The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Trinity: God The Father, God The Son, and God The Holy Spirit, are equal to each other in one unity; and that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world. Less changes have taken place in the Coptic Church than in any other church whether in the ritual or doctrine aspects and that the succession of the Coptic Patriarchs, Bishops, priests and Deacons has been continuous.
The Heroes of Faith
When St. Athanasius was only a deacon, he led theological arguments and discussions in the First Ecumenical Council, Nicea I, held in 325 A.D. He was the sole author of the Christian Creed. As a deacon of the Coptic Church, he was the intellectual and spiritual leader of the 318 bishops who were members of the Nicea Ecumenical Council. Four years later, he became the Pope of Alexandria and devoted his life of maintaining and defending the divinity of our Lord. St. Athanasius was the Egyptian hero or faith who defended the divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in his famous four volume work, Contra Arianus. St. Jerome said that if this work had not been written, the whole world would have fallen into Arianism. St. Athanasius was exiled four times because of his views, and he went from country to country, from continent to continent to get the support of the bishops and holy synods to maintain the faith and explain the divinity of our Lord. St. Athanasius was exiled for a fifth time, but the Emperor was not able to carry out the order. Tens of thousands of church members crowded around the Papal residence and said to the commander of the soldiers, "You cannot take our Pope unless you kill every man here." St. Athanasius was reinstated to the See of St. Mark. When any Christian in the world states that our Lord Jesus Christ is God, he should remember St. Athanasius.Under the authority of the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople (as opposed to the Western Empire of Rome), the patriarchs and popes of Alexandria played leading roles in Christian theology. They were invited everywhere to speak about the Christian faith. St. Cyril, Pope of Alexandria, was the head of Ecumenical Council which was held in Ephesus in the year 430.
The Coptic Church & The Council of Chalcedon
The Coptic Church was misunderstood at the council of Chalcedon which was held in the middle of the 5th century. Perhaps the bishops of the Council understood the Church correctly, but they wanted to exile the Church to isolate it and to abolish the Egyptian Patriarchate for political reasons. The Coptic Church was accused of following the teachings of Eutyches, who believed in monophysitism. This doctrine maintains that the Lord has only one nature, the divine, not two natures, the human as well as the divine. How do the Copts explain the two natures of our Lord? We believe that He is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity are united in one nature, which we call "the nature of the incarnate word." We believe that His divinity never parted from His humanity not an instant nor a twinkle of an eye. The unity of His divinity and His humanity is perfect, yet without mingling confusion or alteration. This was reiterated by St. Cyril of Alexandria. To the Coptic Church, faith is more important than anything and that others must know semantics and terminology are of little importance to us. St. Dioscorus of Alexandria was sent into exile and the political motives of the Council of Chalcedon became apparent when the Emperor Marcianus interfered with matters of faith in the church. St. Dioscorus told the Emperor, "You have nothing to do with the Church," and in the year 45l, the Coptic Church established its independence, but has remained very strict and steadfast in its faith.Our people in Egypt were persecuted by their brothers for believing in the two natures of Christ during the years between 451, the year of the Council of Chalcedon, until 641, when Islam entered Egypt. Many thousands of people were killed. It was a tearful time, and our popes were exiled. They went from place to place to strengthen the faith of their people, and they succeeded in keeping the faith. When Islam entered Egypt, the 38th Pope of Alexandria, Benjamin the First, had been in exile for about 13 years. Many of the Popes of Alexandria were forbidden from praying in their churches and were persecuted for being monophysites.
The Meaning of Carrying the Cross
Among the greatest glories of the Coptic Church of Alexandria is its Cross. By this I mean the willingness of the Copts to accept persecutions, hardships, and sufferings for Christ who said, "if anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me." (Matthew 16:24) The Coptic Church carried the Cross all through its history from the time of St. Mark through every generation of Christianity. The Church has remained steadfast and unchanging in its faith up to this time.
