What is Coptic Christianity?

Extracted from BBC

Coptic Orthodox Church

Pope Shenouda III during a 2007 visit to New York. Photo: Michael Sleman ©


The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt, where it has between 6 and 11 million members.

While most Copts live in Egypt, the Church has around a million members outside Egypt; there are over 100 churches in the USA and a cathedral in the UK.

Copts believe that their Church dates back to around 50 AD, when the Apostle Mark is said to have visited Egypt. Mark is regarded as the first Pope of Alexandria. This makes it one of the earliest Christian groups outside the Holy Land.

Firsts for the Coptic Church include the first specifically Christian educational establishment in the School of Alexandria and the start of Christian monasticism.


The Church separated from other Christian denominations at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in a theological dispute over the human and divine nature of Jesus Christ. This dispute has been reassessed in modern times, and the differences between Churches are much less severe.

The Coptic Church is led by the Pope of Alexandria, who is based in Cairo. The current Pope, Shenouda III, is 117th in succession to Mark.

St Antony's Monastery, Eastern Desert, Egypt

Coptic services take place in the very ancient Coptic language (which is based on the language used in the time of the Pharaohs), together with local languages. The liturgy and hymns remain similar to those of the early Church.

The Church is ecumenical in outlook, and was a founder member of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The word ‘Copt’ comes from the Greek word ‘Aigyptos’, meaning Egyptian.

NB: The word Coptic is often used to refer to all Egyptian Christians, not just members of the Coptic Church. This site uses the narrow meaning.



The Coptic Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, a group which includes the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Syrian Church of India, and the Armenian Church. The Oriental Orthodox Group has around 60 million members worldwide.

The Church in Egypt

Father Irenaeus of St Macarius Monastery, Wadi Natrun, Egypt

At the end of the twentieth century Egypt’s Copts were the largest Christian minority of any country in the Middle East; estimates ranged from 6 to 11 million; 6% (official estimate) to 20% (Church estimate) of the population , the majority living in the Upper Egyptian provincial capitals of Assiut and Minya, and in Cairo.

These numbers are partly the result of a Church revival in the 1940s and 50s in the form of the Coptic Sunday School Movement.


The Church outside Egypt

An Ethiopian Copt ©

The Coptic Church has expanded worldwide during the last 40 years and now has a million members outside Egypt.

There are over 100 churches in the United States. There are two Coptic bishops in Australia and more than 50 priests to serve the congregation. There are four bishops in the UK and the first Coptic Cathedral in Britain was inaugurated at the Coptic Orthodox Church Centre at Shephalbury Manor in

Stevenage in 2007.

There are churches in Switzerland and Japan, and four in Black Africa. In Libya there are three churches, in Sudan two bishops, as well as churches in Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

Coptic monasteries have been opened in Ireland, Texas, California, Sydney, and Jerusalem, and new monasteries have opened in Egypt.


Organisation, priesthood


The Coptic Church is led by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (1923 – ), who was consecrated the 117th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark in November 1971.

Pope Shenouda III during a 2007 visit to New York. Photo: Michael Sleman ©

The Pope is based in Cairo. The Coptic Pope is not regarded as infallible or supreme.

The Pope is elected by a complicated process. Candidates must be at least 40 years old and have been monks for at least 15 years. Following election, the names of the three candidates with most votes are written on pieces of paper and one of them is picked by a child.

Shenouda III was placed under house arrest between 1981 and 1984.


Holy Synod

The highest authority in the church is the Holy Synod, a body made up of the Patriarch, metropolitans, bishops, khoori episcopos, abbots, and stewards of the Patriarchate.

The Holy Synod deals with spiritual, ecclesiastical, structural, management and financial matters. There are seven subcommittees which deal with pastoral affairs, liturgical affairs, ecumenical relations, monastic affairs, faith and ethics, and diocesan affairs.


Beliefs and schism

Beliefs and schism

The Coptic Church is one of the Eastern Orthodox churches and shares their general beliefs.

Icon of Jesus feeding the multitude ©

In 451 the Church split from other Christian churches in a major schism at the Council of Chalcedon over the nature of Christ. The Coptic Church now forms part of the ‘Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches’.

