Copts and the Coptic Church in Egypt

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Coptic Hanging Church in Cairo

“The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt, where it has between 6 and 11 million members, and is one of the oldest churches outside the Holy Land. It is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, a group which includes the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Syrian Church of India, and the Armenian Church. The Oriental Orthodox Group has around 60 million members worldwide. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]

The Coptic Church developed separately from other churches. The Coptic Church's clerical hierarchy had evolved by the sixth century. A patriarch, referred to as the pope, heads the church. A synod or council of senior priests (people who have attained the status of bishops) is responsible for electing or removing popes. Members of the Coptic Church worldwide recognize the pope as their spiritual leader. The pope, traditionally based in Alexandria, also serves as the chief administrator of the church. The administrator's functionaries includes hundreds of priests serving urban and rural parishes, friars in monasteries, and nuns in convents. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “The Coptic branch of Christianity dates to the first century A.D. when, scholars say, St. Mark the Evangelist converted some Jews in Alexandria, the great Greco-Roman city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Copts are an integral part of Egypt’s business, cultural and intellectual life. Yet they have long suffered from discrimination by the Muslim majority. Violent incidents have increased alarmingly during the wave of Islamic fanaticism that has swept the Middle East.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011]

According to the BBC: “Copts believe that their Church dates back to around 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria. This makes it one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land. The early Church suffered persecution under the Roman Empire, and there were intermittent persecutions after Egypt became a Muslim country. Modern Copts claim that they are still disadvantaged and play a lesser part in Egyptian public life than their numbers justify. There are still occasional violent clashes between Copts and Muslims. |::|

“The Coptic Orthodox Church separated from other Christian denominations at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in a theological dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ. This dispute has been reassessed in modern times, and the differences between Churches are much less severe. Firsts for the Coptic Church include the first specifically Christian educational establishment in the School of Alexandria and the start of Christian monasticism. The Church is ecumenical in outlook, and was a founder member of the World Council of Churches in 1948. |::|

“The Coptic Church is one of the Eastern Orthodox churches and shares their general beliefs. In 451 the Church split from other Christian churches in a major schism at the Council of Chalcedon over the nature of Christ. The Coptic Church now forms part of the 'Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches'. In the last 50 years scholars on both sides of the dispute have worked hard to achieve a common understanding of the nature of Christ.” |::|

Websites and Resources: Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory! ; Christian Denominations: ; Christianity Comparison Charts ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library


The Copts are one of the largest Christian groups in the Middle East. They live primarily in Egypt trace their origin back to Christian schismatic movements of the 5th century. The word "Copt" is derived from the Arabic word Kubt (Qutb), which in turn is derived from Aiguptioi , the Greek word for Egyptian. The word Coptic is often used to refer to all Egyptian Christians, not just members of the Coptic Church. The Coptic language, the liturgical language of the Coptic church, probably became extinct in the 16th century. It had its own script and is regarded as the closest language to that of the Egyptian pharaohs.

The Copts claimed descent from the ancient Egyptians; the word copt is derived from the Arabic word qubt (Egyptian). Egypt was Christianized during the first century A.D., when the country was part of the Roman Empire. The Copts have remained a significant minority throughout the medieval and modern periods. After the Turks incorporated Egypt into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, they organized the government around a system of millets, or religious communities. The Copts were one of the communities. Each organized religious minority lived according to its own canon law under the leadership of recognized religious authorities who represented the millet to the outside world and supervised the millet's internal communal life. This form of organization preserved and nourished the religious differences among these peoples. Most historians believe that the millet system prevented the full integration of non-Muslims into Muslim life. The system, which the Ottomans applied throughout their empire, had an enduring influence on the social structure of all countries in the Middle East. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

