Coptic Christianity suddenly was in the headlines. It was good news at first. Pope Francis was planning to visit Egypt. He would meet Coptic Christians while there.
Then, the news was bad. Terrorists bombed Coptic Christian churches on Palm Sunday, slaughtering many innocent people. These attacks on Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt were horrendous in themselves, but they were only the most recent of many outrages that Coptic Christians have endured over the years.
Who are the Coptic Christians?
Christianity has been in Egypt since the days of the apostles. It is said that St. Mark the Evangelist, considered by some to have been an early disciple of Jesus who later was associated with St. Peter, went to Alexandria, still today a great city in Egypt, a Mediterranean seaport. Two millennia ago, it was the second most important city of the Roman Empire.
Alexandria came to be, and is today, the center of Coptic Christianity. It is hard to believe, but within a few centuries after Christ, Coptic Christianity was the major religion in Egypt. It also had been taken to Ethiopia, where incidentally it still is the dominant religion.
Then came the Arab Muslim sweep across North Africa. Many Christians converted, or were forced to convert, to Islam, but Coptic Christianity never died altogether.
In the fifth century, the Coptic Christians severed their union with the papacy. About 300 years ago, a segment within Coptic Christianity restored this union, but the majority of Copts remained Orthodox, separated from Rome.
The Coptic Orthodox title the head of their church the “pope.” Presently Pope Tawadros II is head of the Coptic Orthodox communion. Heading the Coptic Catholics is the patriarch of Alexandria, the diocese believed to have been founded by St. Mark, Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak.
Aside from Alexandria, six other Coptic Catholic dioceses, or eparchies, are in Egypt.
Obviously, Coptic Catholics believe all that other Catholics believe.
Coptic Orthodox do not accept the authority of the bishop of Rome, but they celebrate seven sacraments. They believe that deacons, priests and bishops are ordained and are in a line that began with the apostles. They believe that the Lord is present, body, blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist.
In several other matters, however, they differ from Roman Catholic teaching.
For both Coptic Catholics and Catholic Orthodox, the liturgy is in Coptic, the ancient language of Egypt, and from the language, their religious tradition draws its name.
For almost a millennium and a half, Coptic Christians, Coptic Catholics and Coptic Orthodox, have had a hard way to go. For a while, Britain dominated Egypt, and Christians were in a more protected situation. Since Egypt attained full independence, in living memory, Christians have lived through days of peace but also through many days of persecution or at least harassment.
The turmoil that has existed in Egypt for the past several years hardly has helped the situation.
Coptic Catholic parishes exist in the United States in Boston, Brooklyn, Los Angeles and Nashville. They are responsible to Patriarch Sidrak, not to the local bishop of the Latin rite.
Recently, as unrest has intensified in the Middle East, and especially in Egypt, more Coptic Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox, have come to the United States. Not surprisingly, many Egyptian Christians worry about the future. The future of this pattern is unclear, as it is not known how, or if, the Trump Administration will handle such immigration.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.