Egypt’s complex and storied Christian history


In what is an unusually expedited timeline, the Vatican announced this week that Pope Francis will travel over the extended Easter season to visit Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during the last week of April. While there he will also meet with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque and University and an esteemed authority in Sunni Islam. As makes sense, he will also pay respect to the ancient Christian community in Egypt by visiting with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and, though it has not been announced, I would expect him also to meet with the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak.

Unbeknownst to most Roman Catholics, the title of pope (papas) has long been used as an honorific appellation in other branches of Christianity, and this includes in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Pope Francis recently told Pope Tawadros that the two are “united in the blood of our martyrs.”

Egypt has a complex and storied Christian history. Both the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Tawadros, and the Coptic Catholic Church, led by Sidrak who is in full communion with Pope Francis, trace their origins to Saint Mark the evangelist. Tradition holds that there have been Christians in Egypt as early as 42 AD, that is to say, before Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome (c. 64-67 AD). One can then say in a certain sense that this region of the world is a more ancient seedbed of the faith even than Europe.

Many of the theological debates that took place on the ground there revolve around complicated christological and anthropological assertions stemming from the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. And of course, the “desert fathers,” who are the spiritual ancestors to the monastic communities of Saint Benedict, Saint Bruno, Saint Augustine and others, were prevalent throughout Egypt in the early church. Think of all the saints in our tradition from the great centers of learning that are associated with Egypt: Antony, Athanasius, Clement, Cyril, Catherine of the Wheel, etc.

Today that ancient Christian community which historically has made up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million people is dwindling due to expatriation, persecution and forced conversion. Last December, 27 people were killed when a bomb exploded during Sunday liturgy in the Cairo cathedral complex. This was simply one tragedy in a long list of targeted acts of violence aimed at the Christian community in the region. The government has been accused of failing to raise sufficient protest in the face of severe human rights violations. The Egyptian Parliament has recently imposed restrictions on the construction and renovation of churches, and has allegedly even supported the criminal justice system in sentencing Copts to prison for mocking Islamic State propaganda. Police reportedly target Christians for beatings or worse because of their faith. President El-Sissi has recently vowed to work for the protection of Egypt’s two-millennium old minority Christian population.

It is expected that Pope Francis will seek to foster greater collaboration with him and the grand imam to ensure that religious jihadism can never be used as a legitimization for violence against any Christian, Muslim, Jew or unbeliever in the area. El-Sissi will also travel to America to meet with President Trump in the coming weeks, and is likely to discuss the situation with him as well.

It is important that Christians in the North Atlantic corridor realize that they have a monopoly neither on the church’s present priorities nor its past glories. Claiming to be a universal worldwide church mandates that we acknowledge the global nature and far-flung struggles of our fellow Christians and all human beings. Whether intellectual or political, isolationism and Catholicism cannot co-exist healthily or authentically. Pope Francis’s upcoming trip is simply one more iteration of this long-established fact.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University in Chicago.