According to the BBC: “The Coptic Church has expanded worldwide during the last 40 years and now has a million members outside Egypt. There are over 100 churches in the United States. There are two Coptic bishops in Australia and more than 50 priests to serve the congregation. There are four bishops in the UK and the first Coptic Cathedral in Britain was inaugurated at the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre at Shephalbury Manor in Stevenage in 2007. There are churches in Switzerland and Japan, and four in Black Africa. In Libya there are three churches, in Sudan two bishops, as well as churches in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq. |Coptic monasteries have been opened in Ireland, Texas, California, Sydney, and Jerusalem, and new monasteries have opened in Egypt. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 ]

Copts in Egypt

The headquarters of the Coptic Church is in Egypt and most Copts are in Egypt. Copts now make up between 7 percent and 10 percent of Egypt’s 95 million people, or 7 million to 12 million people. They account for the vast majority of the Christians in Egypt but their exact numbers are unknown as they are not counted separately in government censuses. Many Copts live in Cairo or Coptic villages in the Nile Valley about 100 miles south of Cairo. Most towns and villages have some Copts living in them. There are around a million members outside Egypt, including around 500,000 Copts living in Sudan, 60,000 in Libya and some in the United States, Britain and Europe. There are over 100 Coptic churches in the U.S. and a cathedral in the U.K.

Coptic cemetery in Cairo

Copts in Egypt generally speak Egyptian Arabic and are hard to distinguish culturally from other Egyptians. However, Coptic Christian generally have lighter skin than Egyptian Arabs. They are generally better educated and more prosperous than Muslims but are found throughout all social and economic layers of Egyptian society. Many own shops, and are particularly associated with jewelry shops. Some are prominent businessmen. Educated Copts have traditionally sought careers as professionals.

According to the BBC: At the end of the twentieth century Egypt's Copts were the largest Christian minority of any country in the Middle East. The majority live in the Upper Egyptian provincial capitals of Assiut and Minya, and in Cairo. These numbers are partly the result of a Church revival in the 1940s and 50s in the form of the Coptic Sunday School Movement. Despite their numbers, Copts play little part in the running of Egypt. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]

“Saad Eddin Ibrahim said: “Only one Christian has since been appointed provincial governor, and that was for a brief period of two years in the remote governorate of North Sinai. Not one has since held a key cabinet portfolio; not one has even been appointed mayor of a city or town. Currently, Copts are sorely underrepresented in parliament, occupying only seven of 454 seats. [Source: Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Christians Oppressed, The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2005] |::|

“Copts in Egypt complain that they still suffer discrimination in the workplace and restrictions on church construction. They are concerned that new electoral rules are benefiting Islamist parties but not increasing Coptic political representation. |::|

Early History of the Copts

The Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches. It traces its origin back to St. Mark the Evangelist, a disciple of Christ and the author of one of the Gospels, and is said to have been founded by him, and has been influenced by Gnosticism and the early Christian movement in Egypt beginning in the A.D. 1st century. Some regard the Coptic form of Christianity as the closest form to the Christianity practiced after Jesus died.

Coptic convent in the desert

The Coptic Church claims to hold an unbroken line of patriarchal succession to the See of Alexandria founded by Saint Mark. Egyptian Christianity developed distinct dogmas and practices during the more than two centuries that the religion was illegal. By the fourth century, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Coptic traditions were sufficiently different from those in Rome and Constantinople (formerly Byzantium; present-day Istanbul) to cause major religious conflicts. Dissension persisted for 150 years until most Copts seceded from the main body of Christianity because they rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon that Christ had a dual nature, both human and divine, believing instead in Christ's single, divine nature. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Alexandria is where many of the doctrines of Christianity were defined and where the spit between the Coptic Church and the rest of Christianity originated. When Constantine inaugurated the ecumenical movement to intended to combat heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325, the unified Christian Church was dominated by Christian theologians based in Alexandria.

