The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the largest Christian church in Egypt. The Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox communion, which has been a distinct church body since the Council of Chalcedon in 451AD, when it separated from the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, (then still in union). The differences in theology that caused the split are still disputed, and highly technical: they concern the Nature of Christ and the Trinity. The foundational root of the Church is based in Egypt, but it has a worldwide following.
Church is the Church of Alexandria that was established by Saint Mark,
the apostle and evangelist, in approximately 42AD. The head of
the church, and the See of
Alexandria, is the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on
the Holy See of Saint Mark.
More than 95% of Egypt's Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox
Church of Alexandria, though other churches also claim Patriarchates
and Patriarchs of Alexandria, among them: The Greek Orthodox Church of
Alexandria, The Coptic Catholic Church of Alexandria, The Greek Melkite
Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.
is identified in the Bible as the place of refuge that the Holy Family
(with the baby Jesus) 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 the Great, that it might be
fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out
of Egypt I called My Son" (Matthew 2:12-23). The Egyptian
Church, one of the earliest Christian churches, regards itself
as the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah said "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" (Is. 19:19).
The first Christians in Egypt were
mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, who Saint Luke the Apostle addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When
the church was founded by Saint Mark during the reign of the Roman
emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians embraced the Christian faith. Christianity
spread throughout Egypt within fifty years of Saint Mark's arrival
in Alexandria as shown by the New Testament writings found in
Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around 200AD, and a
fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in
Upper Egypt and can be dated to about 130AD.
In the second century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas,
and scriptures were translated into the local language: Coptic.
Contributions to Christianity
Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest catechetical school in
the world. St. Jerome records that the Christian School of Alexandria
was founded by St. Mark himself. Around 190AD under the leadership
of the scholar Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became an important
institution of religious learning, where students were taught by
scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the native Egyptian
Origen, who is 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 school was not limited to theological
subjects; science, mathematics and humanities were also taught.
The question-and-answer method of commentary began there, and 15
centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were used so
blind scholars could read and write. The Theological college of the
catechetical school of Alexandria was re-established in 1893. The new
school currently has campuses in Alexandria, and Cairo in Egypt, New Jersey, and Los
Angeles in USA. Coptic candidates for priesthood and other qualified men and women
are taught Christian theology, history, Coptic
language and art - including chanting, music, iconography, and tapestry among other subjects.
The Cradle of Monasticism and missionary work
Egyptian Christians went to the desert during the 3rd century, and
remained there to pray, work and dedicate their lives to seclusion
and worship of God. This was the beginning of the monastic movement,
which was organized by Anthony the Great, Saint Paul, the world's first
anchorite (which means 'hermit or religious recluse'), Saint Macarius the Great and Saint Pachomius the Cenobite in
the 4th century. Christian Monasticism was born in Egypt and resulted in the formation of the Coptic Orthodox Church's character
of submission, simplicity and humility, following the teachings and
writings of the Great Fathers of Egypt's Deserts. By the end of the
fifth century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of
monastic cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. A great
number of these monasteries still exist to this day.
All Christian monasticism stems, either
directly or indirectly, from the Egyptian example: Saint Basil the
Great Archbishop of Ceasaria of Cappadocia, founder and organiser of
the monastic movement in Asia Minor, visited Egypt around 357AD and
his rule is followed by the Eastern Orthodox Churches; Saint Jerome who
translated the Bible into Latin, came to Egypt, while en route to
Jerusalem, around 400AD and left details of his experiences in his
letters; Benedict founded the Benedictine Order in the sixth century on
the model of Saint Pachomius, but in a stricter form. Countless
pilgrims have visited the "Desert Fathers" to emulate their spiritual,
Coptics and the Ecumenical Councils
the 4th century, an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began a
theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout
the Christian world and is now known as Arianism. The Ecumenical Council of
Nicea 325AD was convened by Constantine under the presidency of Saint
Hosius of Cordova and Saint Alexander of Alexandria to resolve the
dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith,
also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, which is now recited
throughout the Christian world, was based largely on the teaching put
forth by a man who eventually would become Saint Athanasius of
Alexandria, the chief opponent of Arius.
