What Is Coptic Christianity?

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The Egyptian cities of Alexandria and Tanta are reeling after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 45 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 largest Christian church in Egypt, Northeast Africa and the Middle East, yet many outside the region are unfamiliar with this community. 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 descendents of Ancient Egypt. Their language is derived from hieroglyphics and is only spoke 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 diffused 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 Sunday’s attack would have resonated deeply throughout the community, Sharkey said. 

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