The Coptic Monastic Life
Egyptian monasticism entailed a life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship, and purity of heart. Monks had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God alone. They lived a calm and quiet life abiding in the Lord. They were detached from everything. Every man was bound to the Lord alone.The Church of Alexandria was the source of monasticism which began during the last years of the third century and flourished in the fourth century. St. Anthony (251-356 AD), the world’s first monk, was a Copt from Upper Egypt. St. Bachomius (292-348), the founder of the cenobitical system of Monasticism, was also a Copt. He was an Egyptian soldier in the roman Army who converted to Christianity after the compassionate treament he got from the Christians of diospolis (modern day Esna in Upper Egypt). He became a disciple of St. Palemon, and later established many monastries for monks and nuns with more than 8000 disciples. When St. Athanasius visited him and tried to ordain him priest, he refused. He performed many miracles during his life and after his departure. His main monastry in modern day Edfu, upper Egypt is very active today.
The Development of Monastic Forms
In the Apostolic age, many believers practiced asceticism, seeking the perfection of the Gospel, but without withdrawal of their family or community. The eschatological attitude of the church reflected the believers eager longing for their Bridegroom's advent, thus lived in virginity and devoted all their time for worshipping, as a spiritual preparation for the heavenly wedding feast. Some felt they were in need not only to live as virgins, but to be in a spiritual atmosphere. Men preferred to leave the cities and live in simple huts in villages. They were called "devotees" as the word "monk" was unknown. They lived on their own orders. Then, St. Anthony outlined the pattern of the anchoretic life. Monasticism flourished in Egypt. There were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian deserts. Among the founders of monasticism were St. Macanus of Egypt (300-390 AD) and St. Shenouti the Arch, mandrite (348-466 AD) who accompanied St. Cyril of Alexandria to the third canonical Ecumenical Council of Ephesus. The great St. Pishoy, whom God appeared to several times, was born in 320 AD, became a monk at the age of twenty, and departed during the first half of the fifth century (417 AD). John Cassian, the founder of the monastic life in France in the first half of the 5th century, said that a person traveling from Alexandria in the north to Luxorin the south could hear the monks, hermits, and anchorites praying and singing hymns in the deserts, monasteries, and caves along the entire route.The world's first anchorite was St. Paul, the Egyptian hermit. He lived without seeing the face of any man for about eighty years. The news spread about their spiritual life, which sought a true homeland in Heaven. This is what we have inherited from our fathers; the first church in Alexandria inherited the glory of civilized Egypt, and we have inherited the glory of the Church of our fathers.
The Coptic Church Today
The church has gone through difficult times to get where it is at the present time. There are many generations when our Church suffered weakness and isolation, but it enjoyed a real revival during the last years of the 19th century. There are two reasons for this revival: The first is the re-establishment of the Theological College in 1893. It began its new history with five students, one of whom became the president of the college. The second reason is the activity of the Sunday schools, led by it's faithful advocate Pope Shenouda III along with all our forefathers, which provide pastoral care for our children from the very beginning of their lives. We now have tens of thousands of Sunday School teachers - young men and women, all of whom are volunteers. There is no age limit for Sunday school students or teachers and young people may either study in classes or teach them.Example: In one church in Shubra, one of the districts or Cairo, there are 155 Sunday School teachers teaching more than 120 classes. How could we find room for 120 classes? We use all the rooms in the church, even administrative rooms, the meeting rooms, the library, the kitchen - any room. We also use the rooms of the Coptic societies around the church.We teach our children on Sunday and Friday which are the days off in Islamic countries. Every day there are classes at 3:00, 4:00, 5:00 and 6:00. Hundreds of boys come in and go out all the time on Sundays and Fridays. We have classes on Wednesday for young women and classes on Thursday for young men. We teach our children not only to have Christian knowledge, but to experience God's love as well. After the students of Sunday schools become Teachers, they also remain as students in higher classes in order to take refresher courses which remind them that they have not advanced beyond discipleship. We also have pastoral care for the Christian students in the university. The revival of Sunday school teaching in our Church has helped prevent deep problems with our young men and women. They are taught the Christian education, faith, and simple principles of theology, history and the Creed.Our churches are full of believers. We celebrate the liturgy at least 3 times a week, if not daily. We build new churches every year to accommodate the increasing numbers of believers attending. Our monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations. The young men and women who go to the seminaries retreat houses, and Sunday schools are prepared to give their lives for the Lord. At one time we had only one theological college which was located in Cairo. Now we have seven theological colleges in Cairo, Alexandria, Upper Egypt and the Delta.