Around 6 million of Egypt’s population are known as Copts. Copts are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians, they are Egypt’s original inhabitants, only becoming the minority after the Muslim invasion. Indeed, they sometimes claim to be ethnically purer than other Egyptians – Copts do not intermarry and so have avoided the influx of other nationalities.
The Head of the church was St Mark who preached in Egypt around the time of Nero (around 45AD) and is considered the first patriarch. St Mark’s religion appealed to the Egyptians: the resurrection was available to all, not just those who could afford burial finery, God created man from Clay, as did the ancient Egyptian gods, and man’s heart is weighed, as does Anubis, king of the underworld. The similarity between the Christian cross and the Pharonic ankh has led some to claim that that’s where it derives from.
There are many Coptic churches and monasteries throughout the country. Early persecution forced the Copts to flee the city centers and hole themselves up in monasteries, arguable the first Christians to adopt this way of life. The monasteries still provide the church’s leaders. Their language – Coptic, one of the languages spoken by the ancient Egyptians – is still in use in rituals, but died out in common usage in the Middle Ages.
Their belief is similar to Syrian Orthodox; they believe that Christ was not man and god – only god, a stance that had them ostracized from early Christian communities. Men and women are segregated during services. Have a tendency to fast – like the Muslims, between sun up and down – especially during Easter, their most important time of the year. Christmas is preceded by 43 days of fasting, which they break on the 6th January. They are not, however, a contemplative order – get out and about in the world, building farms etc, doctors, engineers. Work is considered just as important as prayer.
The election of the Coptic Boutros Boutros Ghali, then deputy prime minister, to the post of UN secretary general in 1991 provided a huge boost to the movement. The Egyptian government has traditionally recognized the importance of Egypt’s Copts by giving them at least one cabinet post. Although they have suffered under the hands of radical Muslims in recent years, this persecution has created an upsurge in church attendance and under the direction of an active pope, the Coptic church is undergoing something of a revival.