A theological controversy in the 5th century led to the creation of the Coptic church of Egypt. Catholics maintained that Christ had two natures: divine and human, The Copts believed that in the moneyphysite creed that Christ had only a single divine nature, on the grounds that saying something is both divine and human is divine is considered blasphemous.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “It was around A.D. 43, according to religious scholars, that a Coptic community began to take root in the Jewish districts of Alexandria. Seventy years later, the Roman emperor Trajan crushed the last revolt of Alexandria’s Jews, nearly annihilating the community. A Christian faith—embraced by Greeks, the city’s remaining Jews and some native Egyptians—began to spread, even in the face of brutal persecution. Holy men such as the abbot Antonius (later St. Anthony) retreated into the desert, where living as hermits in grottoes, they established Christianity’s first monasteries. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~]

Saint Anthony and the Coptic Church

Coptic icon of Saint Paul the Hermit and Saint Anthony the Great

Saint Anthony was an important figure in early Christianity and helped shape the early Coptic Church. A healer, sufferer, pioneer of monasticism in Christianity, is credited with launching the greatest monastic movement in religious history and promulgated celibacy and asceticism and spent most of his life praying and fasting in the desert, where it was said he was tempted many times by the devil, who often appeared dressed as a woman. There is now an Anonite order of monks.

St. Anthony was born in Egypt in 251. Following the admonitions of Matthew, he sold all of his possession, gave his money to the poor so the at he could find the treasure of heaven. He fled to the deserts of Egypt, where he took up an austere life. Others followed his example and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Since the Middle Age St. Anthony has been acknowledged as the patron saint of domestic animals. The day of the saint is celebrated with bonfires in communities across Spain.

The Monastery of Saint Anthony is a Coptic Orthodox monastery standing in an oasis in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Hidden deep in the Red Sea mountains, it is located 334 km (207 miles) southeast of Cairo. It is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, and was established by the followers of Saint Anthony, who is considered to be the first ascetic monk. The Monastery of St. Anthony is one of the most prominent monasteries in Egypt and has strongly influenced the formation of several Coptic institutions, and has promoted monasticism in general. Several patriarchs have been pulled from the monastery, and several hundred pilgrims visit it each day.

The Necropolis of Bagawat (within Kharga Oasis in central Egypt) is an abandoned 1,600-year-old Christian cemetery with an 11th century Coptic church. Christian mummies have been found in the 263 dome-shaped tombs. Some of the tombs stand alone; others are in organized in rows and enclosed in mud walls. The necropolis is located near the Temple of Hibis in the Khraga Oasis. Qasr el Ghueita in the south of Kharga Oasis features a Ptolemaic temple built before 220 B.C. North of Kharga there are the remains of a fortress used by Romans to protect caravans that used the area.

Copts Split Off from Other Christian Sects

The early Christian councils were shaped largely by Christian scholars from Alexandria and their views were in line with modern Coptic doctrine that the God and Christ are of the same essence and that Christ's divinity and humanity are unified. In A.D., 325, the Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea (present-day Iznik In Turkey), inaugurating the ecumenical movement. Called by Constantine to combat heresy and settle questions of doctrine, attendees discussed the Holy trinity and the eventual linkage of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, argued whether Jesus was truly divine or just a prophet (he was judged divine), and decided that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “ From A.D. 380, when the emergent faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire, until the Arab conquest of the empire’s Byzantine successors in the seventh century a.d., Coptic Christianity enjoyed a golden age, and the monasteries became centers of scholarship and artistic ferment. Some, such as St. Anthony’s by the Red Sea, still stand. “There are thousands and thousands of cells carved into the rocks in the most inaccessible places,” wrote the French diplomat Benoît de Maillet of the region in Description of Egypt in 1735. “The anchorite saints could reach these caves only by way of very narrow paths, often blocked by precipices, which they crossed on small wooden bridges that could be removed on the other side, making their retreats inaccessible.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~]

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the second person of the Trinity, the son, was defined by Orthodox Christians as having two natures, divine and human. The Armenians, Egyptian Christians (Copts), Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Jacobites) disagreed and believed that Christ has a single nature, consisting of two natures, with his humanity absorbed into his deity, a concept known as Monophysitism. By this time Christian scholars from Alexandria were in the minority and the conservative Greco-Roman Orthodox views prevailed. Gaining strength was a mechanism that would remain a central theme in Christianity: the use of that accusations of heresy to dismiss members or sects with unpopular views.

