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Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Long-Suffering Copts

Fr John Salter writes, in Chrysostom, Pascha 2011:


Of the so-called Monophysite Churches the Copts and the Armenians have borne untold suffering for the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The fifteen centuries of Coptic history tell a long, sad story of bloodshed and intolerable persecution, only relieved for a time when the British began to rule Egypt in 1882.

After the Council of Chalcedon (451) the Egyptian Christians were becoming alienated from the Great Church. A charge of Monophysitism may have been the main cause, but it should be remembered that the Patriarchate of Alexandria ranked second to that of Rome, and after Chalcedon the see of Constantinople assumed second place, thus forcing Alexandria into third place in what had become the Pentarchy, or rule by the five Patriarchs – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

The Church in Egypt became divided into the small minority, those who in the army and the civil service remained with the Byzantine Emperor's religion, that of Chalcedon and were thus called by the Copts “Melkites” – King’s men or Imperialists. Today that term is applied only to those of the Byzantine Rite in the Middle East in communion with the Holy See, but it was originally applied to the Byzantine Orthodox.

In the first century of the separation, the Copts (the original inhabitants of Egypt) were persecuted by the Emperor’s Church of Byzantium, which tried to make them “Orthodox”. From time to time, when the Copts got the upper hand, they retaliated and slaughtered their fellow Christians.

In the year 639 A.D. came the Arab Moslem Conquest of Egypt, and the Islamists attacked Christians of both the Coptic Church and the Byzantine with equal intolerance and ferocity. This went on for three hundred years, bringing untold suffering to the Christians under the Emirs of Damascus and Baghdad, who were Sunnis. After three hundred years of strife, a slight relaxation came with the rule of the Shia Caliphs of the Fatimid House. In the year 1171, the famous Saladin replaced the Shias with Sunnis. In 1250, the Mamelukes – the former slave-guards - ruled the roost for about 250 years; but the latter years of that rule were chaotic and the Copts were again victims of the misrule. In 1517, the country was overrun by the Ottoman Turks, who were a less severe tyranny, but a tyranny nevertheless.

The Copts had to wait until the 19th century to secure a certain protection from the Christian Powers; but that has now departed and the Copts are at the mercy of Islamic Fundamentalists, with little protection from the government. The stirring of revolution which today has spread from neighbouring Tunisia, may bode ill again for the Copts and the Byzantine Christians, should the Moslem Brotherhood revive its fortunes.

The great revival of the Coptic Church over the last half century has brought new life to it. There has been a revival of biblical and liturgical studies, the monasteries and convents are flourishing in contrast to those of the West; while the charismatic figure of Pope and Patriarch Shenouda III have provided the Church with an internationally recognized leader. The full title of Pope Shenouda is very impressive and worth quoting to show the extent of his jurisdiction.
Pope and Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, the Holy and Apostolic See of St. Mark the Evangelist that is, in Egypt, Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and All Africa. The Successor of St. Mark the Evangelist, Holy Apostle and Martyr, on the Holy Apostolic Throne of the Great City of Alexandria, Diocesan Bishop of Alexandria, Elder Metropolitan Archbishop of the Egyptian Province, Primate of Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia and Sudan. Patriarch of All Africa. The Pillar and Defender of the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Orthodox Faith. The Dean of the Great Catechetical School of Theology of Alexandria. The Ecumenical (Universal) Judge (Arbitrator) of the Holy Apostolic and Catholic (Universal) Church. The thirteenth among the Holy Apostles. Father of Fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Hierarch of Hierarchs. Bishop (Archpriest) of Bishops (Archpriests), Judge (Arbitrator) of the Universe (the Oecumene).

To these the Copts add “Christian Pharaoh”. There are other Patriarchs of Alexandria. These include the Greek or Byzantine Patriarch. The Melkite Patriarch is his opposite number in union with Rome. To add to the list there was a Latin Patriarch of Alexandria, who headed the Titular Patriarchal See of Alexandria, which was established by His Holiness Pope Innocent III. This title was held finally by Mgr. Luca Ermenegildo Pasetto until his death in 1954. It then remained vacant until the Holy See suppressed it ten years later in 1964. There is yet another Patriarch of Alexandria – that of the Catholic Copts. The current Coptic Catholic Patriarch is Archbishop Antonios Naguib, who succeeded His Beatitude Patriarch Stephanos II Ghattas in 2005. His main cathedral is located at Nasr City, a modern suburb of Cairo. It is dedicated to Our Lady of Egypt.

The origin of the Catholic Copts go back to 1741, seventeen years later than the Melkites’ union with Rome. The Coptic Bishop in Jerusalem, one Amba Athanasios, became a Catholic and His Holiness Pope Benedict XIV appointed him Vicar Apostolic of a very small community of about 2,000, who went into union with the Holy See with him. Athanasios was to return to communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church, but the line of Vicars Apostolic survived his departure. In 1824 the Holy See created a Patriarchate for the Catholic Copts, but it was at first only a Patriarchate which existed on paper. However, the Ottoman authorities allowed the Catholic Copts to build their own churches from 1829. Sixty six years later in 1895, His Holiness Pope Leo XIII re-established the Patriarchate and in 1899 he appointed Bishop Cyril Makarios with the title of Patriarch Cyril II of Alexandria of the Copts. As Patriarchal Vicar, Bishop Cyril had presided over a Catholic Coptic Holy Synod in 1898, which regrettably introduced a number of Latinizations. Patriarch Cyril resigned in 1908, and the Patriarchate remained without a Patriarch until 1947, when a new Patriarch was elected. In 2010 the Catholic Copts numbered in Egypt alone 163,000.
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