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Coptic Orthodox Church History PDF Print
Written by Fr. Marcos A. Marcos   
Thursday, 16 August 2007
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Coptic Orthodox Church History
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a) Between Chalcedon (451) and the Arab Conquest (642): The first schism in the Apostolic Church occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The schism appeared to be the result of a theological dispute between the Eastern Churches (Orthodox) and the Western Churches (Roman Catholic) regarding the Nature of Christ. The Copts were branded as "Monophysites", Rome and Constantinople as "Diophysites. " However, the real reason behind the dispute was more of a political nature rather than a theological one. The concealed reason was for the Western Church to transfer the Papacy from Alexandria to Rome. To be sure, the present dialogue between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox resulted in the agreement of the two Churches regarding the nature of Christ; although other theological developments are still being discussed (i.e. Purgatory, Immaculate Conception...etc.).

The aftermath of Chalcedon was one of the saddest periods in the history of Coptic Christian antiquity. The Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria was deposed and exiled by the Western civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The Byzantines installed an Imperial Byzantine Patriarch for the See of Alexandria. This infuriated the Copts and they retaliated by electing a native rival Orthodox Patriarch. Consequently, the See of Alexandria was split between two Patriarchs, the Melkite or the Royalist Chalcedonian from Constantinople, and the native Jacobite or Monophysite who does not recognize Chalcedon. The Byzantines, aided by the civil authorities, persecuted the Copts very severely massacring them even as they worshiped inside their churches. All attempts to reconcile the two lines failed until the Arab invasion of Egypt when a new chapter in the history of the Copts' oppression was about to be written.

b) The Arab Conquest (642 A.D.): Amr ibn al-As. the general of the Arab army during the Caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, after conquering Persia and taking over Syria in 636 and seizing Jerusalem in 638, turned toward Egypt to invade it. With 20,000 Arab horsemen, he was able to take over the Eastern cities and the Byzantine strongholds in the Delta reaching to the fortress of Babylon. At that time Byzantia had appointed a man called Cyrus to be both civil governor and a Melkite (Royalist) Patriarch. He took over the Patriarchate from the Orthodox Patriarch Anba Senjamin who fled to the desert. When Cyrus heard of the Muslim capture of the Eastern cities and found that the siege of Babylon was prolonged, he surrendered the fortress in 641. Shortly thereafter, the Arabs moved to the Capital city of Alexandria. Cyrus was reinstated by Byzantia as governor of Alexandria. Through treachery, he surrendered that city as well to the Arabs hoping that he would be rewarded and be instated by the Arabs as Patriarch of the Coptic Church of Egypt. His dream did not come true.

By 642 Egypt had passed from the hands of the Constantinople Emperors, into the hands of the Arab Muslims, neither was Egyptian. The city of Alexandria with its 4,000 palaces, 4,000 public baths, 400 theaters and 40,000 rich Jewish settlers, was briefly recaptured by Byzantia from the Mediterranean Sea, but then taken back by the Arabs. To avoid such incidents in the future, Amr moved his capital from Alexandria to al-Fustat(Old Cairo) and ordered the city of Alexandria to be burnt. With it, the great library and Museum of Alexandria went into flames. It is fair to say that this particular incident is a controversial subject among historians.

Throughout these thirteen centuries, the Copts had survived under Arab rule all kinds of treatment , from considerable tolerance to severe persecution, depending on the ruler at the time. In the beginning of the Muslim rule and for many centuries afterwards, Coptic Christians were given the choice of either adopting Islam, or unconditional surrender and payment of tribute, or the sword (i.e. to be killed). The Copts had seen many of their own being martyred, or converting to Islam. Still however, by divine grace they overcame their tribulations with a strong faith and a zeal for spirituality and the service of God. The twentieth century has seen quite a renaissance in all aspects of Church ministry.

c) The Coptic Church at Present: Today, the Copts number about six million, and the Coptic liturgy is still celebrated in its original form. Three liturgies are used in the Coptic Church, the liturgy of St. Cyril, the liturgy of St. Basil and the Liturgy of St. Gregory. According to tradition, the liturgy of St. Cyril is originally that of St. Mark. It was transmitted orally to the following generations and finally recorded by St. Cyril the Great in the Fifth Century. It is regarded as the greatest, the oldest and the most complete liturgical text in existence. As a work of religious literature, it is supreme.

The Coptic Church is experiencing this century quite a significant revival in many aspects of its life; in its ministry both at home and abroad, in education and in ecumenism. Institutions have been erected in Egypt to present to the world facilities for research in the Science of Coptology. Youth movement and Sunday Schools have been working with great zeal to help both children and their parents to live in the world but not to be of the world. Two new bishoprics were established for these ministries, one for the youth, the other for religious and theological education. The number of the logical seminaries has increased tremendously all over Egypt and the curricula has been highly developed to reflect the advancement of research in the fields of Patristics, Religious Education ...etc. and to discuss the new trends in today's theology. St. Didymus institute for the Blind prepares chanters who constitute an important ministry in the celebration of the Liturgy. Moreover, other Coptic Orthodox theological seminaries were established in the USA and Australia. New ministries such as the "Diaconia" project have been introduced to cater to the needs of people in rural areas.

The Coptic Church's missionaries were sent in the past few decades to many African countries and a bishop was ordained to look after this ministry. It is noticeable that, with the fall of colonialism, the Africans look to Egypt for religious leadership and spiritual guidance, since it is the only indigenous African Church. Other churches are established in Kuwait, Libya, Lebanon, Europe, England, North and South America, the Caribbean Islands and Australia. At home new churches have been built and new monasteries and convents have been established. The number of monks and nuns has been on the increase in the past fifty years. The Church has come out of isolation to meet with other churches, both Catholic and Protestant in Ecumenical Councils. Dialogues between the Coptic Church and other Churches have been initiated and carried out by the Coptic Patriarch himself in brotherly love to work towards the achievement of the oneness of faith.

In conclusion, it is gratifying to note that many of the greatest universities of Europe and the USA have undertaken the study of many aspects of Coptic Civilization.


Atiya, Aziz Surryal: A history Eastern Christianity. Krans Reprint, 1980.

Atiya, Aziz Suryal: The Coptic Encyclopedia. 8 Volumes. Macmillan, 1991.

El Masri, Iris Habib: The Story of the Copts, The True Story of Christianity in Egypt, 3 Volumes. End-Time Handmaiden,l982.

Payne, Robert: The Holy Fire, Tire Story of the Fathers of the Eastern Church. St. Vladimir, 1980.

Eusebius of Caesaria: Ecclesiastical History (in Arabic) "Tarikh El Kaneesa"

A Monk at St. Pishoy monastery: The Story of St. Pishoy Monastery (in Arabic) "Qessat Deir El-Keddees El-Azeem El-Anba Bishoy".Anba Rowais Press, 1990.

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