Coptic Christians: Who Are They, and What Is Their Belief System?
Divergent forms of religious denominations abound in the modern world, with Coptic Christians vying for their place in the spotlight. Beyond Catholicism and Protestantism, other forms of Christianity lack the same mass media presence and reputation that are still widely practiced by their enthusiastic believers. So if you want to discover the true meaning behind Coptic Christianity, this information is for you. This article will provide an in-depth overview of Coptic Christians, their beliefs, and where they come from. It will also present details on key markers that differentiate them from other forms of Christianity.
Who are Coptic Christians?
Coptic Christians are the followers of a Christian Church and are one of the oldest Christian denominations in the world. This group of religious believers originated from Egypt and has members around the globe, even though it was nearly destroyed for centuries by persecution. About 10% of the Egyptian population identifies as Coptic, mostly concentrated in Upper Egypt.
The first use of the word “Copt” is from the Greek “Aigyptos,” which means Egyptians, denoting the ethnicity and nationality of a person. A Copt is thus an Egyptian (Coptic) Christian. Unfortunately, much of the liturgical language Egypt’s Copts spoke (Coptic language) was lost during the Arab invasion of Egypt and the ongoing Islamic oppression of the Coptic Christians.
Ethnoreligious Copts are a minority in modern Egypt compared to Muslims. Yet devotees of this Christian faith from Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Morocco, and the Middle East generally hold on to and preserve the ancient Christian traditions and their Coptic heritage. They are also a part of the Afroasiatic family of peoples and dialects of about 300 languages, including Arabic.
What is meant by Coptic Christianity?
Historically, Christianity has been divided into three main branches: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Orthodoxy, the second-largest Christian denomination in the world, encompasses several churches, one of them being the Coptic Orthodox Church.
As part of the wider family of Oriental Orthodox churches, which includes the Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac, and Malankara churches, the Coptic church differentiates itself from the Eastern Orthodox Church by, among other things, having a different Chalcedonian Christological view that Jesus was only divine and not human.
The headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church is in Cairo, Egypt, while St. George’s Church of Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) holds the most senior rank of the Eastern Orthodox family of churches.
The Coptic Church was officially recognized as a distinct Christian denomination in the 4th century CE. However, it is widely held within the church that the apostle and evangelist St. Mark was instrumental in its establishment in Egypt during the middle of the 1st century.
This cannot be further from the truth as Otto F. A. Meinardus writes, “Eusebius, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in the first quarter of the fourth century, records this tradition and states that Mark came to Egypt in the first and third year of the reign of the emperor Claudius, in A.D. 41/42 or 43/44,” Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity p. 28.
What does it mean to be Orthodox?
The term “orthodox” is derived from the Greek word “orthodoxos,” which means right. Thus, Orthodox means to be right in opinion. Orthodox Christians adhere strictly to the true doctrine, original Copts’ faith, and the early church traditions to distance themselves from the 4th-century Christian schism. In the wake of many Christendom divisions and crusaders that purport to represent the true Christian faith or the “true church,” orthodoxy remains intact in establishing a long-standing Christian tradition and conforming to Torah, the Law.
How did this sect of Christianity come about?
Dating back to 48 CE, Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and soon attracted followers in Egypt, thanks to Saint Mark the Evangelist. However, many Egyptian Christians were violently persecuted and died under the reign of pagan Roman emperors. In fact, it was during Diocletian’s reign (284 – 305) that the large-scale attack and torture of Christians in Egypt occurred. The mass execution marked the beginning of the Coptic Church, which honors the martyrs of this brutal period through their commemoration on the first day of the Coptic calendar.
What do Coptic Christians believe?
First formulated as a unity of faith by the Christian community in line with the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), the Nicene Creed is the same statement of faith that all Coptic Christians share. Holy Trinity and incarnation of Christ are the profound long-held beliefs (St. Luke’s Orthodox Coptic Church) that keep the Coptic community in harmony with its adherents of the past, present, and future.
Copts believe in the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The latter two are inseparable from God and have no existence of their own. Christ is the most important figure in the church and is called “God the Word” (Logos), who came to be born of the Virgin Mary and Holy Spirit. Christ died for our sins so that through baptism, we may be reconciled with God and enter into eternal salvation.
How are Coptic Christians different from other forms of Christianity, specifically practices in Europe and America?
Particularities and distinctions between Coptic Christianity and other forms of Christianity are evident. As an Oriental Orthodox church, Coptic Christianity differs in some ways from the more Western-inspired Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism.
1. Papal supremacy
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Coptic Christianity rejects the notion of papal infallibility and the priority of the Pope as the church’s leader over any other bishop. Supremacy and papal control over church affairs are not the same as the primacy Rome historically held after the Council of Chalcedon meeting, where honor rather than power was the motivation for the Pope’s position. Therefore, the Coptic Pope is a Patriarch, but papal primacy is considered “primus inter pares” and has no power of jurisdiction.