In 381AD, Saint Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second
ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople,
which completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity
of the Holy Spirit: "We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord,
the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father
and the Son is worshipped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and
in One, Holy, Universal, and Apostolic Church. We confess one Baptism
for the remission of sins and we look for the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the coming age, Amen."
theological disagreement occurred over the teachings of
Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who taught that God the Word
was not hypostatically joined with human nature, but rather was an
entity which existed inside
the man Jesus. Consequently, he denied the title "Mother of
God" (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be
"Mother of Christ" Christotokos. When reports of this reached
the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, Pope Saint Cyril I of Alexandria
acted quickly to correct this breach with orthodoxy, demanding that
Nestorius repent. When he refused, the Synod of Alexandria met in
emergency session and a unanimous agreement was reached: Pope Cyril I
of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius
known as "The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius." This epistle
drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained
the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: "The Twelve Anathemas
of Saint Cyril." In these anathemas (which in this sense means 'thing
that is detested'), Cyril excommunicated anyone who
followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, "Anyone who dares to
deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!"(anathema in this
sense means 'excommunicated' or 'thrown out of the church'). Nestorius
however, still would not repent and so this led to the convening of the
First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, 431AD, over which Cyril I of
Alexandria presided. The First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus
confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and confirmed the title of
Mary as "Mother of God". It also clearly stated that anyone who
separated Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Athanasius had
said that there is "One Nature and One Hypostasis for God the Word
Incarnate". Also, the
introduction to the creed was formulated: "We magnify
you O Mother of the True Light and we glorify you O saint and Mother of
God (Theotokos) for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world.
Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles,
the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firmness of
the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity
in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord
have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen."
In 451AD, Emperor Marcianus
attempted to heal divisions in the Church: the response of Pope
Dioscorus (the Pope of Alexandria who was later exiled) was that the
emperor should not intervene in the affairs of the Church. It was at
Chalcedon that the emperor, through the Imperial delegates, enforced
harsh disciplinary measures against Pope Dioscorus in response to this. When the Council of Chalcedon deviated from the approved Cyrillian
terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures this differed with the Alexandrine perspective
However, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the phrase "Christ was conceived
of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary," which is the basis of the
definition according to the Non-Chalcedonian adherents, is valid Christology of Cyril of Alexandria.The Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) Christology (understanding of the nature of Christ) is
that Christ is "One Nature - the Logos Incarnate," of full humanity
and full divinity intermixed. The Chalcedonians understanding is that Christ is in
two seperate natures, full humanity and full divinity. According to Oriental Orthodoxy the nature of Christ is like this: Just as humans are of
their mothers and fathers and not in their mothers and fathers, so too Christ is
in full humanity and in full divinity, so then He is separate in two
persons as the Nestorians teach. This is the doctrinal difference which separated the Oriental
Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.
The Council of Chalcedon's findings were
rejected by many, including Egyptians, Syrians, and Armenians. From
that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the
non-Chalcedonian native Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope of
Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St.
Mark and the "Melkite" or Imperial Patriarch, now known as the Greek
Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa. Almost
the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the Council of
Chalcedon and remained faithful to the native Egyptian Church (now
known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria). Those who supported
the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the churches of Rome and Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party
became what is today called the Oriental Orthodox Church.
Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria regards itself as having been
misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon. There was an opinion in the
Church that perhaps the Council understood the Church of
Alexandria correctly, but wanted to curtail the power of the
Alexandrine Hierarch, especially after the events that happened several
years before at Constantinople from Pope Theophilus of Alexandria
towards Patriarch John Chrysostom and the events of the
Second Council of Ephesus in 449AD, where Eutichus misled Pope
Dioscoros and the Council in confessing the Orthodox Faith in writing
and then renouncing it after the Council, which in turn, had upset
Rome, especially as the document which was sent was not read during the
The contribution of Pope Leo
of Rome, according to the Alexandria School of Theology, was
influenced by Nestorian heretical teachings, Particularly on the nature of Christ. Because of this, the
Hierarchs of Alexandria were considered too powerful. Due to the conflict of the Schools of
Disocoros was excommunicated.
vigorously denouncing Pope Leo, and his Alexandrine
Theology, Pope Discoros was found guilty of denouncing him. The Tome of
Leo (Leo's contribution to the Council of Chalcedon) was not a subject
of heresy in the first place. However, the
reasons behind it not having been either acknowledged or read at the
Council of Ephesus in 449AD needed explaining. It is important to note
Dioscorus of Alexandria was never labeled as heretic by the council's
Copts also believe that the Pope of Alexandria was
forcibly prevented from attending the third congregation of the council apparently the result of a conspiracy
tailored by the Roman delegates.
Before the current positive era
of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox dialogues, Chalcedonians sometimes
used to call the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic
Orthodox Church in reality regards monophysitism as a heresy. The
Chalcedonian doctrine in turn came to be known as "dyophysite". A
better term for Coptic Orthodoxy is miaphysite, which means a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united
indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos. The Coptic Orthodox Church of
Alexandria believes that Christ 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 Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Coptic belief is in
two natures "human" and "divine" that are united in one hypostasis
"without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration". These
two natures "did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye"
(Coptic Liturgy of Saint Basil of Caesarea).
From Chalcedon to the Arab conquest of Egypt
Copts were oppressed by the rule of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. The
Melkite Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders
and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population whom they
considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to
accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the
faith of their fathers and to the Cyrillian view of Christology. One of
the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the
The Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt
conquered Egypt in 639AD. Despite the political upheaval,
Egypt remained a mainly Christian land, although the gradual
conversions to Islam over the centuries changed Egypt from a mainly
Christian to a mainly Muslim country by the end of the 12th century. This
process was sped along by persecutions during and following the reign
of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (reigned 996-1021AD) and
the Crusades, and also by the acceptance of Arabic as a liturgical
language by the Pope of Alexandria Gabriel ibn-Turaik. During
Islamic rule, the Copts needed to pay a special tax called the jizya in
order to be defended by Muslim armies, as non-Muslims were not allowed
to serve in the army. This tax was abolished in 1855.
From the 19th century to the 1952 revolution
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, the main mark of Copts' suppression, the Jizya tax, was
lifted. Shortly after Christians started to serve in the Egyptian
army. The 1919 revolution in Egypt, the first grassroots display of
Egyptian identity in centuries, stands as a witness to the homogeneity
of Egypt's modern society with both its Muslim and Christian components.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria today
are about 15 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world: they are
found primarily in Egypt under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox
Church of Alexandria (roughly 11 million). There are also about 4 million in countries such as the United States of
America, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, and Sudan. In
addition, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 native African
adherents in East, Central and South Africa. Although under the
jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church, these adherents are not
considered Copts, since they are not ethnic Egyptians.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (about 45
million adherents), and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church (about 2.5 million),
churches of the Church of Alexandria, but they are autocephalous
(independent and self governing) churches. In 1959, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was granted
its first own Patriarch by Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria. Furthermore,
the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church became independent of
the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church in 1994, when four bishops were
consecrated by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria to form the basis of a
local Holy Synod of the Eritrean Church. In 1998, the Eritrean Church
gained its autocephelacy from the Coptic Orthodox Church when its first
Patriarch was enthroned by Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria.
three churches remain in full communion with each other and with the
other Oriental Orthodox churches. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo
Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church acknowledge the
Honorary Supremacy of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria,
since the Church of Alexandria is technically their Mother Church. Upon
their selection, both Patriarchs (Ethiopian & Eritrean) must
receive the approval and communion from the Holy Synod of the Apostolic
See of Alexandria before their enthronement.
