Europe owes an enormous debt to the Copts, a people who have been thrust into headlines recently by violence in Egypt. But for most of us Europeans, they and their ancient oriental church exist on the periphery of our awareness. Yet the Copts outnumber the Swiss.
The Arab Spring in Egypt has turned nasty. Authorities have failed to prevent attacks on the Coptic community from Islamist mobs. When Christians marched in the streets in protest, dozens of Copts were shot dead and army tanks drove mercilessly over young Christian protesters.
So who are these Copts and what has been their role in shaping the story of Europe?
The Copts are the original Egyptians. They were there long before Arab muslims arrived. The word Copt derives from the Greek Aigyptios via Coptic Kyptaios and Arabic Qibti. The Arab invaders (640 AD) called Egypt dar al Qibt, ‘home of the Egyptians’, or ‘home of the Christians’, since Christianity was then the official religion of Egypt.
By then, the church in Egypt already had a long and rich heritage, when most Europeans were still worshipping pagan gods. The Coptic Church was part of a strong, dynamic eastern church, much larger and more influential than the western church in the early centuries, as Philip Jenkins reminds us in The Lost History of Christianity.
Copts trace their church back to the arrival of St Mark during Nero’s reign. Tradition holds that his first converts came from the large Jewish community which had settled in Alexandria after their expulsion from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. Although the Egyptians, or Copts, were pagans, the spiritual climate was ripe for the Christian message. Some traditional beliefs offered striking similarities to Biblical thought, as evident in this hymn by Akhenaten from 1335BC:
How manifold is that which thou hast made, hidden from view! Thou sole god, there is no other like thee! Thou didst create the earth according to thy will, being alone.
Very soon, Alexandria became one of Christianity’s most influential centres, next to Antioch and Jerusalem. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was the first important Christian training institute, from 180AD onwards, led by church fathers like Clement and Origen.
Two Coptic church leaders, Alexander and Athanasius, were main drafters of the Nicene Creed (325AD), which has anchored liturgies of mainstream churches in both east and west ever since.
Roman persecution was horrendous and brutal. Christians were ordered to participate in pagan worship or face torture. Eusebius, the first Christian church historian, described how Coptic believers ‘unconcerned in the face of terrors’ faced death ‘with joy and laughter and gladness; so that they sang and sent up hymns of thanksgiving to the God of the Universe, even to the very last breath’.
Among the stories of Coptic martyrs is that of Catherine of Alexandria, a young evangelist who led the emperor’s wife to faith, thus earning herself the death sentence. We have often told the story of the Theban legion from Upper Egypt who to a man chose death rather than kill fellow Christians who refused to worship the emperor! Clearly this was a church with a strong belief in the resurrection. Easter, rather than Christmas, has always been the climax of their church calendar.
Persecution drove many believers to seek refuge in the desert, where small communities began to form. A lifestyle of prayer and meditation attracted more spiritual seekers. These become organised into the first monasteries, with strict rules of daily life.
Athanasius’ biography of one of the fathers of monasticism, St Antony, became a best-seller around the Mediterranean. It led to the significant conversions of St Martin of Tours, and Basil of Cappadocia, father of eastern monasticism. St Jerome, translator of the Vulgate Latin Bible, made monasticism even more popular and the idea spread like wildfire up into Europe.
Some say Coptic monks even visited Ireland. Celtic missionaries, led by Patrick, Columba and Columbanus, went throughout the British Isles and across the channel to plant monastic communites. Other movements like the Benedictines followed. These communities, glued together by vows of love for God and fellow man, became the building blocks of the European society that emerged from Rome’s implosion.
Scholar-monks founded universites. Monasteries became the centres of worship, education, commerce, art, printing, agriculture and law. They became the nuclei of emerging cities, prompting Erasmus to remark: what is a city other than a big monastery? They were, in short, the main means for the Christianisation of Europe.
Yes, we are greatly indebted to the Copts for their gifts to Europe. Now they need our support and prayer.
Till next week,
Till next week,