The word Copt is derived  from the Greek  word Aigyptos,  which was, in turn,
derived from "Hikaptah", one of the  names for Memphis,  the first capital of
Ancient Egypt. Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640  A.D., the land of
Egypt  has been  called  "dar al-Gibt"  (home  of the  Egyptians) and   since
Christianity was the official religion of Egypt  at the time, the word "Gibt"
came to  refer to   the  practitioners of  Christianity as well   as  to  the
inhabitants of the Nile valley. The modern use of the term "Coptic" describes
Egyptian Christians,  as well  as  the  last  stage of the   ancient Egyptian
language script  and  liturgy.   It describes  also  the distinctive  art and
architecture that developed as an early expression of the new faith.

The Coptic  Church is based  on the  teachings of St.  Mark who, according to
hallowed tradition, brought Christianity  to  Egypt during the  reign  of the
Roman emperor Nero  in the first  century, a dozen  of years after the Lord's
ascension.  He  was one  of the four evangelists  and the one  who  wrote the
oldest canonical gospel.  Christianity spread throughout  Egypt within half a
century of Saint Mark's  arrival   in  Alexandria as  is clear  from  the New
Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in  Middle Egypt, which date  around the
year 200 A.D., and a fragment of the Gospel  of Saint John, written using the
Coptic language  (a descendant of  Hierogliphic written in a superset  of the
Greek alphabet), which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first
half   of  the  second century. The  Coptic  Church,  which  is now more than
nineteen centuries old, was the subject of a  prophecy in the  Old Testament.
Isaiah the prophet, in  Chapter 19, Verse 19 says  "In that day there will be
an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt,  and a pillar  to the
LORD at its border."

Although  fully integrated into  the body of  the Egyptian  nation, the Copts
have survived as a  strong  religious entity  who pride  themselves on  their
contribution to  the Christian world. The  Coptic church regards  itself as a
strong defendant of Christian  faith. The  Nicene Creed, which  is recited in
all churches throughout the world, has been  authored by one of  its favorite
sons, St. Athanasius, the Pope of Alexandria in 381  A.D. This status is well
deserved, afterall, Egypt was  the refuge that the Holy  Family sought in its
flight from Judea: "When he arose, he took the young Child and His  mother by
night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it
might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord  through the prophet, saying,
"Out of Egypt I called My Son''."  (Mathew 2:12-23).

The contributions of  the Coptic  Church to  Christendom are many.  From  the
beginning, it played a central role in  Christian theology. The Coptic Church
produced  thousands of  texts, biblical and  theological studies   which  are
important  resources for  archeology. The   Holy Bible was  translated to the
Coptic  language in the  second century. Hundreds  of scribes  used to  write
copies  of the Bible   and other   liturgical   and theological   books.  Now
libraries, museums and universities throughout the world possess hundreds and
thousands of Coptic manuscripts.

The Catechetical School  of Alexandria  is the oldest Catechetical  School in
the world. Soon after its inception around  190 A.D. by the Christian scholar
Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became the most important institution of
religious learning in Christendom. Many prominent bishops  from many areas of
the world were instructed in that school under  scholars such as Athenagoras,
Clement, Didymus, and the  great  Origen, who  was considered the  father  of
theology and who was  also active in the field  of commentary and comparative
Biblical studies.   Origen  wrote over  6,000 commentaries   of the Bible  in
addition to his famous Hexapla.  Many scholars such as St. Jerome visited the
school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to  communicate  directly with its
scholars.  The   scope of   the school  of   Alexandria  was not limited   to
theological subjects,  because science,  mathematics  and the humanities were
also taught there: The question and answer  method of commentary began there,
and 15 centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were in use there by
blind scholars (such as Didymus) to read and  write.  The Theological college
of the Catechetical School of  Alexandria was re-established in 1893.  Today,
it has  campuses in Alexandria,  Cairo, New Jersey, and   Los  Angeles, where
priests-to-be and other qualified  men  and  women  are  taught  among  other
subjects Christian theology, history, and Coptic language.

