This is not a pagan sect, or a separate religion. The Coptic Church is a little known church of the Christian Religion, seat of the second Pope and for 4 centuries, 200 – 600 AD, the strongest part of Christendom.
The Coptic Church is a distinct and separate Christian church in the world today. It revolves around the city of Alexandria, Egypt, though it also is a strong religion in Ethiopia and in areas of Sudan (once Nubia) and has pockets of the faith all over the world today. This church sprang from the teachings of Saint Mark (one of the Gospel’s writers) and evolved over the nineteen centuries that it has been in existence.
The clergy of the church are headed by the Pope of Alexandria and by the Bishops who each oversee their own dioceses. Both of these must be monks first before they are advanced within the church and are all members of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod. The Synod (council) meets regularly to oversee matters of faith and pastorage within the church. In modern times there are more than 60 Coptic Bishops in countries ranging from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to the United Kingdom, United States, France, Australia and many other countries.
Other than the Synod, there are in fact two other councils that meet within the Coptic Church. The first is the Coptic Lay Council, which began in 1883. This group serves as the direct liaison between the church and the government. The Coptic Church’s endowments in accordance with Egyptian laws are monitored by the joint lay-clerical committee, which was established in 1923.
The main difference between the Coptic Church and the Orthodox and Latin churches is the belief in monophysitism by the Copts. This belief would be what caused the split between the churches in the 5th century AD. The Copts believe that Jesus was perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, but that these were united in nature, becoming “the nature of the incarnate world”. This is in stark contrast to the Latin and Greek Church’s belief that Jesus held two separate forms in humanity and divinity. This belief was falsely represented by the Roman Church, in the 5th century, which stated that the Copts believed in only one nature of Christ.
One mainstay of the Coptic Church is that it believes strongly (and always has) in the separation of the church and state. Any law may be passed by the state and will be actively enforced by the church as long as it does not interfere with religious laws. One such example is that while polygamy may be legal in some nations, it is not an excepted form of marriage within the church and thus will not be performed by any church functionary, though it is not specifically made illegal. In fact the Coptic Church refuses to canonize highly controversial issues, such as abortion, feeling that these are better handled on a case-by-case basis than by a blanket ruling.
The Copts observe seven sacraments, those being; Baptism, Christmation (also known as Confirmation), Eucharist, Confession and Penance, Orders, Matrimony and Unction of the sick.
Confirmation -- Performed several weeks after birth. The child is fully immersed in consecrated water three times.
Christmation – Unlike most European churches confirmations, this is performed immediately after Baptism.
Eucharist, Confession and Penance -- Confession, Penance and Eucharist are innately linked, with Eucharist only available through confession.
Matrimony -- Matrimony is a sacrament that cannot be performed during a fasting season (Which considering the Copts fast for 210 days a year makes for a considerable restriction). Divorce is not allowed unless it can be shown to be brought on by adultery, bigamy, or another MAJOR reason.
The Coptic Church uses three main liturgies, though others do exist. The Liturgy according to Saint Basil, the Liturgy according to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and the Liturgy according to Saint Cyril I.
Though the Coptic Church expressly forbids the worship of saints, they do believe in intercessions or Marian Praise toward saints. Coptic Churches are also named after saints as well as many feast days revolving around saints. Included in the days of feasting are the celebrations of Annunciation, Christmas (January 7th), Theophany, Palm Sunday, Easter (Second Sunday after the first full moon of Spring), Ascension and Pentecost. As well, the Coptic Calendar of Martyrs bears many feast days based on the day or martyrdom of saints.
Christianity entered Africa in the first century by the teachings of Saint Mark. It was primarily spread by the large Jewish population of Alexandria and become the major religion in Egypt rather quickly. The Egyptians were open to a new religion at this time because of the Roman overthrow of the Pharaoh. Previous Egyptian religious beliefs had stated that the Pharaoh was divine. With no Pharaoh, the people now sought some other definition of divinity.
