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The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt

Fr. Matthias F. Wahba

Blessed Egypt

Egypt was a land of civilization which began more than three thousand years before Christ1. It was blessed by God: "Blessed is Egypt My people" (Isaiah 19:25), and is likened with "the garden of the Lord.", (Gen. 13:10). It was visited by Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Jeremiah and others. Egypt is the only land in the world to be blessed by a long visit of the Holy Family (Mt. 2:12-15)2. Many miracles took place, monasteries were established and churches were built at places where the Holy Family lived. In one of these churches, in the district of El-Zeitun in Cairo, St. Mary appeared on April 2nd, 1968; the apparation lasted for more than two years and was accompanied with a great number of miracles. The duration of the sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt is unknown and is not easy to define with precision3. Nevertheless, the event helped to spread the new faith in Egypt4, and has imprinted spiritual effects on the tradition of the Coptic Church. The Copts take pride in that event, which their writings and arts have commemorated on every possible occasion5.

The Term "COPT"

The words "Copt" and "Egyptian" have the same meaning; they are derived from the Greek word "aigyptos", which itself had two meanings: "Egypt", also "the Nile." This, in turn, was a phonetic corruption of the word Hak-ka-Ptah, the ancient Egyptian word for "Memphis." Hak-ka-Ptah meant the temple of the spirit of Ptah, one of the most highly revered deities in Egyptian mythology. With the supression of the prefix and the suffix of the Greek word, the stem "gypt" has become part of the words for "Egypt" and for "Copt" in all the modern languages of Latin origin. Other traditions state that the word is derived from "Kuftaim": the son of Mizraim; a grandchild of Noah, who first settled in the Nile valley and imparted his name on the old town of "Quft" (or "Guft" as pronounced in upper Egypt), in the neighborhood of Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt. Under the Muslim rule, Quft became a center of commerce with Arabia. The Arabs called Egypt "home of the Copts"; and since original natives of the land were Christians, the words "Coptic" and "Christian" became interchangeable in the Arabic tradition. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the Coptic Church should be defined merely as the Egyptian Church6.

The Coptic Language

The Coptic language is the last phase in the evolution of the language of the ancient Egyptians. The earlier phases represented in the Heiroglyphic and Hieratic alphabet, became so difficult that the common person became unable to correlate their phonetics with his own. Hence arose the Demotic phase, a much less pictograph form than its two predecessors, but still inaccessible to the growing needs of daily life. With the coming of the Greeks and the spread of Christianity in Egypt, Demotic was found inadequate for the reproduction of the Christian scriptures7. Egyptian scholars and scribes transliterated Egyptian texts into Greek alphabet. As that alphabet could not cope with all the native sounds, they adopted the last seven additional letters of the Coptic alphabet from their original Demotic script. In the course of the latter half of the second century A.D., the Coptic language was used along side with Demotic. By the end of the second and the beginning of the third century, most of the books of the Bible had been rendered in Coptic. The oldest Biblical codex in Coptic on papyrus contains big portions of the Letters of St. Paul, and is estimated to have been written around 200 A.D.8. The Coptic language survived the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century and continued to be the official language for state affairs. In the year 706, Abdallah Ibn Abdel-Malik, an Umayyad viceroy, issued a decree substituting Arabic for Coptic for all state affaris. Coptic persisted as a spoken and liturgical language until the thirteenth century, which was marked by a number of native scholars who composed Coptic grammar in Arabic, as well as Arabic-Coptic dictionaries to help in the preservation of the language9. Nevertheless, Coptic was steadily pushed back into Upper Egypt10. To this day, the Copts, who are Arab speaking, have retained the use of the Coptic language. However, Coptic has left its mark on the spoken Arabic of Egypt11. Under the auspices of H.H. Pope Shenouda III, the church has been active in reintroducing classes in Coptic, in order to familiarize the Coptic youth with liturgical terminology and all manner of rituals derived from Coptic.

