In 331 BC, the Greeks built a trading port along the sparkling Mediterranean on the eastern margin of the great Nile River Delta and named it Alexandria. The city grew to become the largest in the known world at the time, attracting scholars, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, artists, and historians. With its towering lighthouse and great port, the city became a cross roads for cultural exchange between peoples of East and West. It also attracted a large Jewish population, and during the time of the Apostles became the home of a Christian community.
Over time, a prestigious theological school was developed here and the city became known for its prominent theologians and churchmen, many of whom were instrumental in the development of early Church doctrine. Early monasticism of both Eastern and Western Churches originated in the Egyptian deserts and was influenced by Alexandrian thought. Traces of Alexandrian theology and liturgy persist in the Roman Catholic liturgy of today. The “Kyrie Eleison” and the Creed that we recite at Mass have roots in the Alexandrian Church. Despite the city’s influence, its pre-eminence did not last.
As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Coptic Church (the word “Copt is a synonym for Egyptian), for both political and theological reasons, separated itself from the life of the broader Church. The process was exasperated by the invasion by Arab tribes in 640 AD. The arrival of Islam led to a long period of repression in which Christians were forced to pay special taxes, and forbidden to serve in the army. The region’s thriving agricultural and commercial activity ground to a halt, and the region was devastated by plagues. By 1300 Muslims outnumbered Christians in Egypt. Eventually European traders set up enclaves within the country ministered to in some cases by Roman Catholic clergy, and in 1761 a small group of Coptic Christians reunited with Rome.
In the face of repression and persecution, the Copts continued on, retaining the ancient liturgical language and beliefs. The attitude of the west toward most Egypt Christians during most of this period was one of neglect and disdain. In the course of its long history, as Pope Francis recently acknowledged, the Coptic Church endured “centuries of silence, misunderstanding and even hostility.”
More recent times saw little improvement. As late as 1920, Copts still made up 10% of the Egyptian population. Since then, however, millions of Copts have left Egypt because of religious tensions, and by 2000 the number of Coptic Christians as a percent of the overall population was half of that. Copts continue to face restrictions on inter-religious marriage and on converting Muslims to Christianity, and find it difficult to obtain positions in government. Despite these difficulties, the Egyptian Coptic Church, numbering 10,000,000 members, is still the largest Christian community in North Africa and in the Middle East.
Estrangement with Rome finally ended in the early 1960s when, at the personal invitation of St. Pope John XXIII, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria sent two observers to the Second Vatican Council. A decade later an historic meeting took place between the Coptic and Roman Catholic popes at the Vatican in which leaders of both churches recognized the “centuries of difficult history” and pledged “ mutual respect for each one’s traditions, is an essential element of this search for perfect communion.”
Since then the work of bridge building has continued. In 2000 Saint John Paul II, visited Egypt, and met with the Coptic Patriarch. Two months after his election to the Papacy, Pope Francis met at the Vatican with the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria and acknowledged “centuries in which there was a certain distance between” and praised the Coptic community for its “inestimable heritage of martyrs, theologians, holy monks and faithful disciples of Christ.”
The world was shocked when in April 2015 YouTube carried photos of 21 men dressed in orange jump suits lined up along the shore of the Mediterranean 800 miles east of Alexandria. Masked ISIS executioners summarily beheaded the men, all of whom were Coptic Christians. A deeply distressed Pope Francis offered a message of condolence in which he described the victims as “martyrs who belong to all Christians…It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants,” the pope went on. “They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.” On other occasions, Francis affirmed that all Christians are one with the Coptic Christians in the waters of Baptism and the blood of martyrs.
In this context the Vatican announced on March 15th of this year that Pope Francis planned to attend an international peace conference in Cairo at the invitation of the Muslim Grand Imam at the end of April. On Palm Sunday, terrorists bombed Coptic Churches in Tanta and Alexandria leaving 45 people dead. Two weeks later Pope Francis reaffirmed his plans to go through with his visit in order to contribute to “dialogue with the Islamic world, and to “the venerated and beloved Coptic Orthodox Church.”
The drama of the Egyptian Christian Church is being played out in real time as this is being written. Preparations for the Pope’s visit to Egypt are in full swing and today’s news indicates that Pope Francis has declined to use a bullet-proof car during his visit in order “to get closer to the people.” A logo celebrating the visit has been released showing a smiling Pope Francis, the great pyramids and the Sphinx, a dove of peace, the Coptic Cross, and the Muslim Crescent, over the Arabic and English words: “Pope of Peace in Egypt of Peace.” On April 28th the two-day visit will begin with the arrival of the Holy Father in Cairo. A message to the people of Egypt released today began with the traditional Arabic greeting “As-salamu alaykum! (Peace be with you!),” and then affirmed, “Our world needs people who can build bridges of peace, dialogue, fraternity, justice and humanity.”
We can only pray that that God will bless and protect the Holy Father and the long-suffering peoples of Egypt in the hope that this encounter will be a step toward peace and reconciliation in this ancient land.