Coptic Orthodox Church Overview

St. Mark's Cathedral, Coptic Orthodox Church
St. Mark's Cathedral, at the Coptic Orthodox Church's headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt.

LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP / Getty Images 

The Coptic Orthodox Church, the primary Christian church in Egypt, is one of the oldest branches of Christianity, claiming to be founded by one of the 72 apostles sent forth by Jesus Christ.

Coptic Orthodox Church

  • Also Known As: Coptic Church; Copts; Egyptian Church.
  • Known For: Ancient Oriental Orthodox Church originating in Egypt and led by the Pope of Alexandria.
  • Founding: The church traces its beginnings to the evangelist Mark (John Mark).
  • Region: Primarily Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Middle East.
  • Headquarters: Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Cairo, Egypt.
  • Worldwide Membership: Estimates of Coptic Church members worldwide vary widely, between 10 million to 60 million people.
  • Leader: Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria

The word "Coptic" is derived from a Greek term meaning "Egyptian." At the Council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Church split from other Christians around the Mediterranean, in a disagreement over the true nature of Christ.

Today, Coptic Christians can be found in many countries throughout the world, including England, France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, Australia, Canada, the United States, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and several other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Coptic Orthodox Church History

Copts trace their roots to John Mark, who they say was among the 72 disciples sent forth by Jesus, as recorded in Luke 10:1. He was also the author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark's missionary work in Egypt occurred sometime between 42-62 AD. Mark is viewed as the first Pope of Alexandria.

Mosaic of St. Mark in Coptic Orthodox Cathedral
Mosaic in Coptic Orthodox Cathedral dedicated to St. Mark. Ariadne Van Zandbergen / Getty Images

Egyptian religion had long believed in eternal life. One pharaoh, Akhenaten, who reigned in 1353-1336 BC, even tried to introduce monotheism.

The Roman Empire, which governed Egypt when the church was growing there, vigorously persecuted Coptic Christians.

In 451 A.D., the Coptic Church split from the Roman Catholic Church, affirming the Nicene Creed but not agreeing with the Christological formulation of the Council of Chalcedon. Copts believe that Christ is one united nature stemming from two natures, divine and human "without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration" (from the Coptic divine liturgy). In contrast, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants believe Christ is one person who shares two distinct natures, the human and divine.

About 641 A.D., the Arab conquest of Egypt began. From that time, many Copts converted to Islam. Restrictive laws were passed in Egypt over the centuries to oppress Copts, but today some 9 million members of the Coptic Church in Egypt live in relative harmony with their Muslim brothers.

The Coptic Orthodox Church was one of the charter members of the World Council of Churches in 1948. In recent decades, Coptic and Eastern Orthodox traditions have entered into a dialogue which has led to the recognition that both share the same faith, and closer relationships are being sought.

Governing Body

The Pope of Alexandria is the leader of Coptic clergy, and about 90 bishops head dioceses throughout the world. As the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod, they meet regularly on matters of faith and leadership.

Coptic Pope
Coptic Pope Tawadros II (163). Michel Marcipont / Getty Images

Below the bishops are priests, who must be married, and who carry out the pastoral work. A Coptic Lay Council, elected by congregants, serves as the liaison between the church and government, while a joint lay-clerical committee manages the Coptic Church's endowments in Egypt.

Notable Coptic Church ministers and members include Pope Tawadros II, the current Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria; Boutros Boutros Ghali, the U.N. Secretary from 1992-97; and Dr. Magdy Yacoub, the world-famous heart surgeon.

Beliefs and Practices

The sacred texts of the Coptic Church are the Bible and the Liturgy of St. Basil. Worship services are performed in the ancient Coptic language in combination with local languages. The hymns and liturgy remain similar to those of the early church.

Copts believe in seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, confession (penance), Eucharist (communion), matrimony, ordination, and unction of the sick. Baptism is conducted on infants, with the baby being completely immersed in water three times.

While the Coptic Church forbids the worship of saints, it does teach that they intercede for the faithful. It teaches salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Copts practice fasting; 210 days out of the year are considered fast days. The church also relies heavily on tradition, and its members venerate icons.

Copts and Roman Catholics share many beliefs. Both churches teach works of merit. Both celebrate the mass.