The Founder of the Church

The Copts pride themselves on the apostolicity of their national church, whose founder was none other than St. Mark, one of the four Evangelists and the writer of the oldest canonical Gospel12. John Mark13 is regarded by the Coptic hierarch as the first in their unbroken chain of 117 popes. He is also the first of a stream of Egyptian saints and glorious martyrs. St. Mark was a native of the North African country of Libya. He was born in the city of Cyrene of Pentapolis, west of the northern border of Egypt. His parents, who were both Jews, had resided in Cyrene until their properties were attacked by the Berber tribes. They moved to Jerusalem where their son became associated with the Lord, who frequented his home more than once and chose him as one of the Seventy. Even after our Lord's Ascension, the Disciples met at Mark's home, and it was there that the Holy Spirit descended upon them (Acts 2:1-4). This room became the first chapel in history. St. Peter went directly to St. Mark's house after being released from jail, where the members of the Church were praying together (Acts 12:12). St. Mark was indefatigable. He traveled with St. Paul and his cousin, St. Barnabas to Antioch, then return to Jerusalem, and later accompanied his cousin to Cyprus. In Italy and Rome, he was close to St. Peter who styled himlovingly, "my son." (I Peter 5:13); but Mark's real labor lay in Africa. First, he crossed the Mediterranean to Cyrene, which had been his parents' residence. After peforming many miracles and preaching the Gospel, he went to Alexandria, the eastern counterpart of Rome. The story runs that on entering the city, he broke the strap of this shoe, so he went to a cobbler to mend it. Accidently piercing his hand, the cobbler cried aloud: "Heis ho Theos" (O One God). Mark rejoiced at this utterance, and after miraculously healing the man's wounds took courage and preached Anianus. He and his family were baptized and many others followed. The Apostle ordained Anianus bishop and second patriarch of Alexandria, with three priests and seven deacons. Afterwards, he seems to have undertaken two voyages: to Rome, where he met St. Peter and St. Paul; and he left for Aquilea near Venice after their martyrdom in 64 A.D. Returning to Alexandria, he found his flock firn in faith. He decided to visit Pentapolis where he spent two years preaching, performing miracles, and winning more converts. At last, he reached Alexandria to find that the believers were able to build a considerable church in the district of Baucalis, where cattle grazed at the seashore. The end was approaching, as the Christians threatened to overthrow the pagan deities. In the year 68 A.D., Easter fell on the same day as the Serapis festival. The furious mob had gathered in the Serapion and then descended on the Christians while they were celebrating Easter in Baucalis. St. Mark was seized, dragged with a rope around his neck in the street, and then incarcerated for the night. In the following morning, the same ordeal was repeated until he gave up his spirit. The Christians carried the torn body and buried it in a grave under the altar of the church. The body of St. Mark did not remain intact. During the later times of schism between the Copts and the Melkites, who were in authority, the church where the body was kept remained in the hands of the latter. At the time of the Arab storming of Alexandria in 642, the head of the Apostle was stolen, and somehow returned to the Arab governor, who ceded it to the Coptic Pope Benjamin, the only ecclesiastical leader left after the departure of the Greeks. In 828, Venetian merchants stole the headless body of St. Mark. Hence, Venice earned its other title, "The Republic of St. Mark"14. In June 1968, after a period of negotiations, Pope Paul VI of Rome gave the Holy relics of St. Mark to Pope Kyrillos VI of Alexandria on the occasion of celebrating the passages of 19 centuries since St. Mark's martyrdom. A grand cathedral had been erected for the occasion. The relics arrived home on the 24th of that month, and were carried in a procession and placed in a reliquary below the altar15.

Church of Martyrs

After the martyrdom of St. Mark in 68 A.D., the Coptic Church enjoyed an almost unbroken peace until 202. From 202-642, namely during the Roman Byzantine period, twenty one persecutions overtook her. The seventh persecution inflamed by emperor Diocletian; his reign (284-305) is considered by the Copts as the age of persecution. Under Maximin Daia (305-313), his successor in the East, the massacre continued for eight years of systematic killing. This could account for tremendous numbers of martyrs; among them was the seventeenth patriarch St. Peter I, (302-311), known as the "Seal of the Martyrs"16. The Coptic Synaxarium17 and the Lives of Saints18 are full, but yet represent only a fraction of that roll of heroic sacrifice. Few examples may, however, be illuminating. St. Sophia, a native of ancient Memphis, in Middle Egypt, was martyred at the time of the seventh patriarch, Omenius (129-151). Her body was later removed to Constantinople by Emperor Constantine I, the Great (313-337); and the famous cathedral Hagia Sophia was dedicated to her. St. Demiana, daughter of a governor of the northern delta, established a nunnery with 40 virgins, and all were massacred by Diocletian. The site of her nunnery and martyrdom is currently inhabited by nuns and is a favorite pilgrimage center. St. Catherine of Alexandria was martyred at the time of Maximinus in 307, and the famous monastery at Mount Sinai still bears her name. An important pilgrimage center that is associated with miraculous cures is to the South-West of Lake Mareotis. It is the reputed birthplace of St. Mina, a martyr of the third-to-fourth century period. The Church and town at that site were excavated in 1905-1908; and a monastery in his name was built under Pope Kyrillos IV. So profound was the impression of the persecution of Diocletian on Coptic life and thought that the Copts decided to adopt for the church use a calendar of the martyrs, the "Anno Martyri." The first year of that calendar was 284, the year of the disastrous accession of Diocletian. The months they use for this calendar are those inherited from the period of ancient Egypt. The farmers of the coptic period used them, and so do the farmers of present day Egypt, whether Christian or Muslim. The Coptic year is equal in length to the Julian year (with the exception of leap years divisble by 100 and not divisible by 400). It has 13 months, 12 of them are 30 days each, the 13th is 5 or 6 days long. The first month of the Coptic year is called "Thot." The following are the Coptic months and the days of the Julian calendar on which each Coptic month starts:

Thot 	  11 September		Pharmuthi	9 April
Paopi 	  11 October		Pachons		9 May
Athur	  10 November		Paoni		8 June
Koiak	  10 December		Epip		8 July
Tobi	   9 January		Mesori		7 August
Mechir	   8 February		Epagomena	6 September
Phamenoth 10 March
The last month, Epagomena (the small month), is five days long; and in the leap years, is six days long. After a leap year, the first day of the Coptic year (the first of Thot) corresponds to the 12th of September.

