9 Things You Should Know about Coptic Christians

This past week, events in Egypt have raised the profile of “Copts.” (The man behind the anti-Muslim film that may—or may not—have sparked riots in Egypt is a Copt living in California.) Here are 9 things you should know about Coptic Christians.

1. The word Copt is derived from the Greek word for Egyptian. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, it became restricted to those Egyptians adhering to Christianity.

2. Approximately 12 percent of the Egyptian population—roughly 12 million people—are Christians. Egypt’s Copts are considered the largest community of Christians in the Middle East.

3. The majority of Copts belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. About 800,000 are divided between the Coptic Catholic and various Coptic Protestant churches.

4. According to tradition, the Coptic church was established in Alexandria by St. Mark the Evangelist circa AD 49, during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius.

5. The Copts were persecuted by the Byzantine Empire before the Islamic invasion of Egypt brought on persecution by Muslims.

6. About 300,000 Copts live in the U.S., with the largest concentrations in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, and Los Angeles

7. The Copts were the originators of Christian monasticism.

8. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea was convened as a result of a theological dispute over the nature of Christ which was begun by Arius, an Alexandrian presbyter.

9. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria has their own pope. His official title is Pope of Alexandria and the Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic Seat of Saint Mark the Evangelist of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. (Not to be confused with the the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria head bishop, who is also referred to as the “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa” and whose full title is “His Most Divine Beatitude the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria, Libya, Pentapolis, Ethiopia, all the land of Egypt, and all Africa, Father of Fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Prelate of Prelates, thirteenth of the Apostles, and Judge of the Œcumene.”)

  • http://intelligentlyredesigneddoonesbury.blogspot.com/ Neo

    I’ve heard from time to time references to “Coptic scripts” and certain professors who are capable of reading/understanding the Coptic language. Can you help clarify what this is referring to (certain books and documents of importance?) and, more specifically, how this relates to biblical Christianity?

    • Joe Carter

      In the first century AD, the Egyptian language was written down in Demotic script. When the first missionaries came to the country, the used Greek letters to transliterate the sounds of Demotic script in order that they could write down texts in a way that could be read to the native people. That became known as Coptic script.

      As the monastic communities began to form, they needed a way to write down texts that could be understood by the monks, so Coptic spread as a language. I’m not sure which texts are important, but because the language was used (at least occasionally) by such church fathers as Athanasius and Cyril, it is likely to be of interest to patristic scholars.

  • http://intelligentlyredesigneddoonesbury.blogspot.com/ Neo

    Thank you for the clarification. This was a good article.

  • Chris Schwenk

    I think what I would like to know is what do these Coptic churches teach? I’m assuming the Coptic Catholic church follows the Roman Catholic church in their works righteousness approach to salvation, but what about the Coptic Protestant denominations. Are they similar to the “Orthodox” churches? Do these churches believe they are saved only by the imputed righteousness of Jesus through his atoning death on the cross and through His resurrection, or have they devised methods by which they believe they are meriting their own righteousness and salvation?

    • Lilian

      My answer to your question “Do these churches believe they are saved only by the imputed righteousness of Jesus through his atoning death on the cross and through His resurrection” is YES… very much so. There is amazing faith there .. the biggest protestant Coptic church is “KASR EL Dobara evangelical church” and it is in Tahreer square in Cairo (in the middle of all that’s going on since the revolution) and it’s a wonderful testimony for Christ. The most thing I miss when I’m outside Egypt is worshiping God in this amazing church. Pray for Egypt.

      • Chris Schwenk

        Thank you. I suppose, I forget that the term “Coptic” really would refer to any Egyptian Christian Church, is that correct? I guess I’m wondering about those Coptic Churches that they mentioned that have popes (with really long titles). Do they teach we’re saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Do you know this?

        • Lilian

          Well this is a little bit controvercial as you expected :) Coptic orthodox do believe they are saved through Jesus blood but they insist on good deeds like fasting (there is a lot of fasting in the Coptic Orthodox church) and they have many other strict views that differ from the protestant church… yet, we are trying to focus these days on unity. Also, the Coptic Orthodox church is the church that kept the faith in Egypt through centuries under pressure and persecution, that’s why it has a special place in the heart of protestant Egyptian Christians even if they differ in a good deal of spiritual issues and views. I appreciate very much your interest and I thank the Gospel Coalition for this article.

          • Lilian

            Allow me to add a little bit more that may seem somehow out of context. I live in a European country and I see that Europeans are somehow astonished to know that me and my family are “Arabs” yet we are Christians. For me this is very funny and sad at the same time because Egyptians have been Christians for two thousand years.. since Saint Mark evangelized in Egypt.. not only this, but the Coptic “Egyptian” church is one of those rare churches that has been constantly under some sort of persecution yet kept its faith above everything. Living in a western country and seeing how they take the right to worship and evangelize so forgranted that they almost left it, I appreciate the persection and the constant apologetics Christians in Arab countries and above all in Egypt are exposed to. We can consider it a good sport that keeps faith alive and healthy.

  • Graham

    I don’t understand the ‘may — or may not — have sparked…’. Can you please clarify? Seems like it’s been reported as an open and shut case.

  • http://projectodessalife.com Jacoby

    Sorry, but it seems on a site called the “Gospel Coalition” it would be important to explain what the Coptic Orthodox think is the Gospel. Hint: sacraments. :)

    • Bob in IN

      I agree. Are these biblical Christians or nominal Christians? Frankly, if you have a “pope”, I have my concerns.

    • Victor

      I agree as well with jacoby. I am interested in the history and tradition of thse people, this article is good in that sense. But i am more interested to see if they believe in anything concerning the gospel.

      • Lilian

        The Coptic Orthodox Church is a biblical church… whether Christians of that church is nominal or true believers, this is of course individual. They read the Arabic bible “Van Deik” translation (just like all the Coptic “Egyptian” Protestant Churches). (Van Deik is the most classic and the most beautiful Arabic translation of the bible, but there are other new translations), Here is The Creed of faith of th Orthodox Church:
        “The Nicene Creed”:
        “We believe in one God, God the Father, the Almighty, Who created heaven and earth, and 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 true 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 incarnated of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And on the third day He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens; and sat at the right hand of His Father, and also He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end.

        Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-Giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who, with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke in the prophets. And 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.”

        You might revise the creed and you will find it very biblical.
        The Coptic Orthodox Church is a “traditional” church.. rather like the Catholic Church. Saints have a special place in the Orthodox Church..also Virgin Mary although a little less than in the Catholic church. They confess their sins to the priest who becomes their spiritual father. Their main problem from my personal point of view is that they see themselves, more or less, as the only true Christians who follow the bible and the apostles the right way (not very different from the Catholic’s view of themselves) and surprisingly not very different from the protestant Church too :) Hopefully no one would see Nakoula Bassily as a representative of Coptic Orthodox Church as much Pastor Terry Jones is not a representative of the American Protestant Church.

  • Lilian

    I’m not Coptic Orthodox. Actually I’m Coptic protestant, so for more information about the Orthodox Church,this link might be useful: http://www.stabraam.org/index.phpion,
    I think it’s the site for Coptic Orthodox Church in the U.K.
    Be blessed