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Byzantine rulers who aimed to unify Christianity tried to impose their Orthodox views on Egyptian Christians, the Copts. The Copts were labeled heretics, persecuted, and isolated from other Christians and thus followed their own path. Coptic, a language descended from Ancient Egyptian, became their liturgical language, not Greek. The Copts endured despite being tortured and heavily taxed by Alexandria-based Orthodox Christian rulers.

branches of the Christian church

Coptic Church Under Muslim Rule

Following Islam's spread through Egypt, Muslims alternately tolerated and persecuted the Copts. Heavy taxation of Christians encouraged mass conversions to Islam, and within two centuries, Copts had become a distinct minority. By the tenth century, Arabic had replaced Coptic as the primary spoken language, and Coptic was relegated to a liturgical language. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Under Muslim rule, the Copts were tolerated as People of the Book but became further isolated from other Christian groups. In the early days of Muslim rule there were more Copts than Muslims. After an uprising in 830, the Copts began to be persecuted by the Muslims. Churches were destroyed, books were burned and Copt leaders were imprisoned and executed. By the time the British took over Egypt in 1882, Copts made up only 10 percent of the population of Egypt.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Around A.D. 639, a few thousand horsemen led by the Arab general Amr ibn al-As swept into Egypt, encountering little resistance. Arabic replaced Coptic as the national language, and the Copts, though permitted to practice their faith, steadily lost ground to a tide of Islam. (The Copts split from the Roman and Orthodox churches in a.d. 451 in a dispute over Christ’s human and divine natures, though they continued to follow the Orthodox religious calendar and share many rituals.) [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~]

“By the year 1200, according to some scholars, Copts made up less than half of the Egyptian population. Over the next millennium, the fortunes of the Copts rose and fell depending on the whims of a series of conquerors. The volatile Caliph al-Hakim of the Fatimid dynasty confiscated Christian goods, excluded Christians from public life and destroyed monasteries; the Kurdish warlord Saladin defeated the European Crusaders in the Holy Land, then allowed Copts to return to positions in the government. Under the policies of the Ottomans, who ruled from the 16th century until the end of World War I, the Copts resumed their long downward spiral.” /~/

The Ottoman millet system of drawing administrative divisions along religious lines reinforced Coptic solidarity. The dismantling of the millet system during the nineteenth century helped open new career opportunities for the Copts. Egypt's Muslim rulers had traditionally used minorities as administrators, and the Copts were initially the main beneficiaries of the burgeoning civil service. During the early twentieth century, however, the British purged many Copts from the bureaucracy. The Copts resented this policy, but it accelerated their entry into professional careers.*

Recent History of the Coptic Church

Copts with Nasser in 1965

In the twentieth century, Copts have been disproportionately represented among the ranks of prosperous city dwellers. Urban Copts tended to favor careers in commerce and the professions, whereas the livelihoods of rural Copts were virtually indistinguishable from their Muslim counterparts. Urban Copts were stratified into groups of long-time residents and groups of recent migrants from the countryside. The latter group was often impoverished and fell outside the traditional urban Coptic community. The former group included many university professors, lawyers, doctors, a few prominent public officials, and a substantial middle echelon of factory workers and service sector employees. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Anti-Coptic sentiment has accompanied the resurgence of Islamic activism in Egypt. Since 1972 several Coptic churches have been burned, including the historic Qasriyat ar Rihan Church in Cairo. Islamist groups frequently and explicitly denounced Copts in their pamphlets and prayer meetings. The increasing tensions between Copts and Muslims inevitably led to clashes in Upper Egypt in 1977 and 1978 and later in the cities and villages of the Delta. Three days of religious riots in Cairo in 1981 left at least 17 Copts and Muslims dead and more than 100 injured. Isolated incidents of Muslim-Coptic violence continued throughout the 1980s and during 1990.*