Coptic Christians engage in monasticism or living a life separated from ‘civilian’ society to focus on Coptic spiritual practices. Compared to the Western system of religious orders who take vows of poverty, celibacy, chastity, and obedience, formal Monastic rules are uncommon and do not apply in the Coptic tradition. Instead, eremitic, coenobitic, and skete communities exist for private and communal monastic life and hermit monks who live in seclusion.
Coptic Christians do not accept purgatory, a belief held by Roman Catholics and some Western European denominations that those who have confessed their sins but are not worthy to enter heaven will undergo a period of purification through cleansing fire. In Coptic Christianity, the idea of purgatory goes against Biblical teachings concerning salvation, that Jesus Christ’s blood sacrifice was the only means to forgive sins after repentance (1 Jn 1:7,9).
4. Clerical marriage
In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, married priests in the Coptic Church are the norm, though clergy can voluntarily abstain from marriage. While other Christendom denominations may not strictly follow the tradition of mandatory celibacy, the Coptic Church allows marriage before ordination but does not endorse marriage after. However, a married Deacon is not permitted to remarry after the death of his wife.
Celebrating the nativity of Jesus Christ around Christmas is a non-negotiable tradition to many Coptic Christians. However, Christmas observance in the Coptic Church is clearly distinguished from the Western European adoption of Christian festivals into a secular celebration. The Coptic Christmas is on January 7, according to the Coptic Calendar, with the Western-style Christmas celebrated almost two weeks before December 25.
Why do Coptic priests wear black?
In the Coptic tradition, the priests and bishops wear black garments to represent the dying of oneself and continuous mourning. As a sign of veneration and reverence, they are reminded that they’re working for God alone and not for worldly authority or selfish ambition. More importantly, it emphasizes being mindful of God-given duties and unbiased judgment or service to the congregation. Through their sincerity and avoiding taking sides, the priests can serve as the Lord’s conscience and maintain unity.
Does the Coptic Church have nuns?
Yes. Nuns are part of the Coptic Church. However, Coptic nuns live in a monastery and do not lead a congregation. Strict virginity obligation applies during their commitment period. To avoid impure thoughts or temptations, they willingly isolate and devote themselves to the service of God at an early age. A life of consecration, prayers, fasting, abstinence, manual work, and hosting guests are the roles monastic fulfill.
What Bible do Coptic Christians use?
Original Greek manuscripts of the Septuagint (the LXX) are primary sources for the Old Testament Biblical text that Coptic Christians use today. They hold the books of creation, history, poetry, and wisdom in high esteem, along with the Law and the Prophets. The New Testament documents the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles. And the New King James Version is the modern English translation of these scriptures. With 39 books in the Old Testament, and 27 books in the New Testament, Coptic Christianity also accepts 10 Deuterocanonical Books.
Do Coptic Christians follow the pope?
Coptic Christians do not follow the Roman Catholic Pope Francis. However, they do subscribe to the primates of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Pope Shenouda III’s successor, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, the 118th pope of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate and the Bishop of Alexandria, is the spiritual leader of the Holy Synod and all the 18 million Coptic Orthodox Christians all over the world. The Coptic Pope is the supreme ecclesiastical head and resides in the Patriarchal Palace within Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo.
What does their worship look like?
Coptic practices and worship rites conducted mainly on Sundays include the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles. A lectionary-based form of worship, sermons, and elaborate hymns recitation also occur during the liturgical services. Incense, candles, and liturgical prayers represent a closer approach to God. Venerated icons of Christ and saints do not compose a form of worship but rather the intercession of the holy men and women for believers. During the Holy Eucharist, unleavened bread and a chalice of wine symbolize a rational sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood.
Is the Coptic Christian religion purely Egyptian in origin? (completely separate from Greek Orthodox Christianity?)
If you consider that Apostle Mark first brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to Alexandria, Egypt, in 50 AD, it is not a purely Egyptian religion. But since the descendants of pre-Islamic Egyptians were Christians from the beginning during the persecutions of the first century Christian Egypt by the Roman Empire, the Coptic Church was, in a sense, an indigenous Egyptian Church. Yet similarities in the Coptic and Greek Orthodox church’s profession of faith are undeniable.
Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the land during his tenure from 306 to 337 AD, so the Coptic Church fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire, in which some of the patriarchs were Greek. Whereas non-Chalcedonian Christology the Copts adopted since the 4th and 5th centuries AD supported miaphysitism and the monophysite heresy, this later resulted in a division between the Coptic Church and the Greek-speaking Roman Christians of the Eastern Orthodoxy.
How were the Coptic Christians persecuted?
Bloodshed and extreme intolerance formed the tenets of religious persecution in the pre-modern world. Egypt’s native Coptic Church was no exception. Before Arab Muslims conquered Coptic Christian Egypt in the 7th century, the Roman Empire had established a short-lived rule over Egypt’s native Christians. Then, when Islam took over in 639 AD, the Muslim faith brutally martyred thousands of Copts, which is why many viewed Islam as a persecuting religion. However, other Christian sects also faced persecution at the hands of Muslims.
