Since the Arab Spring of 2011, Egypt has been a focal point of political renewal … and unrest. Much of the conflict in Egypt is between a secular minded ruling class and a resurgence of fundamentalist Islam. What will take shape in Egypt? A Westernized secular democracy? A return to a traditional Islamic state?
What many do not realize is that there is another group of people in Egypt often caught in the middle: the Coptic Christians. It is a situation where many other Christians, like me, here in America, find it difficult to comprehend.
Coptic Christianity traces its founding back to the missionary work of St. Mark the Evangelist, the writer of one of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In the early church era, the city of Alexandria became known as one of most influential Christian communities in all of the Roman Empire.
However, a major conflict arose during the theological disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. How is the divinity of Christ related to the humanity of Christ? The majority of the Christians settled on the formula of the two natures of Christ found together in the one person of Christ. Jesus Christ has a human nature and a divine nature, united together in one person. The Coptic Christians objected to this formulation, arguing for simply one nature of the humanity and divinity combined in Jesus Christ.
Does this sound like theological hair splitting? I am not so sure that it is, but many historians say that the dispute had more to do with an attempt by others in the church to reduce the influence of the Alexandrian Christian community in the affairs of the church. Either way, Coptic Christianity became differentiated from the main body of Christians from that time onward.
Further isolation resulted during the Islamic conquests of Egypt in the 7th century. The Muslim conquerors granted a restricted form of religious freedom to the Coptic Christians through a dhimmi status, thus allowing them to practice their faith as long as they paid a certain tax. However, over the years, many Copts converted to Islam. At different times in history, tensions between the now majority Muslim communities and the faithful Christian communities have sometimes erupted into violence. The recent conflicts in Egypt are yet another tragic example of this cultural clash. To further complicate things, the Coptic Christian community has largely supported the secular elite who have basically ruled Egypt in recent decades as being more tolerant towards the practice of their faith, much to the frustration of resurgent Islamist groups.
The Coptic Christians are really big into tradition, with a particular admiration for martyrdom. While the energy of the Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on the Bible continues to invigorate the Christianity of the West, that dynamic pretty much passed these historically-conscious Christians of the East completely by. Western Christians, like myself, have much to learn from the Coptic community. But though I greatly respect the history and integrity of the Coptic Christian movement, I often wonder if their love for such a rich tradition interferes with a simple devotion to Jesus grounded in the knowledge of the Scriptures. The Jesus I read about in the New Testament breaks down walls that exist between peoples of different cultures. The challenge for the Coptic Christians is how to do this in the midst of violent religious persecution.
I pray that God will graciously fill the hearts of the Coptic Christians with a love for their Muslim neighbors, breaking down barriers that alienate people, giving their neighbors a true witness to the human and divine reality of Jesus Christ.
I found this YouTube video that describes some of the unique features and beliefs of Coptic Christianity as it has spread throughout the world.