The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world. It was founded by St Mark the Apostle in the first century. The Coptic Church is rich in its deep history and traditions, yet continues to flourish in today’s modern society.
The Word “Copt”
The word ‘Copt’ is derived from the Pharaonic word ‘gypt’ and the subsequent Greek word ‘Aigyptus’ meaning ‘Egypt’. Copts are the Christian people of Egypt and the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians.
Egypt has the unique honour of being the country chosen by Christ as a place of refuge. St Mary, St Joseph and baby Jesus fled to Egypt to escape from the dangers of King Herod, as instructed by the angel. The Holy Family’s visit was a fulfilment of the prophecy of Hosea : “Out of Egypt I called My son.” (Isaiah 11:1)
Isaiah also prophesised about Egypt being a blessed country : “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt.” (Isaiah 19:19)
St Mark the Apostle
St Mark is the patron saint of Egypt and the founder of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He is one of Christ’s apostles, which is why one of his titles is the “Beholder of God”. He is an evangelist and the author of the Gospel of St Mark. Another notable achievement of his was establishing a theological school in Alexandria which was a cornerstone of Christian teaching for centuries. St Mark is also the author of the liturgy of St Cyril which is one of the three liturgies prayed in the Coptic church. St Cyril adapted this liturgy, hence it was renamed after him.
After preaching Christianity in Egypt, St Mark was martyred in the city of Alexandria in 68 AD. He is considered the first pope of the Coptic church. For this reason, the Coptic popes are the successors of St Mark, holding the title of “Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark.” The current Pope of the Coptic church is Pope Tawadros the Second. He was enthroned on the 18th of November 2012 and is the 118th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The Coptic Calendar
The Coptic calendar is used by the Coptic Orthodox Church. It is derived from the Ancient Egyptian calendar and is believed to be the oldest calendar in the world, dating back to three millennia before Christ.
The Coptic calendar is not only used by the Coptic church but also by Egyptian farmers to distinguish the agricultural seasons. The Coptic calendar has 13 months, 12 are 30 days each. The 13th month’s duration varies, being 5 days in a non leap year and 6 days in a leap year. Coptic New Year correlates with the 11th of September. It is known as the “Feast of Nayrouz”.
The Church calendar celebrates feasts daily. There are several Feast categories: - Feasts of the Lord (7 major and 7 minor feasts)
-Feasts of the Cross
-Saints Feasts: marks the feasts of departure/martyrdom of saints, the establishment of their churches and the relocation of their relics
A Sacramental Church
The Coptic Church has seven sacraments. Sacraments are the receiving of an invisible grace through a visible means. The seven sacraments are: Baptism, Chrismation, Repentance and Confession, The Eucharist (Holy Communion), Unction of the Sick, Marriage and Priesthood.
The sacraments were established by Christ Himself and are mentioned in the Scriptures. For example, regarding the Eucharist, Christ said: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56).
Regarding confession, Christ said to His disciples: “ If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).
The sacraments were handed over from the apostles to the church fathers across generations and are performed by the priests today.
The Coptic Church & Monasticism
There are numerous Coptic monasteries and convents, mostly in Egypt, but recently, internationally as well. The Coptic Church is a pillar of monasticism as St Anthony the Great (the world’s first monk) was Egyptian.
The Coptic Church All Over The World
Although the Coptic Church’s history and traditions will forever remain strongly linked to Egypt, due to the immigration of Egyptians, over the past 50 years or so, Coptic churches have been established worldwide. There are now Coptic churches in almost every country in the world.
To provide pastoral care for the widespread church, areas are grouped into dioceses, headed by a bishop. St Stephen’s Coptic Church in Belfast is part of the diocese of Ireland, Scotland, North East England and its Affiliated Regions, under the care of His Grace Bishop Antony.
The Coptic Church & Martyrdom
The Coptic Church is also known as the “Church of the Martyrs”. The church fathers called the blood of the martyrs the seeds of the church. Killers of the Copts expected to diminish the Coptic faith. However, the opposite is true. The Coptic church has survived and flourished, despite many eras of severe persecution. This is a fulfilment of Christ’s promise to the church : “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
The Roman Emperor Diocletian is notorious for his killing of Copts. During his reign, more than 800,000 Coptic men, women and children were martyred. For this reason, the Coptic church restarted its calendar in 284 AD, the year of Diocletian’s enthronement. The Coptic Calendar is known as “Ano Martyrum”, meaning the “Year of the Martyrs”.
The Coptic Church highly respects its saints and martyrs, believing in their powerful intercessions. Churches are named after them and the Syanaxrium is a book containing their stories. The Synaxarium is read during every Liturgy (except in the Holy 50 days) to commemorate their life and feast of the saint of the day.
Coptic Christians remain under persecution until today, including martyrdom. A recent example that captured the world’s attention was the martyrdom of the 21 Copts in Libya in 2015:
Milad Makeen Zaky
Abanub Ayad Atiya
Maged Solaiman Shehata
Yusuf Shukry Yunan
Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
Somaily Astafanus Kamel
Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
Girgis Milad Sinweet
Mina Fayez Aziz
Hany Abdelmesih Salib
Bishoy Adel Khalaf
Samuel Alham Wilson
Worker from Awr village
Ezat Bishri Naseef
Gaber Munir Adly
Esam Badir Samir
Malak Farag Abram
Sameh Salah Faruq