The School of Alexandria

The school of Alexandria was undoubtedly the earliest important institution of theological learning in Christian antiquity. It was a college in which many other disciplines were studied from the humanities, science and mathematics; but its main discipline was religion. According to Eusebius, its founder was St. Mark who appointed Iustus as its dean, (later on, Iustus became the sixth patriarch). Most of the eminent leaders of Alexandria were known to have been connected with it, either as teachers or students19. The first great head of the school was Pantaenus20. Besides being a great teacher, he was credited as one of those who adopted the Greek alphabet in the Coptic script. His works of exegesis have been lost. In the course of his service, Patriarch Demetrius I elected him for the Christian mission to India. His successor was Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 A.D. - c. 215 A.D.), the most illustrious pupil. Clement wrote abundantly although much of his work was lost. His chief works are Protrepticus (An Exhortation to ghe Greek), The Pedagogus (on Christian life and ethics), and his Stromaties (miscellaneous studies) in which he compiled treatises of various characters. He was regarded as one of the leaders of Christian liberalism, as he attempted to reconcile Greek culture and Christianity21. Origen (c. 185 A.D. - c. 254 A.D.) followed Clement about the year 215. He was Clement's most brilliant pupil. As a young man, he was extremely ascetic by nature. He carried the word of the Gospel (Matt. 19:12) literally and to the extent of mutilating himself. This fact of becoming a eunuch contributed of his future troubles with patriarch Demetrius I. His wandering extended from Arabia and Syria to Greece and Rome. As a Biblical scholar and philosopher, his creativity was massive. His amazing critical edition of the Old Testament, the Hexapla22, combined in six parallel columns all the available text in both Greek and Hebrew scripts. His monumental exegetical commentaries, the Scholia23, were partly put into Latin by Rufinus. In the realm of theology, his most important work was the De Pricipiis24, in which he systematized the whole of the Christian doctrine. In a treatise called Contra Celsum25, Origen defended Christianity from attacks by the second-century pagan philosopher Celsus. He wrote a number of ascetic works, two of which have come down to us: The Exhortation to Martyrdom and On Prayer26. During the Decian persecution of 250, the great master suffered tremendously; he was imprisoned and tortured. Though he regained his freedom, his health began to decline, and he died at Tyre in 25527. Origen's immediate successor was Heraclas, his former pupil and assistant who later followed Demetrius as Patriarch from 230-246. It is said that when he increased the number of local bishops to 20, the presbyters decided to distinguish him from the rest of the bishops by calling him "Papa." Thus, he was the first to bear the title of Pope, long before it was known to Rome28. The next head of the School, another famous pupil of Origen, was Dionysius of Alexandria, later surnamed the Great. He occupied that post until he became patriarch (246-264)29. At a later date, St. Athanasius intrusted Didymus the Blind (313-398)30 with the headship of the school. Among his pupils were St. Gregory of Nazianzen, St. Jerome and the historian Rufinus. He cared for the welfare of the blind, as he had been blind since the age of four, by promoting a system of writing for them. In this method, he anticipated Brailled by fifteen centuries. After Didymus, we entered the obscure period in the history of the school. After the first split of the Church which happened as a result of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the emperors of Constantinople closed the School in their persecution against the Copts. In 1893, Pope Kyrillos V inaugurated the new seminary in Cairo. Beside this main one, Pope Shenouda III has established another six seminaries in Alexandria, Tanta, Menoufeia, Menia, Mouharrak Monastery and Beliana, in addition to two seminaries in the U.S.A., and one in Australia.

The Coptic Fathers and Heresies

The patristic period in church history is marked by the appearance of numerous heresies. In Egypt, two major heresies in succession gained considerable ground throughout the country; one was Gnosticism and the other was Arianism. Gnosticism31 alleges that the central actor in the redemption of man is gnosis: the revealed knowledge of God which was reserved for the spiritual elite (the selected favourite)32, and is attained by the Illumination through a medium of complex practices. The heresy recognized the existence of a Supreme Being or God of unkownable nature. From the remote Being descended big numbers of "aeons," angelic emanations, which in turn gave rise to the Demiurge. That Demiurge was the immediate creator of the world which was evel and void of spirituality. The Gnostics recognized Jesus as the representative of the Supreme Being who came down with the light of the gnosis to be transmitted to future generations of spiritual elite. The heresy was condemned and attacked by the Fathers of the Coptic Church, especially Clement and Origen. In his Paschal letter 39, of the year 367, St. Athanasius the Great meant to condemn the attempt of the Gnostics and Manichees to introduce apocryphal works as inspired Scriptures. He enumerates all the books of the New and Old Testament and declares them, for the first time, to be the only canonical ones accepted by the Church33. Gnosticism was superceded by Arianism, the more menacing heresy. The Orthodox pary, led by Athanasius insisted on the principal of the homoiousius, signifying the Son and the Father to be one and the same essence. The Arian group accepted the homoiousius, assuming that the Son, even with His divine origin, was only of "like" essence, created by the Father as an instrument for the creation of the world. For the first time in history, representative bishops of all Christendom, traditionally numbering 318, assembled at Nicaea in 325 to settle doctrinal differences. The Nicene Council gave Christianity a creed which has survived to this day. Arianism was condemned, and Arius, together with four bishops who refused the Creed, were deposed and banished. Behind the Nicene triumph stood Athanasius who, still a young deacon, came to the Council with his old patriarch, Alexander. With the death of Alexander in 328, Athanasius succeeded him to a stormy reign. He was banished five times from his See, and spending more than seventeen years in exile34. This longer suffering of confessorship is summarized in the traditional phrase: "Athanasius contra mundum, et mundus contra Athanasium"35. It was Athanasius, the twentieth Coptic Pope, rather than the Council of Nicaea itself, that saved Christian monotheism and rescued faith in the Godhead of Christ36. On the other hand, his pastoral care is shown by his episcopal visitations, his Paschal Letters, and his numerous books and treatises37. In 373, this geat hero of faith departed to paradise, after he had prepared for the final victory for orthodoxy at the Council of Constantinople in 38138. The following century saw another peer of Athanasius, St. Cyril (412-444), the 24th Pope of Alexandria, surnamed the Great and the Pillar of Faith 39. The greatest conflict of Cyril's life was with Nestorius, the formidable Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius rejected the use of the term Theotokos, the mother of God, in regard to the Holy Virgin Mary, whom she wanted to be called the Mother of Christ. This led to the inference of the dual nature of Lord Jesus. Cyril hurled from Alexandria the twelve anathemas (condemnations and excommunications) against Nestorius, and Nestorius answered by casting twelve counter-anathemas at his adversary. The stage was again set for the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431; like the other two; Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). Two hundred bishops condemned and anathematized Nestorius. He was carried into exile and died after the year 439. Cyril left a tremendous number of works in theology, exegesis, homiletics and apologetics. His theology is regarded by the Church as the key of orthodoxy. At the time of his death, the Coptic Church had the position of leadership in the whole Christian world.

