By the end of the second century, Christianity was well established in Egypt, although pockets of paganism continued to co-exist with the new Faith. By 190 AD, the Church of Alexandria was exchanging Paschal epistles with the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch concerning the date of Easter, and there were about forty dioceses under the Patriarch of Alexandria, in the north of the country, in the Delta area. By 202 AD, there were also Christians in the whole Thebaid, in Upper Egypt, 800 km up the Nile Valley. In his Festal letters, Saint Athanasius mentioned that there were also Christians in the small and large oases in the heart of the desert.
Historians have named the Coptic Church the `Church of the Martyrs’, not only because of their great number, but also because of their desire for martyrdom. When prevented from worship, they did not hide in the catacombs, but worshiped openly. Many went from place to place, seeking the crown of martyrdom, not considering it death, but rather, as entry into the new life.
The first wave of persecution took place in the first century when the Apostle Saint Mark suffered martyrdom in Alexandria by the pagan Egyptians. Commencing from 202 AD and continuing for seven years, the Coptic Church also suffered persecution under the reign of Septimus Severus, who, when he visited Egypt and found that Christianity had spread, ordered the ruler to increase the persecution and prevent preaching at any cost. Consequently, the School of Alexandria was closed and its dean, Saint Clement, was compelled to flee.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Decus, an edict was issued to re-establish the state religion by any means. In 257 and 258 AD, Emperor Valerian issued edicts to destroy the Church, leading to the arrest and exile of Pope Dionysius of Alexandria. In 302 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began his persecution of the Christians by dismissing every soldier from the army who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. On 23 February of the following year, he issued his famous edict against the Christians. It was his belief that if he could crush Christianity in Egypt, it would be easier to eliminate it from the rest of the world. Hence the persecution of the Christians in Egypt was more intense than in any other country; about 800,000 men, women and children were martyred in Egypt. For this reason, the Coptic Church determined to start its calendar from the year of Diocletian’s accession to the throne in 248 AD, calling the calendar `Anno Martyrii’, meaning, `Of the Martyrs’
Throughout these waves of persecution, many spiritual leaders devoted themselves to strengthening the martyrs and confessors, visiting them in prisons, and accompanying them in their trials, and even to the place of execution. Some of them cared for and buried the saints’ bodies, and wrote the biography of their trials and martyrdom as eye-witnesses, calling their accounts, ‘The Acts of the Martyrs’.
Among the famous martyrs were Saint Mena the Wonder worker, Saint Reflca and her five children, Saint Catherine, and the Thebean Legion (numbering almost seven thousand soldiers) who, led by Saint Maurice, refused to sacrifice to the gods and were all martyred in Switzerland. The list of the martyrs of the Coptic Orthodox Church is endless.
In the fifth century, an archimandrite of a monastery near Constantinople named Eutyches began to spread a new heresy, denying the human nature of Christ, saying that His body was but an ethereal body which passed through the womb of the Virgin Saint Mary.
Subsequently, a local Council was convened by seven bishops, led by Flavianus, Bishop of Constantinople, and supported by the Tome (exposition of the Dogma) of Leo I, Bishop of Rome, which condemned Eutyches as a heretic. Eutyches appealed to all the bishops of Christendom, as well as to Emperor Theodosius the Younger, resulting in the second council of Ephesus being held in 449 AD, attended by 130 bishops, under the presidency of Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria, together with Juvenal of Jerusalem and Domnus of Antioch. Eutyches submitted a full written confession, affirming the Nicene Creed, and was found to be Orthodox, thus was acquitted. The bishops who had passed a verdict on Eutyches, based on Leo’s Tome, were excommunicated. Later however, Eutyches proclaimed his heresy once again, and this time he was condemned and excommunicated by a local Coptic council.
Two years later, in AD 451, another Council was convened by Emperor Marcianus at Chalcedon. This Council was characterised by political faetors, shameful prejudices and conspiracies against the Church of Alexandria and against its patriarch, Pope Dioscorus.
Alexandria was merely a city under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire whose capital was Constantinople, Rome being the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the patriarchs and popes of Alexandria played a leading role in theology in the first centuries of Christianity.
At the Council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Church was misquoted and its teachings were wrongly deemed as being Eutychean. The Patriarch of Alexandria was accused of being Eutychean, because he had presided over the second Council of Ephesus which had absolved Eutyches, although a later Coptic council had condemned the teachings of Eutyches, and despite the proved Orthodoxy of Pope Dioscorus who, in defending his Orthodox Faith, gave his famous analogy:
“If a piece of iron, heated to white heat, be struck on an anvil, and although the iron and the heat form an indivisible whole, it is the iron which receives the blows and not the white heat. This unity of the iron and the white heat is symbolic of our Saviour’s Incarnation, whose Divinity never parted from His Humanity, not even for a moment, nor the twinkling of an eye. Yet though His Divinity parted not from His Humanity, their union was without mixing or fusion, or change, like unto the union of the iron and white heat. This unity is defined as ‘the One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate’ and is synonymous with Saint John’s saying, ‘The Word became flesh’. As for me, I steadfastly uphold the Faith of the Orthodox Church, the one, holy, Universal and Apostolic Church. Neither Eutyches, nor any other person, can make me swerve from this holy Faith”.