Alexandria would quickly become the third center of Christianity, along with Rome and Antioch (in present day Turkey). Many of the church’s early teachers were taught in the Didascalia of Athens, and would later teach there themselves. By 190 AD, the Catechal School was established in Alexandria, becoming the most important of the new Christian schools.
The legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire would bring an end to persecution of Christians in Egypt, which led to a great rise in the popularity of Christianity. Many of the more devout Christians decided to eschew the common church and retreated into the desert to become hermits. At the same time though, Egypt was a major player in the shaping of the new, legal church under Constantine. The Bishop of Alexandria played a major role in convincing Constantine and the Council of Nicea that Arianism was heresy and vastly dangerous and helped to led to the affirmation of the principle of the Trinity. Saint Athanasius, Pope of Alexandria, created the Nicene Creed during his term, an affirmation of faith, which is still used in most Christian churches to this day. The Copts also played the major role in protecting the young religion from the Gnostics heresies.
The church in Alexandria during this time was actually the center of the new Christian religion. All three of first three great councils to define religion were heavily influenced by the Bishop of Alexandria. Indeed, the power of the Coptic Church was so great that it was commonly referred to as the “Pharaoh of the Christian Church”.
The Religious Schism
It would be only a century later that the churches would split in their views. The Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon condemned the Alexandrian church for its belief of monophysitism, leading the way to splitting of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches from the Coptic Church. This problem eventually becomes more difficult as time passed. The Orthodox Church’s center moved to Byzantium over time, while Byzantium itself became Constantinople and the capitol of the Byzantine Empire. This empire ruled, nominally, over Egypt and the empire’s dislike of the Coptic Church led to large taxes and general discrimination of the Coptic citizens.
Thus it was that the Islamic invasions of the seventh century were met with open arms rather than hostility. Coptic citizens under Islamic leaders found their taxes reduced by almost half and gained a great deal more religious freedom. Indeed, the Coptic religion was actually encouraged and tax benefits were given to Copts.
This easy period was short lived. By the eighth century the Coptic peoples were again being heavily taxed and persecuted. Along with the Jewish peoples of Egypt, they found themselves forced to wear overtly large and heavy visible signs of their faith and to bear much increased taxes and persecution. Though the Coptic Church in Egypt declined as Christianity became less and less popular to the average Egyptian, it eventually stabilized at about 10% percent of the population.
Today the Copt population of Egypt is roughly 9 million out of the nations 57 million people. The church has been greatly reestablished in the last hundred years and seems to be enjoying a period of rather strong religious freedom.
Christianity arrived in Ethiopia in the 4th century AD. A Christian philosopher from Syria was shipwrecked on his way to India. Though he would perish in the sea, his two followers managed to make it safely to land. These two, Frumentius and Aedesius would make their way to the royal palace of Ethiopia where they became secretaries for the king Ella Amida.
Ethiopia proved to be highly receptive to the religion that these two men preached. So it was that when the two made a trip back to the north, they stopped in Alexandria to ask the Pope to send missionaries south to Ethiopia. The Pope ordained Aedesius the first abuna or Pope or Peace, an act which began a long cycle of Ethiopia’s abunas being appointed by Papal decree.
Nine Syrian monks brought monasticism to Ethiopia in the 5th century. These monks, along with bringing the particular belief of Christ’s one divine nature, pushed for the translation of the Bible into Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s language at the time. Ge’ez would continue to this day as the Ethiopian Church’s ceremonial language.
The church in Ethiopia would continue to remain the official church of the nation throughout history. Though the country suffered at the hands of the more warlike Muslim leaders during the second millennia, it was never specifically conquered. The church would suffer its worst times when the Egyptian Church was unstable and unable to send the abunas. Eventually though the sending of abunas was done away with and the Coptic Church of Ethiopia flourished on its own. Christianity slowly declined with time as more Muslim and Animistic immigrants moved into the area. Today though the Coptic Church remains a large portion of the Ethiopian population.