Coptic Pope Shenudah III (elected in 1971) blamed government silence for the increasing violence. He also expressed alarm at official actions that he said encouraged anti-Coptic feelings. In 1977, to protest a Ministry of Justice proposal to apply sharia legal penalties to any Muslim who converted from Islam, the pope called on the Coptic community to fast for five days. As harassment of Copts increased, Pope Shenudah III canceled official Easter celebrations for 1980 and fled to a desert convent with his bishops. Sadat accused the pope of inciting the Coptic-Muslim strife and banished him in September 1981 to internal exile. The government then appointed a committee of five bishops to administer the church. The following year, the government called upon the church synod to elect a new pope, but the Coptic clergy rejected this state intervention. In 1985 Husni Mubarak released Pope Shenudah III from internal exile and permitted him to resume his religious duties.*

Coptic fanous

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “For the past few decades, the Copts have maintained an uneasy relationship with Egypt’s military rulers. During the 1970s, Copts suffered a wave of attacks by Muslim extremists, and when President Anwar Sadat failed to respond to their demands for protection in 1981, Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Coptic church, canceled Easter celebrations in protest. Sadat deposed Shenouda in September 1981 and exiled him to the Monastery of St. Bishoy in the Nitrian Desert. The pope was replaced by a committee of five bishops, whose authority was rejected by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~]

“Sadat was murdered by members of the radical Egyptian Islamic jihad in October 1981; his successor, Mubarak, reinstated Shenouda four years later. Shenouda supported Mubarak’s repressive policies as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Yet Christians continued to suffer from laws that made building a church nearly impossible (most are constructed illicitly). Despite the rise to powerful government positions of a few Copts, such as former secretary general of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had served as foreign minister under Sadat and Mubarak, Coptic participation in public life has remained minimal. In the first days of the 2011 revolution, Shenouda continued his support for Mubarak, urging Copts not to join the protesters in Tahrir Square. After that, Sidhom told me, many Copts “rejected the leadership of Shenouda in the political arena.” \~\

“During the 30-year era of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who was hauled to court in his sickbed to face murder and corruption charges, outbreaks of sectarian violence were typically swept under the rug. This time, YouTube videos spread on the Internet, and journalists and human rights workers flocked to Sol. In addition, Muslim leaders in Cairo, as well as Coptic figures, traveled to the town for reconciliation meetings. And the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the 20-member panel of generals that took power after Mubarak stepped down this past February, dispatched a 100-man team of army engineers to reconstruct the church. With a budget of two million Egyptian pounds (about $350,000), they finished the job in 28 days. When I got to town in July, a small contingent of troops was laying the foundation of an adjoining religious conference center that had also been destroyed. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~]

“Repairing the psychic damage will take longer. “At the beginning I was filled with hate,” Eskander tells me. Today, though he still regards his Muslim neighbors with distrust, he says his anger has abated. “I realized that not all Muslims are the same,” he says. “I have started to calm down.” \~\

Coptic Customs

Coptic church in Alexandria

Intermarriage with non-Copts is permitted but not widely practiced. Non-Coptic partners are required to be baptized according to Coptic rites. Communion is not shared with non-Copts. Egypt and the Coptic church are famous for wooden locks. Many Copts can be identified by blue crosses tattooed between their thumb and forefinger.

The ancient Copts mummified their dead. In 1897, travelers reported having "their faces stroked and been kissed by the Coptic priest in the cathedral at Cairo, while at the same moment everybody else was kissing everybody throughout the church." There are still Coptic monks who live as hermits in desert caves. Some have laptop computers, which they use to E-mail students.

