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Coptic Christians

St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral The Copts, an indigenous Christian sect, constituted Egypt's largest religious minority. The Coptic Orthodox Christian community is the largest and oldest Christian minority in the Middle East today. Estimates of their numbers in 1990 ranged between 3 million to 7 million. While there is no accurate consensus of their size in Egypt, numerous accounts place them between 8 to 12 percent of Egypt's current population of about 80 million, which is mainly Sunni Muslim. Sectarian violence sometimes erupts in disputes over issues related to church building, religious conversions and interfaith relationships. Moreover, they are also a growing immigrant community in the United States, Canada, Australia, and throughout parts of Europe. The Copts claimed descent from the ancient Egyptians; the word copt is derived from the Arabic word qubt (Egyptian). Historically, the word Coptic may be derived from the Greek word aigyptos [Egypt], which is borrowed from the ancient Egyptian ha-ka-ptah, meaning "house of Ptah's spirit." Ptah was the god of Memphis, the very first capital of Lower Egypt and the first administrative center of a united ancient Egyptian kingdom in 3100 BC. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Ptah was believed to be the god who created the world.

Egypt was Christianized during the first century AD, when the country was part of the Roman Empire. The Coptic church is one of the oldest in Christendom, brought to Egypt by St Mark, the reputed author of the oldest of the four canonical gospels. There is considerable evidence of Coptic roots within the Pharaonic inheritance. For example, it is generally accepted that Christian icons owe a great deal to mummy portrait painting, and the discovery and study of the Nag Hammadi codices reveal that Egypt exerted an appreciable sway upon the entire Hellenistic world in which Christianity took root.

In the twentieth century, Copts have been disproportionately represented among the ranks of prosperous city dwellers. Urban Copts tended to favor careers in commerce and the professions, whereas the livelihoods of rural Copts were virtually indistinguishable from their Muslim counterparts. Urban Copts were stratified into groups of long-time residents and groups of recent migrants from the countryside. The latter group was often impoverished and fell outside the traditional urban Coptic community. The former group included many university professors, lawyers, doctors, a few prominent public officials, and a substantial middle echelon of factory workers and service sector employees.

The Mubarak Government sponsored "reconciliation sessions" following sectarian attacks, which generally obviated the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution. This practice contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults. Members of non-Muslim religious minorities officially recognized by the Government generally worship without harassment; however, Christians and members of the Baha'i Faith-which the Government does not recognize-face personal and collective discrimination in many areas.

The Mubarak Government failed to redress laws and governmental practices that discriminate against Christians, effectively allowing their discriminatory effects and their modeling effect on society to become further entrenched. There were no Christians serving as presidents or deans of the country's 17 public universities as of 2009. On April 12, 2009, the weekly newspaper Watani reported that of nearly 700 president, dean, or vice dean positions in the country's public university system, only one position is filled by a Christian. The Government rarely nominates Copts to run in elections as National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates. Christians, who represent between 8 and 12 percent of the population, hold fewer than 2 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly and Shura Council. In November 2008, Al Youm Al Saba, an Internet news service, reported that the number of Copts accepted in the National Police Academy for the year 2008-2009 was 24 out of 1,600.

As of June 30, 2008, there were six Christians (five appointed, one elected) in the 454-seat People's Assembly; six Christians (all appointed) in the 264-seat Shura Council; two in the 32-member cabinet; and one governor of the country's 28 was Christian. There are few Christians in the upper ranks of the security services and armed forces. Public funds compensate Muslim imams but not Christian clergy.

The Mubarak Government discriminated against Christians in public sector hiring and staff appointments to public universities, and bars them from studying at Al-Azhar University, a publicly funded institution with approximately half a million students. In general, the Government bars non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers because the curriculum involves study of the Qur'an.

In the Coptic Church, all traditional rites and services accompanying major life transitions are sung. Even the afterlife is believed to be an eternal musical celebration in the presence of God. To understand the Coptic community better, one must understand the reigning spiritual metaphor that largely defines their faith, culture and, consequently, the music that expresses it: life on earth is a transient journey, with the human spirit always longing to return to God. After death, one may rejoin God in heaven where one will live in eternal tasbih, or musical praise, as it is translated from Arabic. Musically then, Copts believe that their liturgical hymnody, as it is sung during worship services, helps to create momentarily a sense of heaven on earth, as music is the medium that bridges the everyday mundane life with a higher, spiritual realm.

The Coptic Orthodox Church excommunicates female members who marry Muslim men and requires that other Christians convert to Coptic Orthodoxy to marry a member of the Church. The Coptic Orthodox Church permits divorce only in cases of adultery or the conversion of one spouse to another religion, or to another Christian denomination.

His Holiness Pope Shenouda IIINazir Gayed, born on August 3, 1923, graduated from the American school of Banha and the Secondary Iman Coptic School of Shubra. Gayed taught at the Sunday Schools of St. Anthony's church of Shubra, then later at St. Mary's Church of Mahmasha. In 1947, he graduated from the University of Cairo with a Bachelor of Arts in History. While teaching high school history and English, he completed his Bachelor of Theology from the Coptic Theological Seminary, and was appointed as a part-time lecturer of the Old and New Testament in 1949. By 1953, he accepted a full-time position as a lecturer at the Monastic College of Helwan. A prolific writer, he was known for his poetry, and his brief stint in journalism.

On July 18, 1954, Nazir Gayed entered the Monastery of the Syrians, otherwise known in Arabic as Deir Al-Surian, in the Wadi al-Natrun valley region of Egypt. According to Coptic tradition, he was renamed Abouna Antonious El-Sourani, or Father Anthony the Syrian,[1] and he spent six years as a hermit monk in a cave in the Egyptian desert, which he carved out himself between 1956 and 1962. In his final year of solitude, he was summoned by His Holiness Pope Cyril VI and, on September 30, 1962, he was consecrated as His Grace Bishop Shenouda, the Dean of the Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Upon the death of His Holiness Pope Cyril VI on March 9, 1971, Bishop Shenouda was elected and consecrated as the 117th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria on November 14, 1971. During his patriarchy, he continued the Coptic intellectual, educational, and spiritual renaissance that had been initiated earlier that century and extended his efforts to the growing diaspora outside of Egypt. At the beginning of his term, there were only four Coptic Churches in North America. Today, there are over two hundred burgeoning churches, a handful of monasteries, and two theological colleges. This does not include the churches that are now flourishing in Australia and New Zealand and the number of communities growing all over Europe. It is interesting to note that the field of Coptic studies, both in and outside Egypt, flourished during his reign, mirroring his continued interested in education. It was in this context that Ragheb Moftah undertook and published his studies on Coptic hymnology.

On the ecumenical front, Pope Shenouda III is renowned for his efforts toward Christian unity. He was the first Coptic Patriarch in over 1500 years to meet with the Roman Patriarch, Pope Paul VI, in 1973. During this significant meeting, they signed a decree working toward the reconciliation of both their churches, especially with regard to their dogmatic and historical differences. Since then, he has met frequently with representatives from other denominations, promoting intercultural and inter-religious dialogue. Also, he has ensured that the Coptic Church becomes a member of the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches, the All-African Council of Churches, the National Council of the Churches in Christ in the U.S.A., the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Australian Council of Churches, as well as founding the North American Office for Ecumenical Affairs. In 2000, His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III, was honored with the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize, a prestigious award given only every two years which recognizes the efforts of those who promote tolerance and non-violence.




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