Monasticism was born  in Egypt and  was instrumental in  the formation of the
Coptic  Church's character  of    submission and humbleness,  thanks  to  the
teachings and   writings of the    "Great     Fathers" of Egypt's    Deserts.
Monasticism started in the last years of the third century and  flourished in
the fourth century. St Anthony, the  world's first Christian  monk was a Copt
from Upper Egypt. St. Pachom, who established the rules of monasticism, was a
Copt. And, St. Paul, the world's first anchorite  is also a Copt. By  the end
of the fourth century,  there were hundreds  of monasteries, and thousands of
cells and caves scattered  throughout the Egyptian  hills. Many of  these are
still  flourishing  and  have new vocations   till  this  day.  All Christian
monasticism stems, either directly  or indirectly, from the Egyptian example:
St. Basil, organiser of the  monastic  movement in Asia  minor visited  Egypt
around 357 A.D. and his rule is followed by the eastern Churches; St. Jerome,
who translated the Bible into Latin,  came to Egypt around  400 A.D. and left
details of his experiences in  his letters; St. Benedict  founded monasteries
in the sixth century on the model of St. Pachom, but in a  stricter form. And
countless pilgrims visited the "Desert Fathers" and emulated their spiritual,
disciplined lives.  There is even   evidence that Copts  had missionaries  to
Nothern Europe.  One example is St.  Moritz of   Switzerland, who was drafted
from Egypt to serve under the Roman flag  and  ended up teaching Christianity
to inhabitants  of the Swiss Alps, where  a small town  and a  Monastery that
contains his relics  as well  as some of  his books  and belongings are named
after him.

Under the authority of the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople (as opposed
to the western empire of Rome), the Patriarchs and Popes of Alexandria played
leading roles in  Christian theology.  They were  invited everywhere to speak
about the Christian faith. St. Cyril, Pope of Alexandria, was the head of the
Ecumenical Council which was held in Ephesus in the year 430 A.D. It was said
that the bishops of the Church of Alexandria did nothing but spend  all their
time in meetings. This leading role, however, did not fare well when politics
started to intermingle with  Church affairs.  It all started when the Emperor
Marcianus interfered with matters of faith in the Church. The response of St.
Dioscorus, the Pope of Alexandria who was later  exiled, to this interference
was clear: "You have nothing to do with the Church."  These political motives
became even more  apparent in Chalcedon  in 451, when the Coptic  Church  was
unfairly  accused of following  the  teachings of  Eutyches, who believed  in
monophysitism. This  doctrine maintains that the  Lord Jesus Christ  has only
one nature, the divine, not two natures, the human as well as the divine.

The Coptic  Church   has never  believed  in  monophysitism  the way   it was
portrayed in the Council of Chalcedon!  In  that Council, monophysitism meant
believing in one  nature.  Copts   believe that the Lord   is perfect in  His
divinity,  and He   is perfect in  His humanity,  but  His  divinity  and His
humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word",
which was reiterated by St. Cyril of Alexandria.  Copts, thus, believe in two
natures "human" and   "divine"  that are   united in   one "without mingling,
without confusion, and without alteration" (from the  declaration of faith at
the end of the Coptic divine liturgy).  These  two  natures "did not separate
for a moment or the twinkling of an eye" (also from  the declaration of faith
at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy).

The  Coptic Church was  misunderstood in the 5th century  at the  Council  of
Chalcedon.  Perhaps the Council  understood   the Church correctly, but  they
wanted to exile the  Church,   to  isolate it  and to  abolish the  Egyptian,
independent Pope. Despite  all of this,  the Coptic Church  has remained very
strict  and steadfast in its faith.   Whether it was   a  conspiracy from the
Western Churches to exile the Coptic Church  as a  punishment for its refusal
to be politically influenced, or whether Pope Dioscurus  didn't  quite go the
extra  mile to  make the  point that  Copts  are not  monophysite, the Coptic
Church has always felt a mandate  to reconcile "semantic" differences between
all  Christian  Churches.   This is   aptly  expressed by the  current  117th
successor  of  St. Mark, Pope Shenouda III:  "To the  Coptic Church, faith is
more  important  than  anything, and   others  must know that  semantics  and
terminology are of  little importance to us."  Throughout this  century,  the
Coptic Church has played  an important role  in the ecumenical  movement. The
Coptic Church is one of the founders of the World Council of Churches. It has
remained a member of that  council  since 1948 A.D.   The Coptic Church is  a
member  of the all  African Council of Churches  (AACC)  and the  Middle East
Council of  Churches (MECC).  The Church    plays an  important role   in the
Christian   movement   by   conducting dialogues   aiming  at  resolving  the
theological differences with the  Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterian, and
Evangelical Churches.

