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The Egyptian Church through the Ages

Dr. Samir Mikhail



Egypt had a long glorious history as one of the early civilizations of this universe. There is hardy any library in the world that doesn't have books about ancient Egypt nor there is a first class university that doesn’t have departments specializing in Egyptology. The most admirable sections in famous museums, worldwide, are those containing ancient Egyptian antiquities.

Ancient Egyptians invented the wheel, the principle element in our present transportation. They were inspired by the space and were eager to reach into it as high as they can go. They built the solar ship to sail along the rays of the sun. Among them, there were philosophers and the School of Alexandria stood tall over two thousands years ago. The Library of Alexandria was well known to have thousands and thousands of books in advance science and literature.

How Christianity began in Egypt:

Egypt was one of the early countries that embraced Christianity, hundreds of years before many countries in Europe. Precisely it was the year 42 AD when St. Mark the Apostle established the Church of Alexandria and became her first bishop. St. Mark was the one who wrote the Gospel "St. Mark". He was known to be one of the seventy apostles, the nephew of St. Barnabas and a relative of St. Peter. In his home in Jerusalem, many important events occurred, the most notable was the "Last Supper ". This was the first Communion of the Church. To begin with, St. Mark with was a Jew who was born in North Africa, thus it was very logical for him to begin his missionary in North Africa. St Mark was martyred in Alexandria in 68 AD, but years later his body was smuggled out of Egypt to Venice, Italy. Venice honored him, building a great Cathedral after his name. The region acquired his name, as the Empire of St. Mark.It was only in 1968 AD that his relics were brought back to Egypt. Pope Kyrillos VI , requested that the relic be returned to Egypt. The Vatican Pope Paul VI approved the request of H.H. Pope Kyrillos VI and St. Mark’s relics were received with all due honors to the New St. Mark Cathedral in Cairo on its inauguration day, June 25, 1968.

Among the dignitaries who attended the celebration for the historic return of the relics, were the late President Nasser of Egypt, his vice president then, Mr. Sadat. Emperor Halle Salase of Ethiopia was also present together with Patriarch Ignatius Yacoub III of Antioch, Cardinal Daval of Algeria, representing Pope Paul VI, Theophilos, the Patriarch of Ethiopia and Dr. Eugene Black the ex General Secretary of the World Council of Churches in Geneva

Some History:

Egypt has been mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments. It used to have two names: Misr & Egypt. In the Old Testament it was Mizraian & Caphtorium. The first name was used in the Semitic Language and the second one was used by the Europeans. In the Coptic language, that is the old Egyptian language, it is "Khimi" which means the black land or the land of Ham. Its inhabitants were known as "Remenkimi" [that is the inhabitant of the black land or the sons of Ham]The Arabs when they invaded Egypt in 641 AD, had difficulty to pronounce the European name of Egypt, "Egyptos" the word for the land of Egypt. They pronounced it as Gypt or Kypt or Kopt. The Christians of Egypt were known by them as the Copts to our present day.

There were many factors that helped the Egyptian people to accept the new Christian faith in a comparatively short period of time. Before Christianity, the Egyptians in their worshipping went through many phases. At that time then, they had accepted the presence of only one god. They were far from being pagans and there was already a big Jewish congregation in Alexandria, whose religion anticipated the coming of the Messiah. At that time also the Egyptians believed in triads and in the conception of a virgin. Osiris, Iris and their son Horus. They even practiced baptism, by immersion in the Nile for other reasons.

Bless be Egypt My People:

In the Old Testament, we find two verses that give comfort to the Christians of Egypt: "Out of Egypt. Have I called my son." And "Bless be Egypt my people" [Isaiah 19:25]. Egypt has been repeatedly mentioned in the Bible. The Holy Family visited Egypt and there are many places commemorating this Holy trip. One of the blessings was the Appearance of the Virgin Mary to the populace of Egypt for very long periods and almost daily for hours and seen by many people of different nationalities and faiths. The Apparition of 1968 continued for almost three years. Many miracles happened and many sick were healed. This was the first time ever that such an Apparition would stay that long and seen by thousands of people. Other appearance happened few years later and the latest was in 1997. These Apparitions were documented and even pictures were taken and shown on the national television.

The See of St. Mark

`St. Mark was martyred in 68 AD after he established the Church of Alexandria and the appointment of a bishop to the church. St. Mark himself is considered to be the first bishop of the church. The present patriarch isH. H. Pope Shenouda III and he is the 117th.The Church is known to have a rough sailing through the ages. The worst time was during the rule of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, when thousands of the Christians were slaughtered as they refused to worship idiols. The Christians of Egypt, adopted a special calendar marking the beginning of this shameful events. That was in 284 AD and it is called "Anno Martyrii" {the year of the martyrs}

The Coptic Metropolitan of Beni Suef, Egypt, Bishop Athanasius wrote a book "The Copts Through The Ages", that was published by the Egyptian Ministry of Information. He described briefly how the Catechetical School of Alexandria was established and how it was considered the center and the stronghold of the Christian faith. A school that produced Clement of Alexandria [150 – 215 AD], Athanasius [259 – 373 AD] and Cyril of Alexandria [374 444 AD] among other great scholars. Athanasius, later became Pope of Alexandria and before that, as a deacon, he participated actively in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325 AD, defending the faith against Arianism. He was the one who wrote the Orthodox Creed.
The Egyptian Church founded monasticism in the early years of Christianity. She took the helm and spread the faith in many places in the known world at that time.