The “Era of Martyrs,” as it were, began in 284 AD with Diocletian’s attempts to impose a tetrarchy on Egypt, in which the priests of native Egyptian Christians were persecuted, and those that resisted were tortured and killed. Even so, sporadic and localized anti-Christianism prevailed in the first century during emperor Nero’s reign until the 4th century. Stonings, assaults, forced conversions, and even prohibitions against establishing new places of worship became commonplace for Egyptian Christians under Roman and Arabic-Muslim rule.
Can I become a practicing Coptic Christian if I am not Egyptian?
Yes. Just because you are not an Egyptian doesn’t mean you cannot be a Copt. In fact, many non-Egyptian Copts worldwide are practicing their faith today. Being an Egyptian is not a requirement to be a Christian. Being an Egyptian and having another religion, such as Islam, is possible.
Even though many Copts identify as Arabs, a majority of Egyptians identify as the last living heirs of the Pharaonic-era Egyptian civilization. So, regardless of where you are from, it is definitely possible to become a Copt and practice your faith.
According to the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, these are the steps you follow to become a practicing Copt:
- Have a genuine desire to become a Copt
- Demonstrate your faith by getting baptized in the Coptic Orthodox Church
- Get anointed through the Holy Myron Oil
- Participate in Holy Eucharist
What are the major misconceptions about Coptic Christians?
Encounters with Copts are usually positive and good-natured, but unfortunately for some, the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about Copts still exists. Though incorrect, it is common for people with erroneous perceptions to believe that Copts are excessively fanatical ritualists and exclusively clannish, unlike most other Christians. This is far from the truth. To debunk this myth, here are five misconstrued beliefs about Copts:
Myth 1: The Coptic Christian church is exclusive to people with Egyptian roots only
This is not true. Copts are people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. One may become a Copt simply by converting to the faith through baptism. Bloodlines or original nationality have nothing to do with it. Everyone is welcome.
Myth 2: The Coptic Church is the same as the Catholic Church
Though both serve as Christian churches and have an almost similar hierarchical structure, Copts are, in fact, not Catholic. They are a part of the Orthodox church, a more conservative denomination of the Christian faith. Some of the major differences include the following:
- Belief in Christology:the Coptic Church believes that Jesus was fully human (well-formed man), while the Catholic Church believes that Jesus was fully human and God at the same time.
- Church authority: the Coptic Church is organized independently under the Pope in Cairo, while the Catholic Church runs under the Pope in Rome, who has immediate jurisdiction in every church worldwide.
- Beards: Coptic clergy and monks typically wear long beards. On the other hand, Roman Catholics usually shave their beards.
- Clergy: in the Coptic Church, priests fall into one of two categories: the married clergy and the monastic clergy. Men practice clerical celibacy to become priests in the Catholic Church.
Myth 3: Images and idols form part of the Coptic Church’s worship
Copts also do not worship images. Idolatry that is condemned in the Bible is devotion to an illusion. However, the icons found in the Coptic Church represent the actual saints and Jesus in their divine nature. The faithful use them to depict historical figures who genuinely existed, lived, and are now in heaven with the Lord. They become a form of communication or channels through which believers connect with God.
Myth 4: Adherents of the Coptic Church are following a defunct faith
Despite being very old, the Coptic Church is far from dead. In fact, its liturgical practices and ritual prayer are among the most vibrant and richly developed in the Christian world. Whereas the traditions of the Coptic Church are ancient, they are very much alive and active, as can be witnessed in the regular services held at Coptic churches worldwide.
Are there any famous Copts?
From authors, movie stars, and musicians to scientists, politicians, and theologians, the Coptic Orthodox Christian community is diverse in its demographics and extremely active in world affairs. Many Coptic figures who have achieved notable accomplishments that helped to shape the world we live in were born or raised in the Coptic Orthodox Christian faith. These include author and playwright Naguib Mahfouz, actor Rami Malek, Alladin (2019) film star Mena Massoud, Hollywood Director Asaad Kelada, billionaire Fayez Sarofim, Muslim Brotherhood critic and renowned journalist Hani Shukrallah, and Africa’s 8th wealthiest billionaire Naguib Sawiris.
How can Church.org help answer my questions?
If you’re still confused and have further questions, you can contact a Coptic priest to get help. That’s where Church.org comes in. You can easily find the telephone number and email address of a local Coptic Christian Church near you to get in touch with the clergy. With a database of worship centers around the world, a search feature, and a map that lets you pinpoint your location, the path to a fulfilling search for God just got easier. Feel free to consult our library of articles and informational guides on any aspects of the Christian faith if you’d like more resources for your spiritual and intellectual growth.