Perhaps  the greatest glory  of the Coptic Church  is its  Cross.  Copts take
pride in the persecution they have sustained as early as May 8, 68 A.D., when
their Patron St. Mark was slain on Easter Monday after being dragged from his
feet by Roman soldiers all over Alexandria's streets and alleys. To emphasize
their pride in their cross, Copts adopted a calendar,  called the Calendar of
the Martyrs, which begins its era on August 29, 284 A.D., in commemoration of
those  who  died for their  faith   during the rule of  Diocletian  the Roman
Emperor. The Copts have been persecuted by almost every ruler of Egypt. Their
Clergymen have been  tortured and  exiled  even  by their Christian  brothers
after the schism of  Chalcedon in 451 A.D.  and until the Arab's conquest  of
Egypt in 641 A.D.

For the four centuries that followed the Arab's conquest of Egypt, the Coptic
Church generally flourished and  Egypt remained basically  Christian. This is
due to a large extent to the fortunate position that the  Copts  enjoyed, for
the Prophet of  Islam, who  had an Egyptian  wife, preached especial kindness
towards Copts: "When you  conquer Egypt, be  kind to the  Copts for  they are
your proteges and kith and kin". Copts, thus, were allowed to freely practice
their religion and were to a large degree autonomous, provided they continued
to  pay a special tax,  called "Gezya",  that qualifies  them  as "Ahl Zemma"
proteges (protected).  Individuals who  cannot   afford to  pay this tax were
faced  with the choice of either  converting to Islam   or losing their civil
right to be "protected",  which in some  instances meant being killed. Copts,
despite additional sumptuary laws that  were imposed on  them in 750-868 A.D.
and 905-935  A.D.  under  the Abbasid Dynasties,  prospered  and their Church
enjoyed one  of its most  peaceful  era.  Surviving literature from  monastic
centers, dating back from the 8th to the 11th century, shows no drastic break
in the activities  of  Coptic craftsmen,  such  as  weavers, leather-binders,
painters,  and  wood-workers.  Throughout  that period,  the  Coptic language
remained the language of  the land,  and it was not  until the second half of
the  11th  century that   the  first   bi-lingual    Coptic-Arabic liturgical
manuscripts started to appear.   The adoption of  the Arabic language  as the
language  used in  Egyptians' every-day's life  was so slow that  even in the
15th century al-Makrizi implied that the Coptic Language was still largely in
use.  Up to this  day,  the Coptic  Language continues  to be  the liturgical
language of the Church.

The Christian face of Egypt started to change by  the beginning of the second
millennium A.D.,  when Copts, in addition  to the "Gezya" tax, suffered  from
specific disabilities, some of which  were serious and interfered  with their
freedom of  worship. For example, there were  restrictions  on  repairing old
Churches and building new ones,  on testifying in court, on  public behavior,
on  adoption, on inheritance,  on  public  religious activities, and on dress
codes.   Slowly but steadily,  by the  end of the  12th century,  the face of
Egypt  changed from   a predominantly  Christian  to  a  predominantly Muslem
country and the Coptic community occupied an inferior position  and  lived in
some expectation  of Muslim  hostility,     which  periodically flared   into
violence. It  is remarkable  that  the well-being  of Copts was  more or less
related to the well-being of their rulers. In  particular, the Copts suffered
most in those periods when Arab dynasties were at their low.

The position of the Copts began to  improve early  in  the 19th century under
the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali's  dynasty.  The Coptic community
ceased to be  regarded by the state as   an administrative unit  and, by 1855
A.D., the main  mark of Copts' inferiority, the  "Gezya" tax  was lifted, and
shortly thereafter Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 A.D.
revolution in Egypt,  the first grassroots dispaly  of  Egyptian identity  in
centuries, stands as a witness to  the homogeneity of  Egypt's modern society
with both its Muslim and Coptic sects.

