March 8, 2011

The Coptic Christians of Egypt

The Coptic Orthodox church is one of the oldest surviving sects of Christianity in the world. It also represents the largest Christian minority population in the Middle East. While population estimates are actually hard to come by for a variety of socio-political reasons, it is estimated that around 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christians and they represent around 10-12 million people worldwide.

The Hanging Church originally built in the late 3rd century

Tradition holds that the coptic church was founded in 33 AD by the Apostle Mark. However it came to be, by 200 AD Alexandria was one of the largest centers of Christianity in the world. They became separated from the other Christian sects following a schism at the Council of Nicea in 329 AD. Today, Alexandria is the home of the Coptic Orthodox Pope.

Excavations of ancient Coptic churches on top of Roman ruins
We had a special independent guide for this day who was a Copt and so he could provide us with the inside perspectives as we toured around and ate lunch with him on the shores of the Nile. He told us that the Copts have faced a great deal of persecution over the centuries because they tend to have a higher education and socio-economic standing than the average populus, and thus there is a lot of resentment and jealousy. Sounds a lot like another ethinic/religious group in Europe I've heard about.

He was a supporter of Mubarek because he felt that his secular regime generally kept the peace and prevented widescale attacks or persecution of the Coptic population. He said it was in Mubarek's and Egypts best interests to protect the Copts since they represented such an important economic class. He worried what might happen if the Muslim Brotherhood took over the government somday.

When Islam swept across Egypt in 639AD, the Copts were immediately relegated to 2nd class citizens. Rather than switch to Arabic, they continued to speak Demotic Coptic, which was a later version of Later Egyptian dating back to the Pharoahs, but written in the Greek alphabet, rather than with hieroglyphics.

However, through centuries of dominance by muslim Arabs, the language began to fade from normal speech by the 17th century and today most Coptics speak Arabic. The Coptic language is mostly only used for religious ceremonies today.

Ironically, despite Arabic originating on the Arabian Peninsula, Egyptian Arabic is considered the "high" version of the language throughout the region. That is because the many Arabic dialects ranging from Morocco to the Persian Gulf are often almost unintelligible from each other. Thus, Egypt being the most populated Arab country and the center of film, music, media, and to some degree politics, has contributed to the standardization of Arabic across the region.

Because of how ancient the Coptic Church is (pre-dating Catholicism by at least 200 years) and how well they have maintained their records, treasures, and structures, some of the oldest churches in the world remain in the outskirts of Cairo. For instance, the "Hanging Church", which we visited dates back to the late 3rd Century.

Inside there are hundreds of icons, gold-plated tablets, painted stations of the cross, and ebony structures, altar, and screens. The degree of preservation is outstanding. One of the reasons is the extremely arid conditions in Egypt that prevents rot and infestation by insects. Since icons were banned by Islam, while extremely important to the Orthodox churches, it resulted in some major tensions in the middle ages.

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