Coptic Christians in Danger in Egypt - Understanding the Eastern Orthodox Church
I was grieved this weekend to hear about all the violence that has been taking place in Egypt recently. Some of my friends from Egypt have been asking me to pray for them through facebook and there is a unified three day prayer and fast taking place in Egypt right now. As you have probably heard in the news there have been Coptic protest following the burning and destruction of a Coptic Church recently. As these Christians were demonstrating through a peaceful protest they were harassed by other Egyptians and even the military ran Christians over with vehicles leading to numerous deaths and many were hospitalized. In response some Copts fought back and there were a few soldiers in the military who were killed.
Sadly the Copts have seemed to be blamed for all that has taken place which in my opinion is very sad and unfair. The Coptic Church makes up less that 8 percent of the population in Egypt and after being oppressed and persecuted long enough they finally responded with a peaceful demonstration, were then attacked, and then blamed when a few military personal were injured or killed...seems un fair for our government and others to be placing so much blame on them in light of the burned churches and all the other atrocities they have been facing.
Anyway, apart from going into detail about that I thought there would be value in writing a little bit about Church history to help Christians and non Christians who may read this blog to learn about some of the various expression of Christianity in that part of the world (and here in the west). I recognize this will interest some and others not at all but I think it is valuable to know so I thought I'd write about it.
I have been some what surprised at how little we as American Christians often know about the various denominations and expressions of Christianity around us and in the world, especially relating to the Eastern Orthodox Church. I shouldn't be too surprised, I grew up in the Christian faith and hardly knew anything about the Orthodox Church until my fourth year of college at Cal Poly when I studied it in more depth for Religious Studies classes.
If you ask many Protestant Christians what they know about the Orthodox Church they will say "Well it's kinda like Catholicism but different right." : )
In some ways yes it is, but in many significant ways they are very different. The way they are most similar is that Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians both view scripture and tradition as the two "hands of authority" for knowing truth and establishing guidelines for Church governance and Christian living. This is in contrast to most Protestant or Evangelical Christians who see scripture alone as the primary source of authority for the Church and a life of faith that best honors Christ and his teachings. When we talk about tradition in the way I mentioned it above we are not referring to any tradition that a individual Orthodox or Catholic Christian/church might come up with but rather the formal Traditions that are established through ecumenical councils (more on that in a second).
A few main distinctives of the Orthodox Church is that it was established in the East and the predominant language that it's services were held in and theologians were writing in was Greek. This is in contrast to the Western or Roman Catholic Church where the predominant language used in it's services and by it's theologians was Latin. The Catholic and Orthodox Church were "technically" one Church until 1054 A.D and what's known as the Great Schism. (the leading Orthodox Bishop in Constantinople and a representative to the Pope in Rome excommunicated each other creating a forever divide between the two.)
Really the division began much earlier than that but that is a real short version of how it became official. Some of the Orthodox Church's great theologians from the 4th century include Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom (Chrysostom is my favorite). On the west we have other great theologians like, Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome. They were all writing profound theology for the time but in different languages and coming to slightly different conclusions at times which added to the division that would become more significant later.
As I mentioned earlier, church tradition came through ecumenical councils were bishops would gather to discuss various traditions and doctrines and make decision for the Church that became binding. The Orthodox Church participated and recognizes the first seven ecumenical councils which all took place prior to 1054. The Roman Catholic Church went on to hold an additional 14 ecumenical councils, up to this point, the last one being the Second Vatican Council concluding in 1965 so they now have 21 Councils.
So the Orthodox Church has many traditions that you will not find in Protestant Churches like the veneration of Icons for example but has less traditions than Catholics and do not recognize the Pope or allow statues as the Catholic Church does.
Of course most evangelical denominations today were birthed out of the Protestant Reformation started by Martin Luther (Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide) and the Reformers as they protested many of the corruptions they saw present in the Catholic Church in their day...This is probably one of the reasons we Protestants know less about the Eastern Orthodox Church than we do about Catholicism becasue there is less historical significance relating to the reformation and the birth of most Protestant denominations...(just a thought)
Ok history aside, today in Egypt the Orthodox or Coptic Church is the largest expression of Christianity in the country, Catholics being the second largest and Protestants the smallest by far. (over 90% of the population in Egypt is Muslim and the majority of them are Sunni... I'll write more about this and Islam in future posts)
Kasr El Dobara Church is the largest Evangelical Church in Cairo and in the middle east as a whole for that matter with about 5,000 members. This church is very close to Tahrir Square where most of the major demonstrations take place and were most of my personal friends in Egypt fellowship. (please keep them in your prayers as they seek to live out their faith and show the love of Christ in such a tumultuous time)
Coptic actually means Egyptian and before Islam Coptic or native Christians made up the majority of the population in the area. You can usually tell who is Coptic in Egypt becasue most of them have a small tattoo of a cross on the inside of their right wrist which they receive when they are young...many Copts live near Mokattam Mountain in Cairo (one of the largest slums in the world) and have faced even more severe opposition and hardship through this time.
Coptic Christians are also some of the wealthiest Christians in Egypt and many have been fleeing the country in recent months as growing opposition from the government and Muslim Radicals increases and as the uncertainty about the future motivate them to leave.
With all of this said Egypt is still a wonderful country with such rich history and I have made many friends there. I look forward for opportunities to return in the future and ask that if you feel led you would join the many Christians who are coming together to pray for the country during this time.
When I was in Egypt two months ago I witnessed Coptic, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim Egyptians come together to practice the sports they love and even express unified care and compassion for me as their coach when I was injured. Of course this was in a micro setting and is hardly the norm in that part of the world but "without vision the people perish" and seeing it take place with the younger generation in a small setting was encouraging.
I believe there is great hope for the future of Egypt and for the freedom of the people in that country. There are also a lot of very real challenges and many obstacles they will face in the months and years to come and I hope we in the west will support them with our prayers and in other ways during this formative time in the countries history.
Posted on Tue, October 11, 2011
by Luke Llamas filed under