Egypt then under was under the Roman Empire that governed the Middle East and Europe from its seat in Constantinople. The Roman army needed professionals and artisan and found Egypt that can provide such need, because of the advanced standards in Egypt then. Thousands were sent to the occupied Europe. These people who were mostly Christians, took their faith with them and worked to invite others to join the new Christian faith. They attracted many, but also many of them were martyred in the process of preaching and in their refusal to be pagans.

In Helvetia, the old name of Switzerland, The Theban legion was commanded by "Maurice", an Egyptian from Upper Egypt, who was later honored by the Swiss Government that they called the place he served as "St. Moritz" the well known Swiss resort. His sister Regula and Felix and their friends were active in spreading the Gospel in Zurich. At the present, Zurich itself carries their picture on the official seal of its county, in commemoration to their evangelical work.

In Northern Ireland, seven Egyptian monks went to Ireland to serve the Lord and spread His Word. In a place called Ballymena, near Belfast, there is a tomb in an old church that points to the seven Egyptian monks who were buried there.

In Dublin, Ireland, there are three manuscripts preserved in The Royal Irish Academy, showing a litany "Seven Egyptian monks in Desert – Ullaigh I invoke unto my aid through Jesus Christ"Abba Seraphim, Bishop of the British Orthodox Church, wrote recently a research paper, exploring these sites, helped by clergy and scholars.The School of Alexandria sent also missions to Libya, Arabia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Political Turmoil and how Constantipole turned against Egypt and fell to the Arabs

Bishop Athanasius of Egypt explained how unfairly the Egyptian Church was accused falsely at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD to be Eutychean [monophysites] , while in fact they never believed or practiced monophysytism and they always believed in The God Incarnate with His Divinity and Humanity fully present and united without mixture, confusion or change. The Holy Liturgy is read every day all through the ages confirming this belief. St Athanasius, was the one who put the Orthodox creed at the Council of Nicea meeting in 325 AD and saved Christianity from Arianism. St. Athanasius then, an Egyptian deacon, who later became Pope of Alexandria. He was sent to exile four times. The Byzantine rulers at that time caused many sufferings to the Egyptians for political reasons. Egypt was invaded by the Arabs in 641 AD and apparently the Egyptians, who hated the Romans, then, never resisted the invasion. When the Arabs conquered Egypt, the Egyptian Pope Benjamin was in hiding from the Byzantine and he was given amnesty by the Arabs, but on the condition of paying annual poll tax by the Christians in order to keep their Christian faith.The Egyptian Christian church is the largest Christian church in the Middle East. The number of Christians in Egypt is estimated to be between ten and twelve millions, many thinks that it could be more. The majority are Orthodox, however there are Catholics, Protestants in small congregations. The Catholics have an Egyptian Patriarch who belongs to the Vatican. The Greek Orthodox Christians have a Greek Patriarch. At one time there were many Greeks living in Egypt, but most of them left Egypt in the fifties.

There are hundreds of Egyptian Orthodox Churches in the Middle East and Africa. The Ethiopian Church till very recently, belonged to the Church of Alexandria, but under political conditions the church became independent.

The Coptic Church expands world wide

In the last three decades the Church extended to Europe, North America Australia and New Zealand. This expansion was a direct result of the emigration of many Christian Egyptians to these continents. It is estimated that the number of the Christians in Diaspora is about two millions.Traditionally the Egyptian "Coptic" Churches celebrate the Holy Liturgy in Coptic "Old Egyptian" but added Arabic after the Copts adopted the Arabic language to communicate with the government. Now in the new churches all over the world, the local language had to be added and the Liturgy is officiated in almost every language.The first to translate the Coptic Liturgy was Bishop Athanasius of Beni-Suef because of his good command of English.Still part of the Liturgy is always in "Coptic". When the Arabs invaded Egypt in 641 AD, the people used to speak Egyptian, but gradually they had to learn Arabic and by the eleventh century, the Coptic language became limited to prayers and the churches, with only few families that continued to use it. Lately there is a trend for its revival among the Christians and many churches in and outside Egypt have classes to teach Coptic that is important to their heritage. Many universities all over the world do teach the Coptic language. The University of California in Los Angeles has courses in Coptic. Many Coptic students in this university are among the attendants of these classes.In the last few years, many bishops had been ordained all over the world to look after the Coptic Churches outside Egypt. In the United States of America there are three bishops, one of them was given the responsibility to look after the youth. There are Coptic bishops in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy and South Africa. The traditional Egyptian "Egyptian" monasticism has also its share. There are monasteries in California, Germany and Australia. Many monasteries in Egypt known are known to be built for more than seventeen centuries and contain many precious historical antiquities and icons. The Western Universities from time to time extend their activities, digging and exploring more of them.
The British Orthodox Church

The British Orthodox Church joined the Egyptian "Coptic" Church. Abba Seraphim the Church’s Bishop became a full member of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt.

