THE COPTIC CHURCH BEFORE THE COUNCIL OF CHALCEDON
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
THE COPTS UNDER THE ROMAN PERSECUTION1
ROMAN STATE AND THE EGYPTIAN CHRISTIANS
The Roman Emperors frequently in their persecution of the Christians concentrated on Egypt, especially Alexandria, for the following reasons:
1) The success of the Church of Alexandria and its School in attracting even philosophers to the new faith.
2) Alexandria represented a vital center that provided the Roman capital with products. For this reason the Emperors were afraid of any revolution in Egypt. The charge which Constantine made against St. Athanasius was that he forbade sending these products to Constantinople.
3) The courage of the Egyptians and their sincere desire
to attain the crowns of martyrdom perplexed the persecutors,
so that Diocletian came to Alexandria to practice persecution by himself.
THE COPTS & MARTYRDOM
The Copts insisted on starting their calendar by the
beginning of the reign of Diocletian, in 248 AD, calling it
"Anno Martyri," for in his reign the Church gained numerous
numbers of martyrs, who are now glorified in Paradise.
About the eleventh of September of every year we celebrate
the commencement of a new Coptic year, calling it "Feast of
El-Nayrouz," in which we celebrate the Feast of Martyrs, as
a spiritual preparation for starting a new year.
By this unique understanding, the Church of Alexandria has shown the world her deep spiritual faith, her vision that leads to eternity and her concept of martyrdom. She did not consider martyrdom as death or something terrible, but rather a new birth which is an entry to paradise.
1) Martyrdom, in fact is a daily practice that which every
believer should experience, even if there is no persecution,
even if he lives in a monastery or lives alone as a hermit or
pilgrim. For martyrdom is the continuous participation in
Jesus' Crucifixion. St. Clement of Alexandria gives the name
"martyr" to the Gnostic (the true Christian) who has
achieved ordinary union with God2.
2) Martyrdom is an entry into eternity. Oregano3 regarded the times of persecutions not as hard or sad times but as the true great ages of the church.
3) Martyrdom is a supreme conflict with Satan.
4) Martyrdom is looked upon as the way of
transfiguration of the Crucified and Risen Christ in the life
of each of us. For Christ Himself suffers in His martyrs4.
THE COPTS & THE ROMAN PERSECUTIONS
The historians call our Church "The Church of Martyrs,"
not only because of the numerous numbers of martyrs in our
Church, but also because of the ardent desire that her
members had shown for martyrdom. When they were
prevented from worship they never fled to catacombs or
worshipped in the tombs, but openly in the fields. Many
Copts traveled from one place to another seeking the crowns
The waves of persecutions in Egypt began from the first century, when the Apostle St. Mark was martyred by the enraged pagan populace, while the ruler, though was not pleased, was at least silent.
The historical sources were almost silent regarding the
persecutions that occurred in Egypt until the consecration of
the twelfth Patriarch, Demetrius (68-118 A.D), but this does
not mean that no persecution occurred during this period.
For example, after the death of Corrosions (106 A.D) no Patriarch could have been ordained for three years because of the persecution5.
Another example, in the reign of the seventh Patriarch, Eumenius (129-151 A.D), St. Sofia, a native of ancient Memphis in Middle Egypt, was martyred.
During the reign of Septimus Severus the Copts suffered
severe persecutions that extended for about seven years.
Severus visited Egypt and went to Upper-Egypt where he
found Christianity had spread. At once he ordered the ruler
to increase the persecution and to prevent preaching at all
cost. The School of Alexandria was closed, and its dean St.
Clement was compelled to flee, and his place was taken by
Oregano who was about eighteen years old.
In 250 A.D Decius issued an edict to the rulers of all province to re-establish the state religion by any means; but in Egypt persecution appears to have been started before the issue of this edict. Thousands were martyred in cities and villages throughout all Egypt.
In the years 257 and 258 A.D, Emperor Valerian issued edicts to destroy the Church; and Church leaders in Egypt and Carthage as arrested. Pope Dionysius of Alexandria was arrested and exiled.
During the reign of Diocletian, in Alexandria a Roman
legionary called Lucius Domitius Domitianus, nicknamed
himself emperor. At once Diocletian personally descended on
the Egyptian coast and took the city by force after a siege of
eight months. In the year 302 A.D, he started his persecution
against Christianity by the dismissal of every soldier in his
legions who refused to conform to sacrificing to the Roman
gods. In the following year, on the great Roman festival of
the "Terminalia" (23rd of February, 303) Diocletian issued
an imperial edict against Christians. It seems that persecution
against Christians in Egypt was more severe than in most
other countries, (and perhaps more than any). Diocletian
believed that the head of the serpent was in Egypt and that if
he could crush it, he could more easily annihilate Christianity
in the whole empire. In all, about 800,000 Christians were put to the sword in Egypt.
It is worthy to note that the persecution inaugurated by
Diocletian was sustained by Maximinus Daza (305-313),
Caesar of Egypt and Syria, whose reign was the most prolific in bloodshed of any period in the whole history of the church persecutions. The martyrs of his reign were usually attributed to the "Diocletian Persecution."