognized by both. Now it can be done in only one church and be recognized by both.
According to Christian Tradition and Canon Law, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria only ordains men to the priesthood and episcopate, and if they wish to be married, they must be married before they are ordained. In this respect they follow the same practices as does the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Traditionally, the Coptic language was used in church services, and the scriptures were written in the Coptic alphabet. However, due to the Arabisation of Egypt, service in churches started to witness increased use of Arabic, while preaching is done entirely in Arabic. Native languages are used, in conjunction with Coptic, during services outside of Egypt.
Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January (Gregorian Calendar), which coincides with the 25th of December according to the Julian Calendar. The Coptic Orthodox Church uses the Julian Calendar as its Ecclesiastical Calendar. It is known as the Coptic calendar or the Alexandrian Calendar. This calendar is in turn based on the old Egyptian calendar of Ancient Egypt. The Coptic Orthodox Church is thus considered an Old Calendrist Church. Christmas according to the Coptic calendar was adopted as an official national holiday in Egypt since 2002.
A 2010 New Year's Eve attack by Islamic fundamentalists on the Coptic Orthodox Church in the city of Alexandria left 21 dead and many more injured. One week later, thousands of Muslims stood as human shields outside churches as Coptic Christians attended Christmas Masses on January 6 & 7, 2011.
On Jan. 30, just days after the demonstrations to reform the Egyptian government, Muslims in southern Egypt broke into two homes belonging to Coptic Christians. The Muslim assailants murdered 11 people and wounded four others.
In Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Wednesday 2 February 2011, Coptic Christians joined hands to provide a protective cordon around their Muslim neighbors during salah (prayers) in the midst of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.
Besides Egypt, the Church of Alexandria has jurisdiction over Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and all Africa.
Both the Patriarchate of Addis Ababa and all Ethiopia, and the Patriarchate of Asmara and all Eritrea do acknowledge the supremacy of honor and dignity of the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria on the basis that both Patriarchates were established by the Throne of Alexandria and that they have their roots in the Apostolic Church of Alexandria, and acknowledge that Saint Mark the Apostle is the founder of their Churches through the heritage and Apostolic evangelization of the Fathers of Alexandria.
In other words, the Patriarchates of Ethiopia and Eritrea are daughter Churches of the Holy Apostolic Patriarchate of Alexandria.
In addition to the above, the countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Botswana, Malawi, Angola, Namibia and South Africa are under the jurisdiction and the evangelization of the Throne of Alexandria. It is still expanding in the vast continent of Africa.
Since the Christianization of Ethiopia in the 4th century, the Church of Ethiopia has come under the dominion of the Church of Alexandria. The first bishop of Ethiopia, Saint Frumentius, was consecrated as Bishop of Axum by Pope Athanasius of Alexandria in 328 AD. From then on, until 1959, the Pope of Alexandria, as Patriarch of All Africa, always named an Egyptian (a Copt) to be the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church. On 13 July 1948, the Coptic Church of Alexandria and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church reached an agreement concerning the relationship between the two churches. In 1950, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly by Pope Joseph II of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Five Ethiopian bishops were immediately consecrated by the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, and were empowered to elect a new Patriarch for their church. This promotion was completed when Joseph II consecrated the first Ethiopian-born Archbishop, Abuna Basilios, as head of the Ethiopian Church on 14 January 1951. In 1959, Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria crowned Abuna Baslios as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia.
Patriarch Basilios died in 1971, and was succeeded on the same year by Abuna Theophilos. With the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia in 1974, the new Marxist government arrested Abuna Theophilos and secretly executed him in 1979. The Ethiopian government then ordered the Ethiopian Church to elect Abuna Takla Haymanot as Patriarch of Ethiopia. The Coptic Orthodox Church refused to recognize the election and enthronement of Abuna Takla Haymanot on the grounds that the Synod of the Ethiopian Church had not removed Abuna Theophilos, and that the Ethiopian government had not publicly acknowledged his death, and he was thus still legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Formal relations between the two churches were halted, although they remained in communion with each other.
After the death of Abuna Takla Haymanot in 1988, Abune Merkorios who had close ties to the Derg (Communist) government was elected Patriarch of Ethiopia. Following the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, Abune Merkorios abdicated under public and governmental pressure and went to exile in the United States. The newly elected Patriarch, Abune Paulos was officially recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in 1992 as the legitimate Patriarch of Ethiopia. Formal relations between the Coptic Church of Alexandria and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church were resumed on July 13, 2007.
Following the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, the newly independent Eritrean government appealed to Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria for Eritrean Orthodox autocephaly. In 1994, Shenouda ordained Abune Phillipos as first Archbishop of Eritrea. The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church obtained autocephaly on 7 May 1998, and Abune Phillipos was subsequently consecrated as first Patriarch of Eritrea. The two churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Oriental Orthodox Churches, although the Coptic Orthodox Church does not recognize the deposition of the third Patriarch of Eritrea, Abune Antonios.