Dioceses in France

In France, the French people came in contact with the Egyptian monks as early as the 5th century, and John Cassian was influenced by the Egyptian Monasticism and wrote about the wisdom of the desert fathers in Egypt.In 1974, Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Church, canonically established The Eparchy of France, by ordaining two European monks, who stayed sometime in Coptic monasteries. Monk Mark, from Amsterdam, became Bishop of Marseilles, Toulon and all France. Monk Athanasius, a French national, became a bishop as the Chorepiscopus of the City of Paris. Five spiritual centers had been established in France since. The Coptic Orthodox Hermitage of Saint Mark, was a chapel dedicated to "Our Lady of Zeitun" that became the bishop’s seat in Le Revest-les Eaux near Toulon. In Plessis l’Eveque, near Meau, The Priority of St. Mark became the seat of the Chorepiscopus Athanasius. The chapel was dedicated to the Mother of God and St. Mark.

The Coptic parish of St. Mary & St. Mark, holds services in the crypt of the church of St. Sulpice.

In Marseilles, the parish of St. George & St. Mark was established in 1983 and mass was held in the Church of St. Nicholas and in private chapel in Tanaris-sur-Mer, near Toulon, that was dedicated to St. Anthony & St. Michael.


In Germany: the first Egyptian "Coptic" Church was inaugurated in March 1975. Fr. Salib Sorial was the first delegated minister in Frankfurt. Now there are more churches and a monastery.

United Kingdom and Ireland

In Great Britain: The first Coptic Liturgy was celebrated in London on Friday August 5th 1954 by Father Makary Al Suryany, later, Bishop Samuel, Bishop of Ecumenical, Public and Social Services.

The first Coptic priest in London, was Fr. Antonius Al Sutyany, later Bishop Bakkumius of Beheira and officiated the Holy Liturgy at St. Andrew’s Church, Holborn, in London.A Coptic Church was purchased in Kensington and was named after St. Mark in 1976. Another church was bought in Croydon, South London in 1980. There are other churches in Manchester and Birmingham.The British Orthodox Church joined the "Coptic" Egyptian Orthodox Patriarchate. Bishop, Abba Seraphim, the head of the church, who is in communion with The Coptic Church, became a full member of the Coptic Holy Synod in Egypt.

Abba Seraphim wrote many interesting articles about the relation of the Celtic in Ireland and the Copts of Egypt. This relation was prior to the Arab Conquest of Egypt in 641 AD. His Eminence referred to the writing of the Late Archale King and to the articles of Pierre du Bourguet of the Louvre on "Coptic and Irish Art by Joseph E. T. Kelly, of John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. The subject was "The Coptic Influence in the British Isles"


In 1981, Pope Shenouda III, ordained Monk Serapion Anba Bishoy to be the first Coptic priest in Switzerland. He was later elevated to the rank of bishop and became the Bishop of Ecumenical and Social Services. Ten years later he was reassigned to the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii.


Pope Kyrillos VI assigned Fr. Morcos to be the first Coptic priest in Toronto Canada. This was the first Coptic Church in North America. Many Coptic churches have been established since all over Canada.

The United States of America:

The first appointed Coptic priest in the USA was the Late Fr. Gabriel Abd El Sayed in New Jersey. In the last thirty years tens of Coptic churches were established. There is a Papal residence in New Jersey and a monastery in California.


An Irish Saint, of the 8th century, Oengus the Culdee, wrote about the foreign fathers who were buried in Ireland. His work is well known to the Irish people, as "Feilire" [Festilogium de Sancti Aengus, thought to be wrote in 798 AD]. In his filth book, entitled "Book of Litanies", he mentioned about some Copts who lived as hermits and were buried there.An interesting point was mentioned, about the use of the word "desert" in Ireland. The word was was used as "desertum", referring to the ocean. The Coptic "Egyptian" monks used to live in the desert. Ireland has no deserts, but they have the Atlantic Ocean, like Egyptian desert, it was waterless, since no one can drink salty water! To the Irish, the wild empty ocean appeared as lonely and forbidding as the desert had to the Egyptians.

Middle East:

Tens of Coptic Churches were established in the Middle East


The first church was established in 1969. Today Australia has many Coptic Churches and the Copts there have every reason to be proud for the achievements they reached. They have excellent spiritual and congregational activities.


1-The Coptic Encyclopedia,? Dr. Aziz S. Sorial, Mcmillan Publishing Company New York

2- Coptic Net, Dr. Azer Bestavros

3-The British Orthodox Church Bulliton.

4- The Copts Through The Ages, H.G. Bishop Athanasius, Egyptian Ministry of Information

5-Private communication with Fr. Dimitri Ross, St. Dunstan of Canterbury Orthodox Church, Willington, New Zealand


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