Two Complications to Know About the Coptic Church in Egypt

By the time Mark reached the shores of Alexandria, he had come a long way. Physically speaking, the apostle had likely sailed south from Rome, landed in Libya, and trekked through to Alexandria—Egypt’s burgeoning city of modernity and intellectualism. But spiritually, Mark had journeyed much further. After fleeing the scene of Jesus’s arrest (Mark 14) and cutting his first mission trip short (Acts 13), Mark boldly struck out on his own to jumpstart the church in Africa.

The gospel is said to have taken root quickly in Alexandria, and before Mark knew it, a deeply committed group of believers known as the Coptic Christians emerged to permanently change Egypt and the greater Christian community.

In the Beginning

In Alexandria, Mark evangelized among Egyptians whose polytheism was a mixture of ancient Egyptian and Roman mythology. It wasn’t long before thousands converted to Christianity. They believed that Egypt was almost ground zero for the Christian faith because a personal acquaintance of Christ had brought the faith to them.

For the next four hundred years, Egyptian Christians—known as Copts, a term for indigenous peoples of Egypt—vigorously participated in shaping the theology of the early church. Copts established the world’s first catechetical school to determine and perpetuate Christian doctrine. Copts are credited with creating Christian monasticism. Coptic leaders oversaw landmark councils that established bedrock doctrine, most notably the Nicene Creed.

Over time, Copts organized and operated the church similar to the Catholic Church emerging out of Rome. They designated bishops to oversee Coptic communities. They even appointed their own pope as the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Just as the apostle Peter was believed to be the first pope of the Catholic Church, Copts reasoned, Mark was theirs.

Coptic Christians Today

Today, little difference exists between Catholic and Coptic theology and practice. Copts venerate martyrs in Christian history and visit sites dedicated to saints. They channel prayers to Christ through these saints and martyrs, they sing to them, and for blessing, they touch relics from their lives that are still considered holy.

Most Copts maintain that salvation is twofold: God has provided it through Jesus’s death and resurrection, and man takes hold of it through persistence in good works. Sins must be dealt with by confession to a priest and sacraments. Babies are baptized into the faith. Priests, called bapas (father), are trained to read and teach from the Arabic Bible, the only acceptable translation for the Coptic Church, which is unfortunately difficult for laypeople to understand.

This introduces the first complication for the Coptic Church: identifying a faith that saves. More on that in a minute.

The Dawn of Islam

War changed everything, as it usually does. After six hundred years of fighting heresy and division—and flourishing in spite of it—Coptic Christians were caught in the middle of a physical battle between the Roman Empire and Arab Muslims. With the defeat of the Byzantine army in Egypt came the influence and rule of the Arab world.

The new Arab rulers of Egypt were initially sympathetic or indifferent to Coptic Christians, but each dynasty brought new restrictions or forms of persecution. Copts were subject to taxation that Arabs were not. Coptic art was destroyed because Egypt’s Muslim majority found it to be blasphemous iconography. And in response to the Crusaders sweeping across the Middle East, Muslims responded in kind by rooting out Christians in Egypt and forcing them to convert to Islam or be killed. Most Copts chose the first option.

Over time, Egypt became home for Arabs. They were no longer foreigners who had invaded a country but citizens with the right to fully inhabit Egypt, to become Egyptian. Today as the majority, Muslims hold nearly every seat at every level of government and establish laws that favor Muslims. At the local level, Coptic Christians experience subtle discriminations—everything from not being able to obtain permits for church buildings or being passed over for a spot on an elite soccer team.

Which brings us to complication number two for the Coptic Church in Egypt: identity.

The Two Complications

Ben* is a Coptic Christian, ethnically Egyptian, and can help us understand the two complications Coptic Christians in Egypt are unknowingly up against. Let’s start with the first complication.

Complication #1: Identifying a Faith that Saves

Ben is a devoted member of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He attends mass every Friday, listens to an address from the bapa, and participates in the liturgies about Christ and the church saints. When asked to explain the gospel, he can give a pretty good rendition of Creation to Christ. He loves Jesus but often directs his prayers to saints the Coptic Church esteems. The gospel, according to Ben, is not the answer to the world’s problems but rather exclusively a personal solution, a family practice.

While God alone is the true and only Judge, Ben’s beliefs instigate conversations among Protestants that we usually have concerning our Catholic friends. Regarding Paul’s words from Romans 10:9, Ben believes that Jesus is God and that he is alive today. But then, Ben’s understanding of Christ and his supremacy gets murky: Ben believes he can lose his salvation, needs a priest to obtain forgiveness, and needs saints to act as intercessors to Christ.

At best, Ben needs access to good discipleship. And at worse, Ben needs access to a clear presentation of the gospel.

Complication #2: Identity

Ben is angry. He’s mad that the Muslim majority in his country controls who gets building permits and who gets to play on good soccer teams. Ben is mad that deadly attacks on Christian churches haven’t received wider condemnation from the Muslim community. He gets angry every time a Muslim sees the cross tattooed on his arm and tells him he is going to hell.

But according to Ben, the most infuriating thing is that those offenses are committed by Muslims who, in his view, took over his country 1,400 years ago. They aren’t Egyptians, they’re Arabs, he says. His people, who view themselves as true Egyptians, should be calling the shots in Egypt, or at least should not be enduring oppression by “imposters,” as he calls them.

It’s true that harassment and persecution are tangible realities for Coptic Christians in Egypt. The global church needs to pray for change and look for ways to advocate on behalf of the Egyptian church. However, Ben’s sentiment toward his oppressors reveals not just a hatred for his enemies but the belief that his country and religion are exclusive rights for people who are “true” Egyptians. To him and other Copts, to be Egyptian is to be a Coptic Christian. To be Arab is to be Muslim. One doesn’t become the other, nor should they. Christian faith is passed vertically down a family tree, not horizontally from neighbor to neighbor.

Where to Go from Here?

These two complications—faith and identity—pose the greatest contemporary obstacles for the Coptic Church. As the global church gains steam and strength, may God call the world’s Christians—many of us—to engage the Coptic Church with the gospel so Copts can evaluate their faith and either believe the gospel for the first time or pivot to theology many of us derive from Luther’s work in the Reformation.

Then, as the full gospel is realized among them, pray that God will turn their fear and hatred toward their Muslim neighbors into deep concern for their salvation. Ask God to give them a missional spirit, one that doesn’t sequester the gospel to certain peoples but delivers it open-handedly to neighbors and enemies.

May the church fully embody the spirit of Mark, who after running scared again and again, finally set out to boldly proclaim the true gospel.

*Name changed