When Pope Dioscorus’ Orthodoxy could not be questioned, other accusations were raised, centring around material issues such as the question of preventing Egyptian corn from being sent to other parts of the Empire. Neither Pope Dioscorus nor the civil judges were present when the council handed down the verdict deposing him, mainly for having excommunicated the bishop of Rome and not appearing at the Council session when summoned three times, although he was under house arrest at the time. Because of his Orthodoxy, Pope Dioscorus could neither be degraded of Ecclesiastic honour nor excommunicated.
In a later session of the Council, at which the Egyptian delegation was not present, the supremacy of the Church of Constantinople and Rome was granted to preside over the Church of Alexandria. The Egyptian Church was labelled as ‘monophysite’, because of its emphasis upon the ‘One Nature of Christ’ (although this title was misinterpreted as covering either one of the Human or Divine natures of our Lord and ignoring the other), being based on the assumption that the Coptic Fathers accepted the Eutychean view.
Historical facts, and the liturgy and doctrines of the Coptic Church, however, prove the Orthodoxy of the Coptic Church, until this day. Furthermore, it is now admitted by those who once accused the Coptic Church of being monophysite that it was a misunderstanding arising from a problem of semantics, the Coptic Church now being referred to as `miaphysite’, that is, recognising both natures of our Lord being joined inseparably in the `One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate’
In the absence of the representation of the Church of Alexandria, the Council of Chalcedon passed statements concerning the two natures of Christ, and ecclesiastic laws, which have not been accepted, to this day, by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the other ancient Churches such as the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Indian Orthodox Churches. Therefore, the Council of Chalcedon resulted in the first major schism of the undivided Christian Church. Today, however, most scholars have agreed that the unfortunate events and decisions at the Council of Chalcedon were based upon misunderstandings and a misintetpretation of terms and words, rather than a question of Orthodoxy, and agreement has now been reached on the Nature of Christ.
The events of the Council, however, were to have a long, far reaching effect upon the Coptic Church, which suffered greatly at the hands of the Chalcedonian rulers, and from this time onwards, remained isolated from the rest of the Christian World until the 20th Century.
Pope Dioscorus was exiled to the island of Gangra, off the coast of Asia Minor, where he died. During his exile, he led many to the Christian Faith and bought back numerous people to Orthodoxy. In his See in Alexandria, a Melkite (Greek) Patriarch was imposed, but was not accepted by the people of Alexandria, who preferred to remain loyal to their exiled Patriarch. A wave of persecution arose in which an estimated 30,000 people lost their lives. The non-Chalcedonian Coptic Church continued to suffer persecution at the hands of the Byzantine rulers, and the rift within the Apostolic Churches widened.
For a period of almost 150 years, under the rule of nine Byzantine emperors, Egypt experienced periods of fluctuating peace and oppression. However, after the death of Emperor Anastasius, an era of Byzantine persecution and oppression began, lasting for almost 120 years. During this period, patriarchs were banished, intruders were placed on the Patriarchal See, churches were destroyed, and people lost both their lives and possessions. Emperor Justinian closed all the churches, placing guards on them, and persecution against the Coptic Church continued. As a result, Egypt was reduced to an impoverished state while the rest of the Byzantine world enjoyed luxury, freedom and wealth.
When Islam entered Egypt, Pope Benjamin I, the 38th Patriarch, had been away from his throne for 13 years, and another Patriarch was ordained in his place and given all the churches, in order to get rid of the Copts, the `Monophysites’.
For the four centuries that followed the Arab conquest of Egypt, the Coptic Church generally flourished and Egypt remained predominantly Christian. This was due to a large extent to the fortunate position that the Copts enjoyed, for the Prophet of Islam preached a special kindness towards Copts: “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your proteges and kith and kin.” The Copts, therefore, were allowed to freely practice Christianity, provided they continued to pay a special tax, called `Gezya’, that would qualify them as `Ahl Zemma’ proteges (protected). Individuals who could not afford to pay the levy were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or losing their civil right to be `protected’, which in some instances meant being killed. Despite additional costly laws that were imposed on them in 750-868 AD and 905-935 AD, under the Abbasid Dynasties, the Copts prospered and the Coptic Church enjoyed one of its most peaceful eras.
Throughout that period, the Coptic language remained the language of Egypt, and it was not until the second half of the eleventh century that the first bilingual Coptic-Arabic liturgical manuscripts began to appear. The adoption of the Arabic language as the language used in the everyday life of Egyptians was so slow that even in the l5th century the Coptic language was still largely in use. Up to this day, the Coptic language continues to be the liturgical language of the Church.
The Christian face of Egypt started to change by the beginning of the second millennium AD when the Copts, in addition to the `Gezya’ levy, suffered from specific limitations, some of which were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For example, there were restrictions on repairing old churches and building new ones, on testifying in court, public conduct, adoption, inheritance, on public religious activities, and on dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the l2th century, the face of Egypt changed from being a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country. The Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in expectation of Muslim hostility, which periodically flared into violence.
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of the Mohammed Ali dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit. In 1855 AD, the main mark of the Copt’s inferiority, namely the `Gezya’ tax, was lifted. Shortly thereafter, the Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 AD revolution in Egypt witnessed to the harmony of Egypt’s modern society. Today, it is this harmony which keeps the Egyptian society united against the religious intolerance of extremist groups, who inflict persecution, terror and violence upon the Copts.
Despite persecution, the Coptic Church has never been controlled, or allowed itself to control, the governments of Egypt. This position of the Church concerning the separation between State and Religion stems from the words of our Lord Himself, Who says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s ” (Matthew 22:21 ). The Coptic Church has never forcefully resisted authorities or invaders and was never allied with any power, for the words of our Lord are clear: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).