In the last 50 years scholars on both sides of the dispute have worked hard to achieve a common understanding of the nature of Christ.


The Coptic belief which defined the church at an early stage is called monophytism (technically it would be better called miaphytism, but most documents use the former word).

To put it simply this is the belief that Jesus Christ has only one nature; that his divine nature and his human nature are composite and totally united – the nature of the incarnated Word, as opposed to two natures united in one person.

This single nature was formed ‘from the first moment of Holy Pregnancy in the Virgin’s womb’ (Shenouda III). The dispute over monophytism at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) caused the Coptic Church to separate from other Churches. Other Churches also split, and became known as the ‘Monophysite Churches’ or ‘Non-Chalcedonian Churches’. Nowadays these churches are usually called the ‘Oriental Orthodox Churches’.

In modern times Christian Churches have come to a much closer understanding of the nature of Christ, and this dispute is no longer so divisive.


Holy book and language

Holy books

The Bible is, as you would expect, the basic scripture of the Coptic Church. The first translation of the Bible into Coptic script is thought have been around the 2nd century,

Page from the Mudil Psalter, discovered in the Coptic cemetery of Al-Mudil in 1984 - the earliest complete psalter in the Coptic language ©

although few early manuscripts survive.

But the Bible isn’t the only source of faith for Copts:

Copts don’t believe that God actually wrote the Bible, but that God and the Holy Spirit inspired the men who wrote down the words.

The Coptic Pope has also said that ‘the Holy Bible does not mention everything’. For example, not everything Christ taught was in the form of words – much of his teaching was contained in his actions and his life.

Tradition is particularly important because it guided humanity from the time of Adam, long before the first texts of the Bible.


The language

The original language of Christians in Egypt was Coptic, which itself is a development of the language of the ancient Egyptians.

Coptic was the main language of the Church until the 11th century.

Coptic is written with a mix of the Greek alphabet and Egyptian characters. Coptic is no longer used in everyday life, but still has a place in Coptic liturgy, although Arabic has become widely used. Coptic churches outside Egypt incorporate their local languages as appropriate.


Worship, spiritual practice

Worship and spiritual practice

Coptic Church rituals use very ancient words and music. Local languages are also used, in order to allow the congregation to play a full part in the worship.

Sunday is the main day for services, which can last for over four hours.


Coptic churches are built facing East so that the congregation faces East in prayer. The sanctuary of the church, where the altar is found, is divided from the nave by an iconostasis – a screen made of icons. Only priests, and deacons assisting at a service, are allowed through the iconostasis.

The nave of a Coptic church is usually in two parts: the chancel or choir, and the nave itself. The chancel is a raised area with seats for deacons, candle stands and reading desks. Part of the nave is usually reserved for men.

Candles are used a great deal in services. Incense is used during worship.


Music is almost entirely vocal; the only musical instruments used are the cymbals and the triangle (other instruments are sometimes used in non-liturgical Coptic events).

The music of the church has been transmitted orally over the centuries because the church didn’t use any system of music notation. 300 hymns have survived and are still in use.



Approaching St Antony's Monastery, Eastern Desert, Egypt

One of the Coptic Church’s greatest contributions to Christianity was the development of monasticism. Egypt was the birth place of Christian monasteries.

Saint Anthony (c. 251-356 AD), is credited with inspiring the first monastic community. He didn’t intend to found a monastery: originally he set off to live a solitary spiritual life in the Egyptian desert; other men eventually came to live near him – creating the idea of religious people choosing to live close to an especially holy person.

Monasticism developed further under Saint Pachomius (died c. 346 AD), an ex-Roman soldier of Egyptian origins, who laid down the first rules for a collective community of hermits and developed the concept of combining spiritual devotion with learning and routine work.

Father Ruwais of St Antony's Monastery

The monastic movement gained extra fame through the work of members of Pachomian communities known as the Desert Fathers, whose teachings have been a source of inspiration to Christians throughout history.

Monasticism has revived in the last few decades, and significant numbers have chosen the monastic life; not only within monasteries but as hermits too.

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