Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The religious and cultural significance of the Coptic Orthodox Church


Pope St Paul VI with Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church (May 1973)Pope St Paul VI with Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church (May 1973) 

Coptic Christians preserve 'an immeasurable treasure'

Alberto Alfredo Winterberg, a PhD student at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, explores the ancient Coptic Christian tradition.

By Christopher Wells

“The Coptic Orthodox Church guards an immeasurable treasure trove of religious, cultural, and historical significance,” says Alberto Alfredo Winterberg, a Ph.D. student in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Ahead of the visit by Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros II to the Vatican, Mr. Winterberg spoke to Tomasz Matyka, SJ of Vatican News about the ancient Christian tradition in Egypt.

“The Copts are the indigenous Egyptian Christian minority population,” he explains, “whose roots extend as far back as the pharaonic Egyptians from antiquity.”

Founded by St Mark

The Coptic Christian minority amounts to approximately eight to ten percent of the total population of Egypt, with most belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. According to tradition, it traces its origins to the foundation of the See of Alexandria by St Mark the Evangelist, the disciple of St Peter.

The formation of a distinctive Coptic Orthodox Church, Mr. Winterberg explains, “was a long process which took place in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451.” Although Christological questions were at the forefront of disputes over the Council, Mr. Winterberg notes that political and economic issues played a significant role in divisions between the Church in Alexandria and the Roman Church.

When Egypt was conquered by Islamic forces two centuries later, Egyptian Christians were forced either to convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax. “Within a long process of economic restrictions, civil humiliations and, at times, violent persecutions against the Copts by the foreign rulers, the former Christian majority population turned into a minority. However, they survived until the present day.”

A Church of martyrs

Elaborating on the contributions of Coptic Christianity to the wider Church, Mr. Winterberg points first to the institution of monasticism, which is also connected to ancient Syria. He notes the importance of Coptic saints among the desert fathers, especially Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Pachomius, who were important influences on St Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism.

Mr. Winterberg notes, too, the history of persecution of Egyptian Christians in the early Church. “Apart from the great tradition of Coptic monks and ascetics, the Roman province of Egypt was one of the most affected by the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian,” he says. “As such, the Coptic Church particularly identifies itself as a martyr Church whose very own calendar begins in the year of 284 AD, the year on which Emperor Diocletian began his reign.”

Ecumenical and theological dialogue

The Coptic Orthodox Church is currently headed by Pope Tawadros II, the Patriarch of Alexandria, and numbers about ten million adherents. Outside of Egypt and the Middle East, significant numbers of Orthodox Copts are found in the US, Canada, Australia, France, and Germany.

Fifty years ago, on 10 May 1973, Pope Saint Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III met in the Vatican, during which they signed an historic “Joint Christological Declaration.” The Declaration followed on years of ecumenical and theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Churches in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

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