The Coptic Church and Mission

The Copts spread the faith in every direction beyond their geographical frontiers. Their relations with North Africa, notably with Pentapolis, took place with the introduction of Christianity. Since the Council of Necaea in 325, Cyrene had been considered as an ecclesiastical province of the See of Alexandria, according to the sixth canon of the Council. The Coptic Pope to this day includes the Pentapolis as an area within his jurisdiction. The area where Coptic Christianity had its most direct impact was the upper valley of the Nile. The persecutions urged Christians to flee for Nubia, south of the Syene (the modern Aswan); and the monks penetrated the southern regions as soldiers of Christ40. Recent excavations proved that Christianity has reached the lower Sudan41. historic evidence shows that Ethiopia remained pagan until the fourth century A.D. when Frumentius, a captive Egyptian, was appointed as a secretary to the king and a tutor to his son Prince Aeizanas. When the latter became king, Christianity was declared the official religion of the state. Meeting with St. Athanasius, the Pope ordained Frumentius himself as a bishop under the name of Abba Salama (the father of peace). The new Bishop of Axum returned to his See to establish churches in the country42. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Ethiopian adhered to the Coptic profession. The Egyptians moved freely to many parts of Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, Caesarea, and Arabia. Origen was invited to Bostra, in Arabia, to arbibtrate in doctrinal differences, and Mar Eugin of Clysma (the modern Suez) was the founder of monasticsim in Mesopotamia and the Persian Empire. Pantaenus was sent by Demetrius I to preach the gospel to India43; then he visited Arabia Felix (the modern Yemen). In the sixth century, the Alexandrian Cosmas Indiocopleustis reached India and left the account of his travels44. During his first two exiles, (335-337, 339-346), St. Athanasius carried out some missionary work by introducing into the West the monastic rule of the Egyptian Desert Fathers. In addition, pilgrims such as Jerome, Rufinus and John Cassiah, who came from the West to visit the Egyptian monks and hermits, may well be regarded as missionaries of Coptic religious life, since they transplanted Coptic teachings to their native countries45. An Egyptian legion from Thebes was sent by Deocletian to Gaul (France and Switzerland) to quell a rebellion. It was led by St. Mauritius who have earned martyrdom, together with all soldiers of the legion, for refusing to sacrifice to the idols. His statue stands today in one of the public squares of St. Moritz. The Theban legion was followed by missionaries who led themselves and reached the lake of Zurich, where they baptized converts until they themselves were martyred. A nurse in the legion called Verena, the native of Garagoz in Upper Egypt, was spared. She spent the rest of her life, present-day Switzerland, educating people to become Christians and teaching them the principles of hygiene46. Finally, the Coptic missionaries reached as far as the British Isles. It is believed that the Irish Christianity was the child of the Egyptian Church. Seven Egyptian monks are buried at the Disert Uldith, and there is much in the ceremonies and architecture of Ireland in the earliest time that remind us of Early Christian Egypt47.