In addition to the
Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria whose adherents make 93% of Egypt's Christian population of 12 million
adherents. The country also includes Christian minorities that belong
other Christian denominations:
The Coptic Evangelical Church (a Protestant Church) has about 300,000 members in Egypt.
Coptic Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church) has about 275,000
members in Egypt and roughly 50,000 adherents abroad. It is
headed by the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria.
Orthodox Church of Alexandria (an Eastern Orthodox Church) has about 250,000 adherents in Egypt: approximately
45,000 are of Greek (Hellenic) descent. The Church has another 1.5
million adherents in Africa: approximately
200,000 of which are of Greek Hellenic descent and the rest are native African
converts (1.3 million). There are also between 10,000 and 15,000
ex-patriates in Europe, North and South America. The current Greek
Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria is Pope Theodoros II.
Greek Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church) has about 35,000
members in Egypt. The eparchy of Egypt is looked after by a
Protosyncellus, and has about 20,000 members in
Europe, North and South America, and Australia.
Apostolic Church (an Oriental Orthodox Church) has about
20,000 adherents in Egypt. Most of them follow the Holy See of
Echmiadzin in Armenia, rather than the Holy See of Cilicia in Lebanon.
Roman Catholic Church has about 18,000 adherents in Egypt.
Most are citizens born in Egypt but of foreign descent, like Italians,
Maltese and French, or members of the foreign Diplomatic Corps in
Egypt. There are very few native Christian Egyptians who belong to the
Roman Catholic Church, and those who do (several hundreds) do so mainly
The Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle
East (a Protestant Church known in Egypt as the Anglican Church) has about 15,000 members in Egypt.
The Maronite Church (an Eastern Catholic Church) has about 11,000 adherents in Egypt.
Armenian Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church), The Chaldean
Catholic Church (an Eastern Catholic Church) and The Syriac Catholic
Church (an Eastern Catholic Church) have about 15,000 adherents between
them in Egypt.
Syriac Orthodox Church (an Oriental Orthodox Church) has a very small
population in Egypt, about 500 who are mostly students
of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, or foreign students studying
in Egyptian Universities.
Since the 1980s theologians from the
Oriental (Non-Chalcedonian) Orthodox and Eastern (Chalcedonian)
Orthodox churches have been meeting in a bid to resolve the theological
differences, and have concluded that many of the differences are caused
by the two groups using different terminology to describe the same
thing. In 2001, the Coptic Orthodox
and Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria mutually
recognized baptisms and marriages performed in each other's churches. Previously, if a Coptic Orthodox and Greek
Orthodox wanted to marry, the marriage had to be performed twice, once
in each church, for it to be recognized by both.
Christian Tradition and Canon Law, the Coptic Orthodox Church of
Alexandria only ordains men, and if they wish to be married, they must
be married before they are ordained. In this respect they follow the
same practices as does the Eastern Orthodox Church. Traditionally,
the Coptic language was used in church services, and the scriptures
were written in the Coptic alphabet. However, due to the Arabisation of
Egypt, service in churches started to witness increased use of Arabic,
while preaching is done entirely in Arabic. Native languages are used,
in conjunction with Coptic and Arabic, during services outside of Egypt. Coptic
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January
(Gregorian Calendar), which coincides with the 25th of December
according to the Julian Calendar. The Coptic Orthodox Church uses the
Julian Calendar as its Ecclesiastical Calendar. It is known as the
Coptic calendar or the Alexandrian Calendar. This calendar is in turn
based on the old Egyptian calendar of Ancient Egypt. The Coptic
Orthodox Church is thus considered an Old Calendrist Church. Christmas
according to the Coptic calendar was adopted as an official national
holiday in Egypt since 2002.
are Coptic churches all over the world: Africa, Asia, Australia/New
Zealand, Europe, North America and Canada and South America.
