Who are the Copts?


The Copts are an early Christian denomination that began in Alexandria and survived the rise of Islam in Egypt starting in the 7th century. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, also called Coptic Orthodox Church, is an Oriental Orthodox church and the principal Christian church in predominantly Muslim Egypt.

In the 4th and 5th centuries a theological conflict arose between the Copts and the Greek-speaking Romans, or Melchites, in Egypt.

Confessing the statement by St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 375–444) proclaiming the “one incarnate nature of the Word” of God, miaphysites declared that both Christ’s humanity and divinity were equally present through the Incarnation in one single nature (hence the Greek prefix mia, “same”) as the Word made flesh. Rather than denying Christ’s humanity, as they were accused of doing, the Coptic and other miaphysite churches gave both his humanity and his divinity equal presence in the person of Christ.

The people of Egypt before the Arab conquest in the 7th century identified themselves and their language in Greek as Aigyptios (Egyptian) and  the Copts ceased speaking Greek, so that the language barrier between the Arabic conquerors and the native Greek speaking Copts added to the controversy.

 Various attempts at compromise by the Byzantine emperors came to naught. Later, the Arab caliphs, although they tended to favour those who adopted Islam, did not interfere much in the church’s internal affairs. The jizya, the tax levied upon non-Muslims living in an Islamic state, was abolished in the 18th century.

Arabic is now used in the services of the Coptic Orthodox Church for the lessons from the Bible and for many of the variable hymns; only certain short refrains that churchgoing people all understand are not in Arabic. The service books, using the liturgies attributed to St. Mark, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, are written in Coptic (the Bohairic dialect of Alexandria), with the Arabic text in parallel columns.

Today they are a minority in Egypt but still constitute the largest single Christian community in the Middle East.  The Egyptian government estimates about 5 million Copts, but the Coptic Orthodox Church says 15-18 million. Reliable numbers are hard to find but estimates suggest they make up somewhere between 6% and 18% of the population.

Most Copts are Egyptian, although there are significant pockets of them in Syria, Libya, Jordan and other countries, including in the West.