maandag 19 april 2010
Christianty was left to grow unbothered until the 3rd century whe the Roman Empire, of which Egyp was a part, declaired it illegal, mandating instead the worship of many gods. In Egypt the decree twisted into persecution, generation a host of martyrs and driving Christians deper and deeper into the deserts of southern Egypt.
The persecution profoundly marked the Coptic faith. It gave new drive to the monastic movement, which originated in Egypt, not only animating the building of monasteries and the scouring out of caves but scoring the virtues of austerity, focused work, and scrupulous self-discipline into the soul of the church.
The suffering of the martyrs is esteemed and spired to be church members to this day.
In their isolation and sorrow, the Copts created a disinctive and highly regarded art style which merged characteristics of pharonic, folk and Roman art.
The dome and cross peek above the wall surrounding the cemetery in Old Cairo, a section of the city which early Christians settled, It's said that the Holy Family stayed in the vicinity during their sojourn in Egypt.
Contemporary Coptic Christianity
At the end of the 19th century, the church was in poor health. It monks were preceived as little more than beggars, if not theives; its priests - espcially in the villages in the south - were often the least promising sons of their priest fathers. (Priests must be married in order to hear the confession of women).
In cities, by contrast, lay Copts were succeeding as entrepreneurs, industrialists, merchangts and professionals, due in part to the virtures transmitted to them by the monastic tradition. They had social status, didn't care for the blight on their religion and so began agitating for reforation, demanding greater accountability and more democracy within the chruch. Over the next 50 years, and in spite of many unpleasant shifts in the constituencies in power ( complete with exiles, kidnappings and threatened assassinations), the demand for modernation bore fruit.
A remarkable revitalization had taken place.
In what is called the "Sunday School Movement," the church began recruiting more educated men into the priesthood, built four high quality colleges and began the process of recovering the church's past - researching the lives of the martyrs as well as ancient Coptic art and the music of the church.
It undertook a revival of the Coptic language, digging out the traces the late phronic tongue in which the church was founded. It sent priests out to vist their parishionrs; introduced sermons into the three hour masses, giving the prists an opportunity to address the problems of the people with a combination of the latest knowledge in the social sciences with theology. Thye've produced colorful books which tell the stories of the saints, films explaining the tenets of the faith; introuduced new hyms into ritual; expanded the role of the laity and sent young men to reclaimed monasteries for religiou sojourns.
"We believe ours is the only right religion but we never judge anybody. This has always been a tolerant country. The problems between Muslims and Copts only began 30 years ago. I have Muslim friends, I love them, they love me." Father Anthony
In the 1990's the church with the support of USAID and UNESCO and under the leadership of Abouala Maximus el-Anthony, began major restoration projects of its monasteries and cathedrals. With satellite broadcasting, it communicates to a growing radio and television fellowship.
Inspired young men, like the one who was to become today's Coptic Pope Shenouda III, demanded greater democracy in decison making. Some in the leadership reached out to diaspora Copts, serving them and attracting their financial support. Others participated in the founding the World Council of Churches.
Not to say that the Coptic Church has achieved democracy. S.S. Hasan, in her excellent book (upon which this article heavily depends, ) Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century Long Struggle for Copic Christianity, predicts that the "struggle for democratization of the Egyptian Orthodox Church will be a long and bitter one; the reformers know this and seem resigned to sit it out."
The cultural context of Egypt, in which the Church is embedded, is authoritairan, and the yoke of that culture--to which must be added the high prelate's own monastic tradtion of unquestion obedience to one's su[eriors--weighs heavily on the Church, not only in its relationship to its congregation but also in its internal relationships.
Long too will be the coming to terms of Muslims and Copts, who have not lived easily together in Egypt. Recent outbreaks of violence between some parts of the Muslim community and some Copts have added fuel to the long-burning pyre. The sources of the conflict are complex and we'll wait on further independent research as well as information from members of both communities before attempting a summary of the issues.