The episcopal titles of the Pope of Alexandria
leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, is known as Pope of
Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy See of St. Mark the
His full title is Pope and Lord Archbishop of the Great
City of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Orthodox and
Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist and Holy Apostle that is,
in Egypt, Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and all
The Successor of St. Mark the Evangelist, Holy Apostle and
Martyr, on the Holy Apostolic Throne of the Great City of Alexandria.
of Alexandria, being the Diocesan Bishop of the Great and Ancient
Metropolis of Alexandria, that is in Alexandria and the metropolitan
province of Greater Cairo.
Elder Metropolitan Archbishop of the Egyptian Province.
Primate of Egypt, Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia and Sudan.
Patriarch of All Africa.
Father of Fathers.
Shepherd of Shepherds.
Hierarch of all Hierarchs.
Honorary titles of the Pope of Alexandria
The Dean of the Great Catechetical School of Theology of Alexandria.
The Ecumenical (Universal) Judge (Arbitrator) of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic (Universal) Church.
The Thirteenth among the Holy Apostles.
The Pillar and Defender of the Holy, Catholic (Universal), Apostolic Church and of the Orthodox Doctrine.
Historical evolution of the ecclesiastical title
Bishop of Alexandria was first known just as the Bishop of Alexandria, until the Church grew within and all over the
Egyptian Province, and many Bishops were consecrated for the newly
founded parishes all over the towns and cities. The Bishop of
Alexandria, being the successor of the first Bishop in Egypt
consecrated by Saint Mark, was honored by the other Bishops, as first
among equals "Primus enter Pares". This was in addition to the
appropriate honorary dignity, by virtue of being the
Senior Bishop of the main Metropolis of the Province, Alexandria, which
is also the Capital and the main Port of the Province. This honor made the Senior Bishop an “Archbishop,” so presiding in
dignity of honor over all the Alexandrine and Egyptian Bishops.
The title “Pope” has been attributed to the Bishop of Alexandria
since the Episcopate of Heraclas, the thirteenth Bishop of Alexandria.
All the clergy of Alexandria and Lower Egypt honored him with the
appellation “Papas,” which means “Our Father,” as the Senior and Elder
Bishop among all bishops, within the Egyptian Province, who are under
his jurisdiction. This is because Alexandria was the Capital of the
Province, and the preaching center and the place of martyrdom of Saint
Mark the Evangelist and Apostle.
The title “Patriarch” means the
Head or the Leader of a Tribe or a Community. Ecclesiastically it means
the Head of the Fathers (Bishops) and their congregation of faithful.
This title is historically known as “Patriarch of Alexandria and all
Africa on the Holy Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist,” that
is “of Alexandria and of all Africa.” The title of “Patriarch” was
first used around the time of the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus,
convened in 431 AD, and ratified at Chalcedon in 451 AD.
Only the Patriarch of Alexandria has the double title
of Pope and Patriarch among the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental
Jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria outside Egypt
Besides Egypt, the Church of Alexandria has jurisdiction over Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and all Africa.
the Patriarchate of Addis Ababa & all Ethiopia and the Patriarchate
of Asmara & all Eritrea do acknowledge the supremacy of honor &
dignity of the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria on the basis that both
Patriarchates were established by the Throne of Alexandria and that
they have their roots in the Apostolic Church of Alexandria, and
acknowledge that Saint Mark the Apostle is the founder of their
Churches through the heritage and Apostolic evangelization of the
Fathers of Alexandria. In other words, the Patriarchate of Addis
Ababa & all Ethiopia and the Patriarchate of Asmara & all
Eritrea are daughter Churches of the Holy Apostolic Patriarchate of
In addition to the above, the countries of Uganda,
Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana,
Botswana, Malawi, Angola, Namibia and South Africa are under the
jurisdiction and the evangelization of the Throne of Alexandria. It is
still expanding in the vast continent of Africa.
Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria is headed
by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the members are the Metropolitans,
Bishops, Chorbishops and Patriarchal Vicars of the Church of Alexandria.
The official Site for the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Midlands & Affiliated regions, U.K.