What Is Coptic Christianity?

More than 40 people were killed on Palm Sunday during religious observances in Egypt. The targets were Coptic Christians, members of an ancient religion dating back to St. Mark the Apostle.

At least 28 people were killed and more than two dozen injured when gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Coptic Christians south of Cairo, Egypt on May 25, 2017.

In April, the Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta were left reeling after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 44 people attending Palm Sunday services. 

Those killed were Coptic Christians, an ancient sect established by St. Mark the Apostle thousands of years ago. Easter is their most sacred holiday. 

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the most historically significant Coptic Christian church in Northeast Africa and the Middle East, yet many outside the region are unfamiliar with the community.

According to the Harvard's Religious Literacy Project, historically, the Coptic Church has roots in the earliest days of Christianity; Christian religious sites mark where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are believed to have stayed during their flight to Egypt.

Below is a primer on the Coptic Church:

  • Egypt’s Copts are one of the oldest Christian groups in the Middle East.
  • They comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population and hold a minority of seats in the Islamic-led government. The majority of Egyptians are Sunni Muslim.
  • The Coptic Church was established by St. Mark the Apostle, who is credited with introducing Christianity to Egypt. The Libyan-born saint died in Alexandria in 68 A.D.
  • St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria is considered the historic seat of Christianity in the Middle East.
  • Like in Catholicism, a pope heads the Coptic church. Currently, Pope Tawadros II holds the honor. He is the 118th Pope of Alexandria and will meet with his Catholic counterpart later this month.
  • Coptic Egyptians are direct descendants of Ancient Egypt. Their language is derived from hieroglyphics and is only spoken during holy observations, according to Heather J. Sharkey, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Copts were the targets of recent terrorist attacks. In late March, a bomb was defused at the Tanta church where 28 people died Sunday. In December, 30 churchgoers were killed in Cairo.
  • The Islamic State is increasingly targeting Christians in the Middle East. They claim Egyptian Christians supported the 2013 overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi. 
  • Persecution against Copts dates back to the Byzantine Empire, Sharkey said. In 1000 A.D., some 3,000 churches were destroyed in the name of Islam. Most of their saints are martyrs.
  • Coptic Christians hold the same beliefs as other Christian denominations. Their defining characteristic is a deep sense of history and cultural ties to their ancestral homeland.
  • Easter is their holiest feast. The timing of the Palm Sunday attack would have resonated deeply throughout the community, Sharkey said. 

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