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Understanding the Coptic Christian Faith
The Origins of the Coptic Faith
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the word "Copt" literally meant Egypt. This word evolved into a religious expression pertaining to one of the oldest faiths in the world, Coptic Christianity.
Traditionally, the Copts believe that Jesus Christ was of two natures, humanity and divinity.
The belief is founded on seven sacraments:
- The Eucharist
- Unction of the Sick
Founding a Religion
John Mark, one of the 72 apostles set out for Egypt around 55 AD on a missionary journey, preaching to the masses the message of Jesus Christ.
John Mark was eventually ordained a bishop of the Coptic Church, and along with seven other deacons, founded the School of Alexandria.
Unfortunately, John Mark's ever-growing presence was a threat to the the "non-believers" or "pagans" who worshiped their Hellenistic Gods. His attempt to cleanse the city of their paganistic practice back-fired, and in return, he was attacked by an angry mob and dragged by a rope through the streets of Alexandria until he was dead.
As a result of his hedonistic murder, he was elevated to sainthood and declared a martyr by the Egyptian Christian Chuch, and only heightening the Coptic belief amongst Egyptians.
After the brutal death of John Mark, Alexandria developed into the foremost city on Christianity in the ancient western and middle eastern world.
It was not until 451 AD that the Egyptian Copts challenged Rome's doctrinal leadership, creating a schism throughout the entire church, and finally, while fighting over the proclamation of Christian theology, the church splintered into East and West.
Since then, Egyptian Coptic Christianity has not communed with the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern orthodox churches for well over sixteen centuries.
In the following sections of this hub, you will visit the different aspects of Coptic culture from symbolism to modern day persecutions, and learn, as with every other religion that faith above all is the most important medium of the Coptic foundation.
"The Christian religion, though scattered and abroad will in the end gather itself together at the foot of the cross." ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Symbol of the Copts
The holy cross is a unanimous iconic symbol of the Coptic people. The cross is so sacred that most Copts have the symbol tattooed on their right inner-arm, near the wrist, which symbolizes their love of God.
The earliest Coptic cross was the ankh, similar symbol to the Egyptian ankh which symbolized the ancient Egyptian belief of eternal life, however, the Coptic ankh took on its own distinctive meaning symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Over the centuries, the Coptic cross has taken on many forms. Provided below is a chart showing the physical variance from different regions:
The Sacred Coptic Cross
Physical Variance of the Coptic Cross
Tiny Crosses and Circles
French Occitan Cross
Mouthed and Hollowed
"Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe." ~ St. Augustine
Ancient Coptic art primarily drew its influence from Hellenistic Greece, native Egypt, and including lesser known influences from the Byzantium and Persian cultures.
The Coptic Christians did not differentiate between the "arts" and "craftsmanship", and given this element it remains to be seen that this true fact stands. Listed below are three areas of artistic concentration:
- Coptic Paintings ~ Early in the 4th century, Coptic churches painted their walls and created icons to show their measure of faith.
- Coptic Textiles ~ In ancient Egypt the dead were buried with intricate woven linens, and over the centuries, the linens actually survived due to aridity of the land.
- Modern Coptic Art ~ In today's world, Modern Coptic art is found everywhere in the lives of the Coptic people.
Portrait of a Boy From Fayum
BBC Documentary on Coptic Art
Examples of Coptic Art
Funerary Stelae (Tombstone)
Fayum Mummy Portraits
Stucco Wall Decorations
"A scholar is like a book written in a dead language. It is not every one that can read in it." ~ William Hazlitt
Ancient Coptic Language
The Coptic language, also known as an Afro-Asiatic language, was a final development of the ancient Egyptian language exchanged throughout Egypt during the Common Era.
Though the earlier Egyptian language used hieroglyphics and demotic script, the Coptic language used the Greek alphabet, and in itself was a modified form of the Indo-European language.