On Easter Copts attend morning services. The rhythm of Coptic liturgies closely resembles that of the working chants of Egyptian fellahs. Some argue that these rhythms date back to pharonic times. The Coptic fasting time is unequalled in any other Christian community, with a total of 210 days in the 365-day year. The pre-Easter fast is the longest. That is why the feasting that follows it is the grandest of the Egyptian Coptic cultural calendar.

Icons with hints of mysticism are revered in the Coptic Church. A Coptic religious painting of Jesus shows him hanging on the cross with women, angels, the sun and the moon surrounding him. On April 2, 1968, the Virgin Mary began appearing on the rood of Coptic church in the Cairo suburb of Zaitoun. The sightings continued into 1971 and an estimated 1 million people said the seen the virgin. Photographs of the phenomena are fuzzy and unclear.

Coptic Quarter in Cairo

Located around the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon in Old Cairo, the Coptic Quarter of Cairo is about five kilometers south of Central Cairo and one kilometer mile south of Islamic Cairo. St. Sergius Basilica is a 5th century church built over a cave where it is believed Jesus, Mary and Joseph stayed after fleeing Israel. Mary is said to have taken a rest under the Virgin's Tree nearby. Near this is Ben Ezra Synagogue, a small 100-year-old structure built on the site where an a synagogue built in A.D. 1150, on site occupied before that by a Coptic church, where Jews believe the Pharaoh's daughter found baby Moses in the bulrushes. The synagogue is not near the Nile; the explanation given is that the river changed course, which is not unlikely.

Babylon Fortress

The 5th century Church of St. Barbara contains many fine works of art and an original wooden door. St. Marcarious Church contains the crypt of St. Barsoum Al-Arian and a well-preserved collection of Coptic coins. The basilica of Marie Guigis has a unique 13th century hall. The church of Al-Adra is an 8th century structure with precious icons and an ivory-inlaid screen. An image of the Virgin Mary was once seen hanging over a dome at the Church of the Virgin in Zayttout. The cathedral of St. Mark was the largest church in Africa until a church with a dome larger than St. Peters in Rome was built in the Ivory Coast.

Coptic Museum (near the Mari Girghis Metro stop) houses a collection of rare manuscripts, architectural fragments, wooden sculptures, frescoes, pottery, jewelry, textiles, icons and relics from the Coptic period, some of which date back to only a few centuries after Christ. The museum is open daily from 9:00am to 4:00pm, except Summers when is open from 8:00am to 1:00pm.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “One Friday morning I took a taxi through quiet Cairo streets to the city’s ancient Coptic quarter. It was just after the Friday liturgy, and well-dressed Coptic families strolled hand in hand down a wide road that led past a fifth-century church and the Coptic Museum, an Ottoman-era villa containing ancient mosaics, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts and other treasures culled from Egypt’s desert monasteries. I wandered past security police down an alley that dated to Roman times and entered the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, a fourth-century basilica named for two Syrian converts to Christianity martyred by Roman authorities. Originally a Roman palace, the basilica is built over a crypt where, according to legend, Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed during their exile in Egypt. According to the Book of Matthew, Joseph had been warned in a dream to “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Legend also holds that the family remained in Egypt for three years, until the angel returned and announced Herod’s death. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~]

Discrimination Against Copts

Since the 1980s, the Copts have suffered from discrimination. Restrictions have been placed on their religious freed and their institutions have been scrutinized by the government. They are excluded from senior government jobs and high-level academic positions.

Copts and Christians have traditionally had little political power in Egypt. Copts complain they have difficulty obtaining permits to build churches and are prevented by laws dating back to Ottoman times that prevents them from repairing churches. School textbooks exclude six centuries of Coptic history.

"Coptics and Muslims, you are all Egyptians"

Copts believe the best way to handle their situation is to endure it quietly and peacefully. One high-level Coptic official told the New York Times in the 1990s, "We don't have an affirmative action program, if you will, concerning Copts, but there is no active persecution." A small segment of the Coptic population seeks political autonomy and self rule. In 1996, Pope Shenouda III prohibited his followers from visiting pilgrimage sights in Jerusalem to protest the unwillingness of Israel to negotiate a broader peace with Arabs.

Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt predates Islam by hundreds of years. But beyond pews and vestibules, the Christian imprint fades: Public schoolchildren of all denominations are taught to recite the Koran as part of Arabic language training, and Egypt's civil laws are based on Muslim Sharia tenets. “The Egyptian Constitution protects religious freedom, but some churches have been attacked, and others encountered years of land disputes and government scrutiny before they were built. [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2010 =]

“Courts make it virtually impossible for Muslims who convert to Christianity to change their religious identity on national ID cards. Death threats have forced some converts to go into hiding or leave the country. Al Azhar University's Islamic Research Academy, a leading voice on Sunni Muslim thought, recently suspended publication of a book it had commissioned after Copts protested that the work described Christianity as a form of paganism.

“Conservative Islam began arriving in Egypt in the 1970s with migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The tenor intensified through the 1990s, and today, even as voices in the media have grown more devout, the Egyptian government works to silence radical Islamic influences but not anger its Muslim population. Copts say this dilemma has left them vulnerable at a time of growing national economic and social pressures. The church leadership prefers diplomacy and has not publicly criticized the Mubarak government. =

Relations Between Copts and Muslims in Egypt

Reporting from Cairo, Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Father Metyas Mankarios ministers to garbage men and runs a newspaper for Coptic Christians from an office crammed with brittle archives above vegetable sellers and fishmongers barking out prices along the muddy roads of a Cairo neighborhood. Few have it easy here. From dawn until deep into the night, there is the clatter of making a living, no matter how small. But these days, Mankarios, his face engulfed by a graying beard, worries more about the increasing discrimination and resentment from Muslims who attack monasteries and teach their children that Christians are infidels. [Source: Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2010 =]

“Egypt's Copts and Muslims have co-existed for centuries, through spasms of bloodshed and recrimination but mostly in relative peace. In recent years, however, tolerance has ebbed and tensions have multiplied in a predominantly Muslim society that has grown more conservative and inclined to drawing religious distinctions in schools, public offices and in mixed neighborhoods. =

“Awny Mikhail dodged talk of such volatile matters. A Copt, he owns a jewelry store in Cairo, where his customers are as likely to be Muslim women in veils as men with crosses tattooed on their wrists. Boys played marbles in the dirt outside; two police officers sat near another Coptic-owned jewelry shop that was shuttered after a 2008 machine-gun attack that left four Christian workers dead. "I deal with Muslims every day," he said, while behind him Coptic Pope Shenouda III, whose seat is in Alexandria, was speaking on TV. "I just left my other shop to pick up something in this one. I have two Muslim customers waiting back there alone. They could steal whatever they liked if they wanted to. You have to have trust in people." He leaned over his counter. "I don't want to see a chain reaction from the Nag Hammadi incident," he said. "The media will try to turn this into something more. Things aren't that bad. Muslims have become more conservative, yes, but I support the government in trying to stop Islamic extremism." =

“Minutes away, in a neighborhood populated by garbage men, Father Mankarios sat in his office, working on his newspaper, Tibian Battalion, named after a 3rd century band of Coptic soldiers who fought with the Roman army but were later executed for refusing to worship Roman idols. A woman handed him files. He recalled his boyhood in the 1960s, when, like today, there were symbols of differences between Copts and Muslims: Copts bore the tattooed cross and Muslims a brownish callus on their foreheads, known as the raison, from years of prostrating in prayer. But mostly, he said, the faiths mingled with little anxiety because Copts were less demanding of their rights. "When I was young, I didn't see all this tension coming," he said. "We got along with Muslims just fine. That's all changed. "The Egyptian government is not worried about Coptic unrest. We don't have militias or a political party. Copts are no threat to the government. All we can do is shout."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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