Coptic Orthodox Church

*Distribution (membership):
- Egypt: 11,000,000
- Outside Egypt: 1,000,000 (Australia, Europe, North America)

The Copts are the native Christians of Egypt and the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Eusebius records the tradition that the church in Egypt was founded by St Mark the Evangelist, and Alexandria ranked with Antioch and Rome as one of the chief sees of the early church. The Coptic Church suffered severely in the persecution under Diocletian. In Egypt the rapid development of monasticism is attested by the many Coptic "Lives of the Saints" and "Sayings of the Fathers". The Byzantine political domination and the misunderstanding of the Coptic doctrine caused the Coptic Church to undergo severe sufferings at the hands of the Byzantine rulers. In 616 the Copts came under Persian domination. In 642 they were conquered by the Arabs, whose rule in varying forms has lasted to the present day. Long periods of comparative peace would suddenly be broken by persecution, e.g. under the Caliph el Hakim (996-1021), who is said to have destroyed 3,000 churches and caused large numbers to apostatize. The Coptic Church is the largest Christian community in the Middle East. The Coptic language is used mainly in the church and in the service books, which provide the Arabic text in parallel columns. The liturgies used are those of St Basil, St Gregory and St Cyril. Five important fasts are observed: 1) the pre-Lenten fast of Nineveh, 2) the great fast of Lent, 3) the fast of the Nativity before Christmas, 4) the fast of the Apostles, after the Ascension, 5) the fast of the Virgin, before the Assumption. In addition Wednesday and Friday are fasting days except between Easter and Pentecost. Of the hundreds of monasteries which flourished in the deserts of Egypt there are now twenty left with more than 1000 monks, and seven convents with about 600 nuns.

Towards the middle of the 19th century the Coptic Church began to undergo phases of new development. Primary, secondary and technical schools for boys and girls were established, some by the patriarchate and the diocesan authorities, others by various Coptic benevolent societies. The theological school for the preparation of priests and lay leaders was re-established in Cairo in 1975 under the name of Theological Seminary. Today there are nine seminaries in Egypt and five outside the country.

It should be noted that the Coptic language, being the last form or stage of the ancient Egyptian language (originally written in picture-form called hieroglyphics), is indispensable for the study of Pharaonic history and for biblical studies. In the 2nd century AD, Pantaenus, the principal of the theological school in Alexandria, established the Coptic alphabet, using Greek characters and adding seven from the Egyptian which correspond to sounds that do not exist in Greek, in order to record phonetically the vernacular of Egypt. Public interest in theological studies as well as in Coptic history and tradition has led to the foundation by the church of the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo. More than one hundred postgraduate students are currently enrolled in the institute.

The Coptic laity (men and women) participate actively in the life of the church. Parish church councils comprise various sub-committees which cooperate with the clergy to meet the pastoral and social needs of the community. Diocesan communities and parish congregations have established a large number of benevolent societies covering a wide range of spiritual, educational and welfare services.