Despite persecution, the Coptic  Church as  a religious institution has never
been controlled or allowed itself  to control the  governments in Egypt. This
position  of the Church concerning the  separation between State and Religion
stems from  the  words of Lord Jesus   Christ himself,  when  he   asked  his
followers to submit to their rulers: ``Render therefore to Caesar  the things
that are Caesar's, and to God the things  that are God's.''   (Mathew 22:21).
The Coptic Church has  never forcefully resisted  authorities or invaders and
was never allied with any powers, for the words of the Lord Jesus  Christ are
clear: ``Put your sword in its place, for all who  take the sword will perish
by the sword.'' (Mathew 26:52). The  miraculous survival of the Coptic Church
till this day and age is a living proof of  the validity  and wisdom of these

Today, there are over 9 million Copts (out of a population of some 57 million
Egyptians) who  pray and share communion in  daily masses in  over 300 Coptic
Churches in Egypt. This is in addition to another 1.2 million emmigrant Copts
who practice their faith  in over 100 churches  in the United States, Canada,
Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Brazil, and many other
countries in Africa and Asia.  Inside Egypt Copts  live in every province and
in no one of these provinces are they a majority. Their cultural, historical,
and spiritual treasures are spread all  over Egypt,  even  in its most remote
oasis, the Kharga Oasis,  deep in the western desert.  As individuals,  Copts
have reached prestigious   academic and  professional stature  all  over  the
world. One such individual is Botros  Ghaly the  current Secretary General of
the  United Nations. Another  is Dr. Magdy Yacoub  one   of  the world's most
famous heart surgeons.

Copts observe seven  canonical sacraments:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist,
Confession (Penance), Orders, Matrimony, and Unction of the sick.  Baptism is
performed few weeks after  birth by immersing  the whole  body of the newborn
into especially  consecrated  water three times.   Confirmation  is performed
immediately after Baptism. Regular confession  with a personal priest, called
the  father of  confession, is necessary  to  receive  the  Eucharist. It  is
customary for   a  whole  family  to pick the   same priest as   a  father of
confession, thus,  making  of that priest a   family counselor. Of  all seven
sacrements, only Matrimony  cannot  be performed   during a fasting   season.
Divorce is not  allowed  except in  the case  of  adultery, bigamy, or  other
extreme  circumstances,  which  must be   reviewed  by a   special council of
Bishops.  Divorce  can be requested by  either husband or wife. Civil divorce
is not recognized by the Church. The Coptic Orthodox Church does not have and
does not mind any civil law of the land as long as it does not interfere with
the Church's  sacraments. The Church does not  have (and actually  refuses to
adopt) an  official position  viz   a viz  some   controversial issues  (e.g.
abortion).  It is the position  of the Church  that such  matters  are better
resolved on a case-by-case basis by the father of confession.

There are three main Liturgies in the Coptic Church: The Liturgy according to
St. Basil, Bishop  of Caesarea;  The   Liturgy  according  to St. Gregory  of
Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople; and The  Liturgy according to  St. Cyril
I,  the 24th Pope of the  Coptic  Church. The bulk  of St. Cyril's Liturgy is
from  the one  that  St. Mark used (in  Greek)  in the  first century. It was
memorized by  the  Bishops and priests  of the church till it  was translated
into the  Coptic  Language  by St.  Cyril. Today these  three Liturgies, with
some added sections (e.g. the intercessions), are  still in  use; the Liturgy
of St. Basil is the one most commonly used in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The worship of Saints  is expressly forbidden by  the Church; however, asking
for their intercessions is central in any Coptic service.  Any  Coptic Church
is  named after  a Patron  Saint.  Among  all  Saints,  the  Virgin St.  Mary
(Theotokos) occupies a special place in the heart of all Copts.  Her repeated
daily appearances in a small Church in Elzaytoun district of Cairo for over a
month in April of 1968 was  wittnessed by thousands  of Egyptians, both Copts
and  Muslims.  Copts celebrate seven  major Holy feasts  and seven minor Holy
feasts.  The major feasts commemorate Annunciation, Christmas, Epiphany, Palm
Saunday,  Easter,  Ascension, and   Pentecost.   Christmas is  celebrated  on
January 7th. The Coptic Church emphasizes Easter as much as Chrisrmas, if not
more. Easter  is usually on  the second Sunday after the  first full moon  in
Spring. The  Coptic  Calendar  of Martyrs is  full   of other feasts  usually
commemorating the martyrdom of popular Saints (e.g. St.  Mark, St.  Mena, St.
George) from Coptic History.

