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Who Are Egypt's Copts and Coptic Christians?


copts egypt palm sunday

Palm Sunday in Egypt as Copts have been celebrating it for more than a millennium.

Norbert Schiller/Getty Images
Question: Who Are Egypt's Copts and Coptic Christians?
“Copt” and “Coptic” are terms often misunderstood and misapplied—not least because of confusion created by Copts themselves. Typically, the terms refer to Egypt’s large community of Christians. But not all of Egypt’s Christians are Copts. Out of Egypt’s 83 million people (in 2009), 9% are Copts, 1% are Christians of other denominations, such as Melkites, Maronites and Chaldeans (and 90% are Sunni Muslims).


Origins of the Words: “Copt” and “Coptic”

The word “Coptic” is frequently applied to Egyptian Christians throughout history. That, too, is wrong. The word “Copt” takes its origin from Kpt, which is the way Arabs pronounced the Greek word for Egypt, Aigyptos. So “Copt” originally had an exclusively geographic meaning. It couldn’t be otherwise, since Copts as a Christian sect distinct from the Roman Church did not yet exist for the first five centuries of Christian history. That would change in the 6th century.

To add to the confusion, there’s also Coptic art and language, which refers not to the art and language of Egypt’s Christian Copts after the 6th century, but to Egyptian art and language in general from the 1st to the 7th century. The Greek’s geographic definition of Egypt as Coptic Egypt prevails in this case. Egyptian art from that period reveals classical and ancient Egyptian influences in addition to early Christian influence.

Still, “Copt” and “Coptic” prevail as terms referring to the Christian religion practiced by Egyptians. How and why the terms came to mean what they do, in their correct context, explains the emergence of Egypt’s Coptic Christians as a distinct community within the eastern church.

The Council of Chalcedon and the Emergence of Coptic Christianity

In October 451, Pope Leo and Byzantine Emperor Marcian convened the Council of Chalcedon on the eastern (or Asian) bank of the Bosphorus in present-day Istanbul to settle a dispute over the meaning of Christ between the Eastern and Western church. To the western church (based in Rome and Constantinople), the Chalcedonian definition of faith held that Christ existed “in two natures”—that he was both divine and human, “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.”

Clerics of the eastern church, including the powerful patriarchs of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria, found that definition of faith quite confusing. Influenced as they were by the Semitic tradition of monotheism, they were Monophysites (from the Greek words for “single” and “nature”): They could not accept that Christ had two nature. Doing so, they felt, was tantamount to accepting that Christ was two individuals, had two identities, which diminished Christ’s divinity. They’d had a hard enough time accepting the concept of the Trinity (that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one and the same substance but father and son are different persons). The most those eastern patriarchs were willing to accept was that Christ had come into being out of two different natures, the divine and the human, but that after the incarnation, he was purely divine.

Copts and Coptic Confusion

The eastern patriarchs lost the argument at the Council of Chalcedon, at least in the eyes of the western church. Constantinople imposed its orthodoxy. But the eastern patriarchs did not submit. They rebelled. So did their provinces. The result was a split between the eastern and western church that endures to this day. It’s been argued that the schism weakened the church overall and made Christians of Syria and Egypt, whose resentment of Rome and Constantinople never abated, more vulnerable to Islamic invasion—and conversion.

It doesn’t help that Egyptian Christians themselves are split among several denominations that use the word “Copt” without necessarily adhering to strictly Coptic theology. For example, the Coptic Catholic Church and the Coptic Evangelical Church are closest to western conceptions of Christianity—and were, in fact, established by French and American missionaries during Egypt’s colonial period.

Egypt’s Discrimination Against Copts

Egypt’s Copts are promised equal protection under the law and freedom to practice their religion. That’s true on paper. It’s not true in fact. Successive Egyptian governments have consistently and at times brutally repressed Copts of all stripes. One case reported by the U.S. State Department’s report on religious freedom in Egypt illustrates Copts' predicament:

Hala Helmy Boutros, a Christian activist and blogger based in Qena Governorate, reported that the authorities in Qena ordered her to suspend her blog, Aqbat Bela Hudood (Copts Without Borders), which discussed complaints of persecution by the Coptic minority. (Boutros wrote under the pseudonym of Hala El-Masry.) Boutros had accused the authorities of complicity in the sectarian violence against Copts in January 2006 in the village of Udayssat. Boutros had attempted to travel to the United States in June 2006 to attend a conference on Coptic Christian issues, but authorities at Cairo International Airport prevented her from leaving the country. After a June 25, 2006 court hearing, at which Boutros was ordered to pay bail of $526 (LE 3,000), she was released. The case against Boutros, who was charged with "spreading false news and disrupting social harmony between Christians and Muslims," remained pending at the end of the reporting period. Boutros remained the target of a judicial investigation and is prohibited from leaving the country.
In the early 1990s, Copts were the target of vicious attacks and murders by Islamic fundamentalists. The Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak, more concerned with preserving its hold on power against fundamentalist agitation than protecting the country’s Christian minorities, responded to the violence by cracking down on both fundamentalists and Copts.

In April 2009, supposedly in response to the swine flu outbreak, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of the country’s 300,000 to 350,000 pigs—virtually all of which were raised by Coptic Christians. The medically pointless slaughter decimated the Copts’ economy and riled the Coptic community to riot.

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