The Coptic Orthodox Church split away from the broader Christian community in 451 A.D. The Coptic Church diverged from other Christians during the 5th century in part due to differing beliefs about the nature of Christ. Coptic Christians believe that Christ had two natures ― one human and one divine ― united as one “without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration.” Catholics and other Christian denominations believe in the incarnation of Jesus, which similarly holds that Christ was both fully human and fully divine. But at the time of the split, Coptic Christians were accused of believing in monophysitism ― the belief that Christ had only one, divine nature.
Coptic Christians trace their founding to the apostle St. Mark. Tradition holds that Mark brought Christianity to Egypt and founded the Coptic church during the first century. It is one of the oldest Christian churches in the Middle East and was the first founded in Africa.
Coptic theology and practice have much in common with the Catholic Church ― but diverge in several major areas. Like Catholics, Coptic Christians believe in the Ten Commandments, and they practice the sacraments of baptism, confession and confirmation. But unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t believe in the infallibility of the pope or in purgatory, notes the Associated Press. And Coptic priests can marry.
The Coptic calendar is slightly different from that of the rest of the Christian world. Copts follow the Julian calendar, and their Christmas falls on January 7. Coptic Christians practice a 40-day period of fasting from red meat, poultry and dairy products leading up to their Christmas. They also observe a 55-day fast preceding Easter.
The Egyptian Church is traditionally believed to be founded by St Mark at around AD 42, and regards itself as the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet, in Chapter 19, Verse 19 says “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border.”
The first Christians in Egypt were common people who spoke Egyptian Coptic. There were also Alexandrian Jewish people such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When the church was founded by Saint Mark during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, a great multitude of native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith.
Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark’s arrival in Alexandria, as is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year AD 200, and a fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. In the 2nd century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local languages, namely Coptic.
Christian monasticism was born in Egypt and was instrumental in the formation of the Coptic Orthodox Church character of submission, simplicity and humility, thanks to the teachings and writings of the Great Fathers of Egypt’s Deserts. By the end of the 5th century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. A great number of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations to this day.