The Coptic Faith

The largest Christian community in the Middle East lives in Egypt. They are the Copts, the descendants of the Egyptians that converted to Orthodoxy between the 1st and 4th centuries. Their current name comes from the name for Egypt in Arabic, al-Qibt.  The Coptic Faith absorbed part of the ancient Egyptian cults and gave rise to the first Christian temples.

According to legend, the first Christian missionary in Egypt was Saint Mark the Evangelist. Despite the existence of ancient and authoritarian pagan beliefs, Christianity spread rapidly in the country of the pharaohs: by the beginning of the 3rd century the Bible had to be translated into Egyptian. The writing that Egypt had at that time did not turn out to be particularly useful. Consequently, the translators created their own alphabet based on Greek. The development of writing contributed to a rapid spread of literacy among the Egyptians which proliferated alongside Christianity.

By the 4th century Christians were the largest religious group in Egypt. That is when the first monastery appeared. It was founded by Pacomius the Great in Upper Egypt (Northern). He also created the first rules for monks that were later followed by monasteries in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

The Copts believe that theirs is “the church of the martyrs” because they pay a special tribute to the saints that became martyrs for the faith. The Egyptian Christians have a great respect for mounted warriors or horsemen, especially for Saint George. The Copts make the Sign of the Cross from left to right with one finger, symbolizing their faith in the human-divine nature of Jesus Christ. They share that trait with the Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Christians.

The spread of Christianity in Egypt ended with the Arab invasion, after which the country converted to Islam. Nevertheless, today some 7% to 10% of the population are members of the Coptic Church. Egypt is of course a biblical country and will continue to be one forever. It was from an Egyptian prison that Moses rescued the Israeli people, and it was to Egypt that Mary and Joseph fled from King Herodes.

The Copts were given some parts of the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre in the 12th century. Today they are the custodians of structures built above the Temple. The largest Coptic sanctuary in Jerusalem is at a site next to the Western wall of the Chapel of the Empty Tomb. The Copts received it as a gift from the Armenian Apostolic Church in the 17th century and, in turn, presented the Armenians with an enormous monastery in Egypt.  There is just one wall separating the Coptic structure from the Empty Tomb. In addition, it is believed that the Western part of the Chapel grew larger right after the reconstruction of the chapel. That is why the legends recount that the Coptic chapel is located in the same place that Christ’s head lay after his burial.

In 1980 the Pope, the head of the Coptic Church, and the Patriarch Shenouda III, prohibited the Copts from making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. For obvious reasons, the prohibition remains in effect although the faithful do not observe strict compliance with the edict: tens of thousands of pilgrims go to Jerusalem at Easter. Roughly 5 thousand Copts live in the city on a permanent basis.