The Christian Church is heavily indebted for the creation of monasticism which influenced her organization and philosophy48. Although St. Paul the Theban (died c. 340) is considered the first hermit, the origins are ascribed to St. Anthony (c. 251-356) whose fame was spread by his famous biography written by St. Athanasius49. The first definable stage of Coptic monastic life is described as "Anthonian Monachism." At the age of twenty, St. Anthony (251-356), an orphan of wealthy Christian parentage from the village of Coma50, renounced the world. He sold his estate, distributed the proceeds to the poor, and entrusted his younger sister to a community of virgins. For about eighty-five years, he led a solitary life and went further and further into the desert; his fasts got longer, and his combats with the demons became more spectacular. His fame spread far and Athanasius himself came to sit at his feet, while the Emperor Constantine wrote asking for his spiritual support. Many disciples sought his spiritual guidance, while they continued to lead solitary lives in the neighborhood of his cave. During Anthony's lifetime, there developed a second stage of monasticism, which may be called, "collective erimitism"51. The oldest settlement grew around Anthony in the district of Pispir and spreading eastward into the mountain where the monastery of St. Anthony stands to the present day. Another community arose at Chenoboskion (modern-day Nag Hammadi) in the Thebiad, where the Gnostic papyri was discovered. Moreover, there were three settlements in the Western Desert, namely, Nitrea, founded by St. Amoun; Cellia, the home of St. Macarius the Alexandrian; and Scetis, where St. Macarius the Great founded another monastery about 33052. A new chapter in the development of monasticism was associated by St. Pachomius (c. 290-346)53. Born a pagan and serving in the armies of Constantine and Licinius, Pachomius and his companions were encamping outside the city of Esnah, in Upper Egypt. The goodness of the Christians, who came to was the soldiers' feet and offered them food, impressed him. On his return, he was converted to Christianity and followed an aged monk called Palamon. Later on, he lived in a cave in solitude. He perceived that the life of solitude is not possible for everyone; so he thought to inaugurate a combination of asceticism and cenobitic, or communal life. Thus was born the rule of St. Pachomius54, surnamed the Great. This was the third and last stage of the monastic ideal. Perhaps the most revolutionary features in the system were the introduction of manual labor and a considerable measure of education55. The Fathers of the Church from numerous parts of the world came to Egypt for training in the way of monasticism. St. Athanasius the Great has already been mentioned. St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) stayed under the Pachomian rule in Thebiad from 373 to 381. St. Jerome (c. 342-420) and Rufinus (c. 345-410), the ecclesiastical historians, spent time in Egypt. St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379) introduced monasticism to Byzantium on the basis of Pachomian rule56. St. John Cassian (c. 360-435) spent seven years in the Thebiad and the Nitrean Desert and collected the material from personal experiences with the Desert Fathers for his two famous works: the Institute and the Conferences. He founded a monastery and a nunnery on the model which he had witnessed in Egypt57. Palladius (c. 365-425), Bishop of Hellenopolis in Bithynia, wrote his Lausiac History58, sometimes described as the "Paradise of the Fathers"59. Women too, came; such as Etherea, the fourth-century Spanish abbess, and Melania (c. 345-410), the aristocratic Roman widow60. Monasticism has survived in Egypt and has given the Coptic Church an unbroken line of 117 Popes beginning with St. Mark. Although most of the monasteries have disappeared, there is a revival in the surviving ones.

The Inhabited Monasteries:

  1. The Monastery of St. Paul
  2. The Monastery of St. Antonius
  3. The Monastery of St. Pishoy
  4. The Syrian Monastery
  5. The Monastery of Baramous
  6. The Monastery of St. Macarius
  7. The Monastery of St. Mena
  8. The Monastery of St. Samuel
  9. El-Mouharrak Monastery
  10. The Monastery of St. Pachomius
  11. The Monastery of St. George
  12. The Monastery of St. Hidra

The Inhabited Nuns' Convents:

  1. The Convent of St. Merkorius (Abu-Sefein)
  2. The Convent of St. Mary (Old Cairo)
  3. The Convent of St. Theodorus (El-Amir Tadrus, Haret el-Room)
  4. The Convent of St. Mary (Haret Zuela)
  5. The Convent of St. George (Haret Zuela)
  6. The Convent of St. Demiana

Doctrine and Practice

The Coptic Church is a deeply spiritual and conservative Church who does not want to change any of the doctrines or rituals as handed down to her by the founding fathers of the Church in the early centuries of Christianity. The student of ancient church history should look to the Coptic Church for an authentic glimpse of the Church of the Apostles. The following are the six basic corners of the Coptic Church doctrine and practice:

I. The Creed

In her liturgies, sacraments, hours, prayers and all other ministrations, the Coptic Church uses the Nicene Creed. It best summarizes her doctrine.

The Creed is: "We believe in One God, God the Father, the Pantocrator, who created heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light, true God of tre God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and became man. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. On the third day He rose from the deaad, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sat at the right hand of His Father. He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end. Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver-of-Life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified, and has spoken through the prophets. We believe in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the coming age. Amen."


II. The Sacraments

A sacrament is an invisible grace given under a visible (material) sign; it should be administered by a canonical priest. The Coptic Church believes in seven sacraments, these are:

  1. Baptism
    Baptism is a spiritual rebirth of water and spirit by complete immersion in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, according to the Apostolic tradition.
  2. Myron (Chrismation)
    It is the confirmation in the Church, the body of Christ, by which the Holy Spirit indwells the baptized. It is administered directly after baptism. The Myron (holy oil) was first made by the Apostles of the spices and ointments that were prepared for the Body of the Lord after His burial (Lk. 23:56, 24:1).
  3. Eucharist
    Holy Eucharist is esteemed by the Church as "the mystery of mysteries", by which the faithful feeds on the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the prayers of the Divine Liturgy, the bread and wine are changed and transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. After consecration, both elements are given separately to all faithfuls including children of all ages. The Coptic Church follows the old tradition of using leavened bread.
  4. Repentance and Confession
    By this sacrament, the Christian attains reconciliation with God and forgiveness of sins committed after baptism. It is a renewal of baptismal grace of adoption and salvation. Oral confession has been practiced since the time of the Apostles (Acts 19:18). The priest is called "Father Confessor." Through ordination, he receives the authority given from Christ to the apostles to absolve sins (Mt 18:18; Jn 20:22,23).
  5. The Unction of Sick
    This sacrament is a prayer said over oil by which the believer is anointed for healing of both spiritual and physical ailments. It is built on the words of St. James, "Is anyone among you sick? Let him call the priests of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven" (James 5:14,15). The Apostles "anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them" (Mk 6:13).
  6. Matrimony
    It is the sacrament in which a man and a woman are united into one body through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Marriage, therefore, is a sacred tie symbolizing the union of Christ and the Church. It is a law instituted by God Gen 2:18-24; Mt 19:1-9); and considered a mystery by St. Paul the Apostle (Eph. 5:32). Chrisitan marriage is characterized by its unity and indissolubility except by death. According to the Coptic Church canon law, divorce, unless adultery, is forbidden; for "what God has joined together let no man put asunder" (Mt 19:6).
  7. Holy Orders
    The sacrament of the Holy Orders is the sacred action in which ministers of the Church obtain, by laying of the hand, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the authority to act in one of the three degrees:
    1. The Episcopate, comprising the bishop, metropolitan and pope.
    2. The Priesthood, comprising priest and hegomen (protopriest).
    3. The Deaconry, comprising deacon and archdeacon on one hand, and chanter, reader and subdeacon on the other.


III. The Blessed Virgin Mary

Like all other human beings, St. Mary was born in sin (Ps 51; Rom 5:12-19, 1 Cor 15:22); but sanctified by the descent of the Holy Spirit since the incarnation of the Son of God. Thence, she is called "Theotokos" meaning: Mother of god. The Fathers of Alexandria were the first to use this title. The Coptic Church believes in the perpetual virginity of St. Mary, before, during and after the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Church believes also that her body was not left on the earth but carried away by his angels. Her "Assumption" is celebrated on the 16th of Mesori (22nd of August) after a fast of 15 days in her name. St. Mary is highly honoured, and her intercession is applied in all liturgies, sacraments, ministries and prayers.


IV. Intercession

The Church asks, not only for the intercession of St. Mary, but also for that of the Apostles, saints and martyrs. In addition, she asks for the intercession of the angels and the heavenly hosts. Their lives, acts, miracles and sacrifices are compiled in the "Synaxarium", which contains a biography of a saint or saints for every day of the year to be read on his or her feast. Thus, the Church commemorates their names, puts their lives as an example for the believers, and asks for their prayers. The belief in intercession is naturally linked with honoring, but not worshipping, their icons and relics.


V. Fasting

Fasting, for the Coptic Church, is a spiritual practice by which man can express his love of God and tries to come near Him. Also, fasting is a spiritual preparation for feasts, so that the festive joy may be really felt. Thence, the fasts of the Coptic Church last more than half of the year. During these fasts, the Copts do not eat any food that contains any ingredients that come from an animal source, in addition to abstaining from food or drink several hours each day. Seafood is permitted except during the Great Lent and on Wednesdays and Fridays. The fasts are:

  1. Advent: forty three days preceding Christmas which is celebrated on the 7th of January, and from one to three days preceding Epiphany.
  2. Lent: fifty five days; the forty fasted by our Saviour, the Passion Week; and an extra week before the forty days in preparation for them.
  3. Jonah's Fast: three days in commemoration of the accepted repentance of Ninevah. It is practiced two weeks preceding Lent.
  4. Apostle's Fast: from Monday following Pentecost until the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul on the 5th of Epiphi (12th of July); for the Apostles fasted after the Pentecost in preparation for their preaching, according to our Lord's teaching (Mt 9:14-17; Mk 2:18-22)
  5. The Virgin's Fast: fifteen days preceding the feast of the Holy Virgin's Assumption.
  6. Wednesdays and Fridays of every week of the year, with exception of the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, Christmas day and Epiphany if either falls on any of these two days.
  7. Nine hours prior to the Holy Communion: during these hours, those who are participating in the Holy Communion abstain from any food or drink.


VI. Prayer

It is well known that the Coptic Church is a church of asceticism and mysticism from her very beginning. The Bible is the core of universal worship and solitary meditation. There are several aspects of the Coptic prayers:

  1. The Liturgy: it is the summit of prayers, through which the Holy Spirit descends on the bread and wine turning them into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Liturgies celebrated in the Coptic Church are:
    1. The Liturgy of St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria, which, according to tradition, is the Liturgy of St. Mark as used by St. Cyril.
    2. The Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian(329-389), Bishop of Nazianzus in Capadocia, Asia Minor.
    3. The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379), Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. This is the one mostly used.
    Liturgies are preceded by prayers for evening and morning Raising of Incense, readings from the Pauline Epistles, other Epistles, the Acts, Synaxarium, Psalms, and from the Holy Gospel.
  2. The Hours: these are the seve prayers set for certain hours of the day. They are:
    1. Prime, or Morning prayer: commemorates the Resurrection of our Lord.
    2. Terce, or the Third Hour (9:00 a.m.): commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit at this time (Acts 2:15)
    3. Sext, or the Sixth Hour (midday): in honor of the crucifixion of our Saviour.
    4. None, or Ninth Hour (3:00 p.m.): in remembrance of the death of our Lord and His acceptance of the Thief.
    5. Vespers, or Sunset: said in the hour in which the Body of the Saviour was taken down from the Cross.
    6. Compline, or Sleep Hour: commemorates the burial of Christ, also a reminder of the end of man's life.
    7. Midnight: three prayers to mind the believer of the second coming of the Lord.
  3. Choiak (Khiak): the fourth Coptic month. These are prayers and hymns for every evening of the Coptic month of Choiak, specially the eves of Sundays of this month, in preparation for the Christmas feast, which is celebrated, according to the Coptic calendar, on the 29th of Choiak (7th of January). In these prayers, the Church glorifies the Incarnation of the Lord, and honors St. Mary, the Mother of God.
  4. Passion Week: the climax of Lenten worship and prayers. There are five Paschal hours, containing readings, hymns and prayers, for every morning; and the same for every evening of the Week. On Maundy Thursday, the celebration of the Lord's Supper is added. The prayers of Good Friday are held continuously from morning to evening; and after having some rest, the Apocalypsis Vigil (Revelation) is kept. The Vigil ends with the Liturgy of Holy Saturday. Services for the Feast of the Resurrection (Easter) are held from evening until after midnight.



