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The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is an Oriental Orthodox Christian church whose base is in Egypt, northeastern Africa, and the Middle East, although it has a worldwide following. The word "Coptic" is derived from the Greek word for "Egyptians," and Egyptian Coptic was the common language of the Egyptian people until it was supplanted by Arabic sometime after the 10th century. Saint Mark is credited as being the founder of the Egyptian Church in 42 AD, where he was martyred at Alexandria about twenty-six years later.

The Coptic Church was perhaps the most influential Church in the theology of the early Church until it was accused of heresy over the Monophysite question at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and was split from the larger Church. Representing the Coptic Church, Patriarch Dioscorus took a different position from the larger Church over Christology, the same issue that would lead to the schism between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church six hundred years later.

Although the precise differences are unclear, they had to do with the nature of Christ as both human and divine. The century after the dispute at the Council of Chalcedon was a time of religious strife, when the Byzantine emperors were persecuting the Egyptians, replacing their patriarchs with Greeks. In the face of this prosecution, the Egyptian Church had difficulty preserving its identity and culture.

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641, the Church enjoyed some relief from persecution, and they were able to restore some of the churches and monasteries that had been destroyed by the Byzantines. But the rule of the Arab Caliph el-Hakim (996-1021) led to new persecutions and the destruction of thousands of Egyptian churches. By the end of the Middle Ages, the population of Coptic Christians had shrunk from six million to just over fifteen thousand.

Religious freedom was not restored until the British occupation in 1882, continuing after Egyptian independence in 1922, but since 1993 there has been a sharp increase in anti-Coptic attacks on Church clergy, lay people, and buildings, largely at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Coptic tradition has always placed great significance on monasticism. Its monasteries were seats of learning during the Middle Ages, and most of the Church's patriarchs and bishops have come from the monasteries. The Coptic Orthodox Church observes the traditional seven sacraments. The head of the Coptic Church is the Pope of Alexandria, who is elected by his fellow bishops, and is also known as the Patriarch of the See of Saint Mark. He oversees the activities of the Church through a network of dioceses and bishops throughout the world, which includes North America, Africa, Australia, the Middle East, France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain. In 1959, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was granted its own Patriarch by Pope Cyril VI, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church became independent of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in 1994.

In 1998, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church became independent of the Coptic Orthodox Church, but these three churches remain in full communion with one another, and with the other Oriental Orthodox churches. The British Orthodox Church of the British Isles recently became part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. Traditionally, the Coptic language was used at services of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and its Scriptures were written in the Coptic alphabet. However, in recent years there has been an increased use of Arabic, while preaching is almost entirely in Arabic within countries where Arabic is the dominant language. The Coptic Church uses the the Coptic calendar, which is also known as the Alexandrian calendar, which is based on the ancient Egyptian calendar.

 

 

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