The Copts have seasons  of fasting matched  by no other  Christian community.
Out   of the 365   days of the  year, Copts  fast  for over  210 days. During
fasting, no animal products (meat, poultry,  fish,  milk, eggs, butter, etc.)
are  allowed. Moreover, no food  or drink whatsoever  may   be  taken between
sunrise and sunset. These strict fasting rules are usually relaxed by priests
on an individual basis to accomodate for illness or  weakness. Lent, known as
"the Great Fast", is largely observed by all Copts. It starts with a pre-Lent
fast of one week, followed by a 40-day fast commemorating Christ's fasting on
the mountain, followed by the Holy week, the most sacred week (called Pascha)
of the Coptic  Calendar, which  ends with the  joyous Easter.  Other  fasting
seasons of the Coptic Church include, the  Advent (Fast of the Nativity), the
Fast of  the  Apostles,  the Fast of the Virgin  St.  Mary, and   the Fast of

The Coptic  Orthodox Church's clergy is headed  by the Pope of Alexandria and
includes Bishops  who oversee the  priests ordained in their  dioceses.  Both
the Pope and the Bishops must be monks;  they are  all  members of the Coptic
Orthodox Holy Synod (Council),  which meets  regularly to oversee  matters of
faith and pastorship in the Church.  The  Pope of the Coptic Church, although
highly regarded by all Copts, does  not enjoy any  state of supremacy. Today,
there are over 60 Coptic Bishops governing  dioceses inside  Egypt as well as
diocese outside,  such as in  Jerusalem, Sudan, Western  Africa,  France, and
England. The direct pastoral responsibility of Coptic congregations in any of
these dioceses  falls on Priests,  who must be  married  and must  attend the
Catechetical School before being ordained.

There  are two other non-clerical bodies  who participate  in  taking care of
Church affairs. The first  is a popularly-elected  Coptic Lay  Council, which
appeared on the stage in 1883 A.D. to act as a liaison between the Church and
the Government.  The second is a joint lay-clerical committee, which appeared
on the stage in 1928 A.D. to oversee and monitor the management of the Coptic
Church's endowments in accordance with the Egyptian laws.

Daily, in all Coptic Churches all over the world, Copts  pray for the reunion
of all  Christian Churches. They pray for  Egypt, its Nile,  its   crops, its
president, its army, its government, and above all  its people. They pray for
the world's peace and for the well-being of the human race.

For an authoritative bibliography consult W. Kammerer, "A Coptic
Bibliography", compiled by W. Krammerer with the collaboration of
Elinor M. Husselman, and Louise A. Shier, University of Michigan
General Library Publication, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1950, reprinted
1969. The above introduction is largely from the first 5 of the
following references:

 [1] Iris El Masri, "The Story of the Copts", The Middle East Council
     of Churches, Cairo, Egypt, 1977.

 [2] Jill Kamil, "Coptic Egypt: History and Guide", The American
     University in Cairo Press, 1987, reprinted 1988.

 [3] A.T. Ernest, et al, "The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great",
     St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Troy, Michigan, 1982.

 [4] Pope Shenouda III, "Glories of the Coptic Church", from a lecture
     given at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1977.

 [5] B.L. Carter, "The Copts in Egyptian Politics (1918-1952)", Croom
     Helm Ltd., Beckenham U.K., 1986. Reprinted by the American
     University in Cairo Press, 1988.

 [6] Aziz Atia, "The Copts and Christian Civilization", The University
     of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1979.

 [7] Aziz Atia, "History of Eastern Christianity", London, 1967,
     reprinted by the University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana,

 [8] Iris El Masri, "Introduction to the Coptic Church", Cairo, Egypt,

 [9] Otto Meinardus, "Christian Egypt: Ancient and Modern", The American
     University in Cairo Press, 1977.

[10] Helen Waddell, "The Desert Fathers", London, 1936.

[11] James Stevenson, "Creeds, Councils, and Controversies", Seabury
     Press, New York, 1966.

[12] E.R. Hardy, "Christian Egypt: Church and People", New York, 1952.

[13] William Hoyt Worrell, "A short account of the Copts", The
     University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1949.

[14] Murad Kamil, "The Coptic Orthodox Mass and Liturgy", Coptic
     Orthodox Church, Toronto, Canada, 1973.

[15] Reginald Wooley, "Coptic Offices", The Macmillan Co., New York,

[16] Nicolas Zernov, "Eastern Christendom: A study of the origin and
     development of the eastern Orthodox Church", Weindenfold and Nicolson,
     London, 1961.

[17] J. Kelly, "Early Christian Doctrines", Harper & Row, 1960.
     Revised Edition 1978.

[18] Vladimir Lossky, "Orthodox Theology: An introduction", St.
     Vladimir's Seminary Press, NY, 1978.