Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Christians of Egypt

Peter Berger provides a fascinating short essay answering "Who are the Copts?" at his blog at The American Interest:
.... Who are these Copts? Certainly they are correctly identified as Christians. They are also correctly described as constituting some 10% of the Egyptian population and as the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they are also described as “Orthodox” Christians. That is a more iffy term. The Patriarch of Constantinople, for one, would not agree that the Coptic church is “Orthodox.” ....

The Coptic church in Egypt is commonly described as “Oriental,” a geographically confusing term. It is grouped with a number of other churches in Africa and the Middle East who share one important characteristic—they are not in communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople. In addition to the Coptic church in Egypt, these include sister churches of the latter—the churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and churches resulting from Coptic missionary activities in other African countries, and, very significantly, the Armenian church. There is also a scattering of related churches in Iraq and Syria (some called “Assyrian”). Theologically, all these churches are often called “Monophysite” (literally in Greek, “of one nature”). They don’t like this term. They prefer “Miaphysite” (literally, “of a compound nature”)—both adjectives refer to understandings of the relation between the divinity and the humanity of Christ. The least controversial designation of this ecclesiastical aggregation is “Non-Chalcedonian”—all these churches have rejected the Christological definitions of the Council of Chalcedon.
Berger then describes the theological issues addressed by Chalcedon pertaining to the relationship of human to divine in the person of Jesus Christ which "defined Christ as being both fully human and fully divine." And then:
Back to the Copts: They claim that their church was founded by the Apostle Mark in Alexandria as early as the middle of the first century. Leaving aside the role of Mark (which is hard to establish), the early date is very probably valid. Thus the head of the church carries the melodious title of Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy See of Saint Mark. The current incumbent is Pope Shenouda III. The Byzantine authorities, which had little tolerance for any Christian churches not under the control of Constantinople, set up an imperial (“Melkite”) patriarch in Alexandria with exactly the same title. It is not surprising that the Copts were not greatly upset when in the seventh century Arab armies incorporated Egypt in the burgeoning Islamic empire. Copts, along with Jews and other Christians, became dhimmis under Muslim rule—second-class citizens, but protected and given far-reaching rights as “People of the Book”. All the same, there were great benefits connected with conversion to Islam, and the Christian population of Egypt shrank over time. Today the great majority of Egyptian Christians are Copts. They can rightly claim to have the most ancient roots in the country. While their spoken language is now Arabic, their liturgical language is the vernacular version of ancient Egyptian as it was spoken around the time of Chalcedon—a remarkable cultural survival. .... [more]
Who are the Copts? | Religion and Other Curiosities