  1. It is written in the Acts of the Apostles (7:22): "Moses was brought up with all the wisdom of the Egyptians."
  2. Cf. O. E. A. Meinardus, In the Steps of the Holy Family from Bethelem to Upper Egypt, Cairo, 1963.
  3. A. S. Atiya, History of Eastern Christianity, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1967, p. 24.
  4. Isaiah prophecies, "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" (Isaiah 19:1); and again, "Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt; the idols will totter at His presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in its mids: (Isaiah 19:1). These prophecies are explained that the cloud that carried the Lord is St. Mary the Virgin who is more pure than the clouds. The altar that was established in the midst of the land of Egypt is the Christian church that was built on the wrecked temples of the ancient Egyptian religions.
  5. In a Coptic doxology for the Feast of the Entry of our Lord into the land of Egypt, read on the twenty fourth day of the Coptic month Pachons, the faithful express their gladness in these words: "Be glad and rejoice, O Egypt, and her sons and all her borders for there hat come to thee the Lover of man, He who is before the ages." G. Meinardus, op. cit., p. 15, where he quotes the original text in Coptic and offers the English translation quoted here, cf. also Atiya, op. cit., p. 22.
  6. Atiya, op. cit., p. 16., E. Amelineau, La Geographie de l'Egypte a l'epoque Copte, Paris, 1893, pp. 213-215.
  7. H. I. Bell, Egypt from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest, Oxford, 1948, pp. 112-113; Atiya, op. cit., pp.17-19.
  8. J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, Princeton, 1951, pp. 352ff.
  9. Among them were Aulad El-Assal and Abul-Barakat Ib Kabar who flourished under the rule of the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties.
  10. W. H. Worrel, Short Accounts of the Copts, p. 51; idem, "Popular Traditions of the Coptic Languages," in: American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 54 (1927), pp. 1-11; G. J. M. Vansleb, The Present State of Egypt, or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, performed in the years 1672 and 1673, London, 1678.
  11. G. P. Sobhy, "The survival of Ancient Egypt" in: Bulletin of the Society of Coptic Archaelogy, 4(1938), p. 59-70.
  12. St. John Chrysostom states that it was originally composed in Egypt in the Greek language.
  13. His Hebrew original name is John, and his Greek surname is Mark; cf. Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37.
  14. E. M. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, Garden City, N.Y., 1961, pp.86-87.
  15. For further research of the life of St. Mark, refer to: H. H. Pope Shenouda III, The life of St. Mark, the Evangelist, Prophet and MartyrCairo, 1968; B. T. Evetts, "History of the Patriarches of the Coptic Church of Alexandria", in Patrolgia Orientalis; 2 vols. in 4 fasc., Paris, 1907-1915; Atiya, op. cit., pp. 25-28.
  16. Eusebius of Caesaria, Church History, VI.39; VII.11; VIII.7, 12; Evetts, op. cit., II, pp. 119-36.
  17. The Coptic Synaxarium is a set of homiletic biographies of saints and martyrs for all the days of the year. Traditionally it is known to be compiled by Abba Michael, Bishop of Athrib, in the 15th century; according to some scholars, by Abba Peter, Bishop of Melig in the 12th century. Cf. O - H. E. Burmester, "On the Date and Authorship of the Arabic Synaxarium of the Coptic Church", in: The Journal of Theological Studies, 389, pp. 240-253.
  18. Cf. Kammerer's Coptic Bibliography, nos. 1283-1409; De Lacy O'Leary, The Saints of Egypt, London, 1937.
  19. Atiya, op. cit., pp. 33-39.
  20. J. Quasten, Patrology, Westminister, Md., 1951-60, vol. II, pp. 4-5.
  21. J. E. L. Oulton & H. Chadwich, Alexandrian Christianity, Philadelphia, 1954, pp. 15-39; cf. also F. R. M. Hitchcock, Clement of Alexandria, Edinburgh, 1914; R. B. Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria - A Study in Christian Liberalism, London, 1914.
  22. H. H. Howorth, "The Hexapla and Tetrapla of Origin", in: Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, 24(1902) pp. 147-172; H. M. Orlinsky, "The Columnar Order of the Hexapla", in: The Jewish Quarterly, 27(1936), pp. 137-149.
  23. C. H. Turner, "The Newly Discovered Scholia of Origen", in: Journal of Theological Studies, (1912), pp. 386-387.
  24. G. W. Butterworth, Origen on First Principles, London, 1936.
  25. H. Chadwich, Origen Contra Celsum, Cambridge, 1953.
  26. Oulton & Chadwick, op. cit., pp. 180-429; Quasten, Patrology, vol. II, pp. 66-73.
  27. Oulton & Chadwick, op. cit., 171-179; Quasten, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 37-101; J Danielou, Origen, translated by W. Mitchell, London, 1955; H. U. von Balthaser, Origen: Spirit and Fire; A Thematic Anthology of his Writings, translated by R. J. Daly, Washington, D.C., 1984.
  28. F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1983, under "Pope".
  29. Cf. C. L. Feltoe, The Letters and other remains of Dionysius of Alexandria, Cambridge, 1904; idem, St. Dionysius of Alexandria: Letters and Treatises, English tr., London, 1918; F. C. Conybeare, "Newly Discovered Letters of Dionysius of Alexandria to the Pope Stephen and xystus", in: English Historical Review, 25(1910), pp. 111-114.
  30. G. Brady, Didyme l' Aveugle, 1910, Quasten, Patrology, vol. II, pp. 109-118; vol. III, pp. 85-100.
  31. Cf. R. M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, New York, 1959; K. Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, translation edited by R. Mcl. Wilson, San Francisco, 1983; H. Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston, 1970, Atiya, op. cit., pp. 39-42.
  32. Elite means: selected, choice, favorite.
  33. Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, ser. II, vol. 4, pp. 551-552; Quasten Patrology, vol. 3, p. 54; Fr. M. F. Wahba, The Doctrine of Sanctification in St. Athanasius' Paschal Letters, Rhode Island, 1988.
  34. Historia Acephala XII.17, in: Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, op. cit., p. 499.
  35. Athanasius against the world, and the world against Athanasius.
  36. G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, London, 1936, p. xxxi.
  37. Cf. a whole volume in Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, ser. II, vol. 4.
  38. P. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Michigan, 1979, vol. 3, p. 888.
  39. Quasten, Patrology, vol. 3, pp. 116-142; Kyrilliana, Etude variees a l' occasion du XVe centenaire de saint Cyrille d Alexandria, A.D. 444-1944, Cairo, 1947; Atiya, op. cit., pp. 45-48.
  40. Atiya, op. cit., pp. 45-49.
  41. C. P. Groves, The Planting of Christianity in Africa, London, 1948-58, vol. I, 46-49; S. Clarke, Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley, Oxford, 1912, D. Dunham, "Romano Coptic Egypt". in: Coptic Egypt, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1944.
  42. Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, ser. II, vol. 4, pp. xiviii, 249, 251.
  43. On his return to Egypt, he recovered the Gospel of St. Matthew in Hebrew which had been brought by the Apostle Bartholomew; cf. Eusebuis; Church History, V, 10-11.
  44. Cf. his Christian Topography, edited by E. O. Wenstedt, Cambridge, 1909.
  45. Refer to Monasticism.
  46. Atyia, op. cit., p. 54; I. H. El Masri, The Story of the Copts, Cairo, 1978, vol. I, pp. 81-84.
  47. Cairo: Sketches of its history, Monuments and Social LifeLondon, 1898, pp. 203-204; Atiya, op. cit., pp. 54-55.
  48. Otto F. A. Meinardus, Christian Egypt: Ancient and Modern, 2nd revised edition, Cairo, 1977, p. 14.
  49. Athanasius, Vita Antonii cf. Migne, P.G. xxvi, pp. 835-976; Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, ser. II, vol. 4, pp. 188-221; R. Meyer, St. Athanasius - The Life of St. Antony, Westminster, 1959.
  50. In the division of Heracleopolis, now: Kemn el Arous, in the province of Beni Suef.
  51. Atyia, op. cit., p. 61.
  52. Cf. H.C. Evelyn-White, The Monasteries of Wadi'n Natran, 2 vols., N.Y. 1926-1933; C. Martin, "Les Monasteres du Ouadi Natrun" in: Nouvelle Revue Theologigue, 68(1935), pp. 113-134.
  53. Cf. A. Veilleux, Pachomian Koinonia, 3 vols., Kalamazoo, Michigan 1980-1982, L. Th. Lefort, Les Vies Coptes de Saint Pachome et de ses premiere successurs, Louvain, 1943.
  54. Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, ser. II, vol. 3; L. Th. Lefort, Un texte original de la regle de Saint Pachome, Paris, 1919.
  55. Atyia, op. cit., p. 64.
  56. Nicene & Post - Nicene Fathers, ser. II, vol. 3.
  57. Ibid. vol. 11, pp. 161-641; O. Chadwick, John Cassian: A Study in Primitive Monasticism, Cambridge, 1950.
  58. C. Butler, The Lausiac History of Palladius, 2 vols., Cambridge, 1898-1904.
  59. E. A. T. Wallis Budge, The Paradise of the Fathers, 2 vols., Oxford 1934; idem, The Wit and Wisdom of the Christian Fathers of Egypt, Oxford, 1936.
  60. F. L. Cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1983, under Etherea and Melania.