The Coptic Church was established in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by St. Mark the Evangelist in the city of Alexandria around 43 A.D. The church adheres to the Nicene Creed.
St. Athanasius (296-373 A.D.), the twentieth Pope of the Coptic Church, effectively defended the Doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ’s Divinity at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. His affirmation of the doctrine earned him the title “Father of Orthodoxy” and St. Athanasius “the Apostolic”.
The term “Coptic” is derived from the Greek “Aigyptos” meaning “Egyptian”. When the Arabs arrived in Egypt in the seventh century, they called the Egyptians “qibt”. Thus the Arabic word “qibt” came to mean both “Egyptians” and “Christians”.
The term “Orthodoxy” here refers to the preservation of the “original faith” by the Copts who, throughout the ages, defended the Old Creed against the numerous attacks.
The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Trinity: God The Father, God The Son, and God The Holy Spirit. And that they are equal to each other in one unity. We also believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world. Fewer changes have taken place in the Coptic Church than in any other church in both ritual and doctrine aspects. Additionally, the succession of the Coptic Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests and Deacons has been continuous.
The Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which has between 12 and 18 million members worldwide, 10 to 14 million of whom are in Egypt. This position was held by Pope Shenouda III until his death on March 17, 2012. Metropolitan Pachomios, Metropolitan of Beheira and Pentapolis, was chosen as chair of the Holy Synod and to act as locum tenens (place holder) until the election and consecration of a new pope. On November 4, 2012, Theodoros II or Tawadros II was selected as the 118th pope.
Like any other Traditional Sacramental Church, the Sacraments are considered to be sacred actions by which believers receive an invisible grace, through material or visible signs and elements. The Coptic Church observes seven Sacraments:
- Repentance and Confession
- The Eucharist
- Unction of the Sick
- Priesthood/Holy Orders
In Eucharistic liturgy, the faithful gather in union to pray, and to partake of the Eucharist, considered to be the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The liturgy is chanted using the Coptic language, alongside the language of the land in which the Church is based, utilising a musical composition that in part dates back to the Pharaonic era. The three divine liturgies celebrated in the Church today are those of Saint Basil, Saint Gregory, and Saint Cyril, based on that used by Saint Mark in the first Century.
Stemming from these monastic principles is a deeply rooted ascetic life that is expressed in the practice of fasting. Fasting is another principal foundation in the life of the Church, and of the 365 days of the year, Copts fast for over 210. These periods are considered to be times of spiritual growth and reflection based on prayer and Scripture, during which people observe a period of abstinence at the beginning of the day, followed by a vegan diet. The major fasts in the Coptic calendar are Lent, leading to the Feast of the Resurrection, and Advent, leading to the Feast of the Nativity.
Prayer is a fundamental foundation in the life of the Church, and the Agpeya is the book containing the seven prayers observed daily. Arranged to commemorate various events in the life of Christ and the Church, they help to guide the faithful in daily reflection, and are labelled as the first, third, sixth, ninth, eleventh, twelfth and midnight hour. The veil is a separate daily prayer only observed by those in monastic life. Other forms of prayer observed are the Raising of Evening and Morning Incense, Midnight Praises, and Morning and Evening Praises. Within the context of non-ritual gatherings and prayer meetings, contemporary forms of prayer and worship are also used.
Seeking the intercession of saints is a valued component in Orthodox practice, although it is sometimes misunderstood as the worship of those saints. The understanding behind intercession is that strength and encouragement can be found in commemorating the life of those who lived faithfully, including the martyrs who died for their faith, and that there is value in asking for their prayers.
Parish communities and churches are served by married priests who are nominated from within that parish for its service. Once nominated, their names would be presented to the bishop who would approve and then ordain them for that ministry. Bishops on the other hand, including the Pope, are celibate and are selected from within monastic communities.
Monasticism was founded by Saint Anthony the Great towards the end of the third century and thrives in the Church up to the present day. Those living the monastic life in any church or denomination anywhere in the world can trace their roots back to the deserts of Egypt. Although monks did not record their own history, many came from all over the world to benefit from their words, seeking spiritual guidance and documenting their teachings. Western monastic fathers, such as Saints Benedict and John Cassian, came to the deserts of Egypt to experience this way of solitary life and subsequently introduce this to the West, where it was then embraced and became the foundation of monasticism in those parts of the world. Those living the monastic life became tangible sermons, faithfully embodying the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship and purity of heart and ascetism.
Today, the Coptic Orthodox Church has the largest Christian presence in the Middle East, with approximately 10-15 million members in Egypt, representing about 15 per cent of the population. They vibrantly, actively and faithfully fill their churches and monasteries, living as productive and faithful members of their communities. The Coptic Orthodox Church has also experienced rapid growth in the lands of immigration over the past 30 years, in the United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australasia. There are now over 15 dioceses and 500 parishes outside Egypt, and the Church continues to flourish by the grace of God. It is worth mentioning at this point that we do not consider our communities living abroad as a diaspora, as 90 per cent of Coptic Christians still live in their native Egypt.