Who are the Egyptian Christians?

Egypt has been in the news very often during the past year or so, and sadly all too often news reports have mentioned assaults against Egyptian Christians. Who are these Egyptian Christians?

In terms of numbers, Christians constitute 10 percent of the Egyptian population. It is a figure that might suggest some strength, but the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim. Historically, the relationship between Christians and Muslims has had its ups and downs.

Not helping Egyptian Christians is the fact that their religion binds them to Christians elsewhere in the world, and Muslim extremists resent predominantly Christian societies as being bound and determined to humiliate, if not eradicate, adherents of Islam.

Actually, Christianity is an older presence in Egypt than is Islam. In the first several centuries of Christianity, Alexandria, then and still a great Mediterranean seaport, was one of the largest and grandest cities of the Roman Empire, almost a rival to Rome itself. It was a major commercial and cultural center. Not surprisingly, the city early was a Christian landmark. According to tradition, St. Mark, the Evangelist, sent by St. Peter himself, formed the first Christian community in Alexandria. St. Mark is regarded, therefore, as the first bishop of Alexandria. Converts to Christianity were many in a short time.

As time passed, Coptic, an ancient North African language, came to be used in worship, as Latin came to be used in worship in Rome. For this reason, Egyptian Christians today are referred to as Copts or Coptic Christians or Coptic Catholics.

For centuries, Christianity thrived. Since Alexandria was a premier world center of learning, the city produced many Christian scholars whose writings still are read as Christian treasures. An important contribution of Egyptian Christianity was monasticism. Egypt had monasteries of men and women, devoted to prayer, before the monastic movement took hold in Europe.

All this Christian majesty started to fade when Muslims began their march across North Africa, invading Egypt in A.D. 639. In relatively short order, the Egyptian Christians went from being a major component in the life of the Church to being an imperiled minority. As time passed, disputes — many of them theological, and profoundly theological, some of them with political overtones — beset the Church, and Egypt’s Christians adopted beliefs contrary to those of the universal Church centered around the pope.

For centuries, therefore, Egyptian Christians remained separated theologically from Rome. Attempts at reunion came and went. Only in 1741 did an effort to bring Egyptian Christianity and Catholicism together again succeed. Some, but certainly not all, Christians in Egypt acknowledged the pope and his teaching and governing authority. Their spiritual descendants are the Egyptian Coptic Catholics of today. About 165,000 Christians worldwide are Coptic Catholics, most of them in Egypt, although many are immigrating to the United States. As a result, Coptic Catholic parishes now exist in several American cities.

Most Egyptian Christians today are not in communion with the pope. They hold some beliefs not consistent with the teachings of the Roman Church, but in many instances they still profess a religion in keeping with Catholicism. Recent popes have made overtures to Coptic authorities not in union with Rome, but no reunion has occurred.

Pray for Egypt’s Christians. Their faith has been resolute for centuries, tragically most often beneath the threat of martyrdom.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.