In the present time, the use of the mediaeval Boharic dialect only survives as a liturgical language prevalent with the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Six Ancient Dialects of the Coptic Language
Bohairic (Nile Delta)
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, 'You are mad; you are not like us.” ~ St Anthony the Great
Armed Guard Protecting a Coptic Church
The Coptic Christian Persecutions
The earliest known event of systematic persecution known of the Coptic Christians was the Arab Muslim invasion of Egypt in the year 641 AD. This event marked the beginning of a never-ending struggle for the Copts in Egypt, and with Muslim control, a gradual shift in balance from a once Christian dominant culture slowly converted to a muslim state by the end of the twelfth century.
By the early nineteenth century, under the rule of Muhammad Ali, Egyptian Copts experienced tolerance when In 1855, the inferiority tax (Jizya tax), which, Copts paid to the Egyptian Army for protection was lifted for the first time in hundreds of years.
By 1919, the Egyptian Revolution marked the end of Christian inferiority, and the Copts began to thrive under new-found freedoms though they were still treated with disdain by the Muslim citizens of Egypt.
Since the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Coptic Christians have experienced a heightened state of persecution at a level not seen since the Common Era.
Below is a timeline of recent major events, which have unfolded in Egypt, and document the rise of Coptic Christian persecutions:
Pope Shenouda III
- In 1981, President Anwar Sadat exiled Coptic Pope Shenouda III
- Towards the end of the 1990s, Muslim youth, a gang-like culture ransacked 38 businesses owned by Coptic Christians
- In 1997, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mustafa Mashur suggested the reinstatement of the inferiority tax (Jizya tax).
- In 2005, the Alexandria Anti-Christian Riot erupted into violence, stirring 5,000 Muslims to throw stones. As a result of the violence, over hundred people injured, and three died.
- In 2010, a machine gun attack by a Muslim mob, killing seven Copts, including a Muslim police officer who tried to defend the Christians.
- In 2011, Maspiro Massacre was the worst massacre ever to take place killing 24 Christians after thousands of Coptic Christians took to the streets in protest of an earlier incident of a church burned to the ground by Muslims.
- In 2012, a Coptic Christian school teacher was put in jail for posting a defamatory cartoon depicting an insult to President Mohammed Morsi. The teacher claimed innocence and his social networking site had been hacked. This caused another stir in protests and rock throwing amongst the Coptic Christians.
- In 2013, the year marked the beginning of a number of church burnings across Egypt, elevating a wide-spread intent of extermination, and still continues in recent months leading up to the current date since this hub has been posted.
The Violence Continues
Given the timeline, the violence in Egypt since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 has increased ten-fold, and with it, aside from Coptic Christian persecutions, there are other injustices unfolding just as serious.
The Muslim Brotherhood Anti-Christian movement has also led to another movement, the Anti-Women crusade where repeatedly, the violence against women, and enforcement of Sharia law has sky-rocketed to extreme incidents where women are abducted and forced into sex slavery, muslim marriages, or beaten and gang-raped into submission.
The international community has tried to intervene, but as long as Muslim Extremists push for Sharia laws the violence will continue, and Coptic Christians along with Egyptian women will continue to be vulnerable until the Egyptian people find a way to oust the Muslim Brotherhood.
Should the United States Help Defend the Religious Freedoms of the Christian Coptics in Egypt?
A Must See Movie About Alexandria and its Religious Upheaval
Christianity arrived early in Egypt, brought-according to tradition-by Saint Mark the Evangelist, who became the first patriarch of Alexandria. The Coptic Orthodox Church has flourished ever since, with millions of adherents both in Egypt and in Coptic communities around the world. Since its split from the Byzantine Church in 451, the Coptic Church has proudly maintained its early traditions, and influence from outside has been minimal: the liturgy is still sung to unique rhythms in Coptic, a late stage of the same ancient Egyptian language that is inscribed in hieroglyphs on temple walls and papyri. Dr. Otto Meinardus, a leading authority on the history of the Coptic Church, here revises, updates, and combines his renowned studies Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern (AUC Press, 1965, 1977) and Christian Egypt, Faith and Life (AUC Press, 1970) into a new, definitive, one-volume history, surveying the twenty centuries of existence of one of the oldest churches in the world.
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