Saturday,20 January, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Saturday,20 January, 2018
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Mother Church

The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has always played a major role in spreading Christianity across the African continent

The  Mother Church
The Mother Church

The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church has a history and structure that distinguishes it from other churches worldwide. It was also a pioneer in the formation of Christianity in Africa in ancient times.

“The Coptic Orthodox Church is the church of Egypt. Egypt is an African country, and as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has stated, there need to be strong relations between the African states, as there are within the Church. In Egypt, we serve every human being, helping him to fulfill his needs,” comments Tawadros II, the 118th and current pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St Mark, the head of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church.

The pope has underlined the role of the Church in providing medical services to poorer people in Africa. Church sources also told Al-Ahram Weekly that the pope and the president of the West African state of Togo had agreed to allocate land in the country to build an Egyptian Coptic church.

The papal statements about the importance of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Africa are not recent, as there has been a long history of relations between the Egyptian Church and the African continent. While some may not know of the importance of the Coptic Church in Africa, it has long exerted an important influence over events there.

In 1949, Pope Joseph II received a letter from a South African priest, the Reverend Kalbakh (1869-1952), a member of the Presbyterian Church. The request was for the Church of South Africa to return to the bosom of the first African Church, in other words the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church.

The Coptic bishop Bishoi, in Arabic abuna (“our father”) Bishoi, was sent to South Africa and spent 10 months studying the situation and receiving applications from people wishing to join the Coptic Church. It is said that he received tens of thousands.

Bishop Bishoi was fluent in English and French and was the secretary of the Patriarchate Library at the time. In 1950, Pope Joseph II appointed him bishop of South Africa and Nigeria under the name of Bishop Markus. The Church also established an office for the translation of the Bible and other ecclesiastical services.

Bishop Markus travelled again to South Africa in September 1950, together with the Coptic priests Shenouda and Bishoi and the deacon Aziz. They took with them religious books and various articles of worship, but only one year later, in September 1951, Markus was forced to return home. The apartheid government in South Africa at the time had refused to allow him to work as he wanted, to grant him a license to build a church, or even to register his presence in the country. He returned to his monastery in Egypt, where he died in 1952.

However, when the Coptic Bishop Antonius visited South Africa in 1977, Christian followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church in South Africa were still maintaining their loyalty to the Church and were performing its services. Elders known for their piety were still calling themselves Copts and were proud to belong to the oldest church in the world, “the Mother Church”, when preaching in Coptic in Africa.

Joseph Ramez, an expert on African affairs, stresses in his book The Role of the Egyptian Church in Africa the pivotal role the Egyptian Church has played on the continent in the development of Christianity, its distribution, the Church’s relationship with the African countries and its political, cultural and educational role.

The book, introduced by Bishop Antonius, Coptic bishop for African affairs, and Ibrahim Ahmed Nasreddin, a professor of political science at Cairo University and president of the African Association of Political Science, includes a future-looking vision of the role of the Coptic Church in Africa.

Ramez says in the book that one church in South Africa had written on its façade “the Lord Jesus Christ with the Copts of Egypt will come to free the majority from white control” during the apartheid period, referring to the idea that the Coptic Church naturally communicates down through Africa and works on the level of peoples and organisations.

His book comprehensively reviews the capacities of the Coptic Church in administrative, organisational, social and cultural terms, saying that its role in Africa is political, developmental, cultural and educational, helping to spread Egyptian institutions across the African continent.

Ramez points out that the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church is the oldest on the continent and has extensive relations worldwide. The Coptic Church in Africa is an essential institution of civil society, he says, as well as spreading Egyptian influence.

Bishop Antonius said that “the Egyptian Church, which is more than 1,900 years old, and is most likely the oldest Christian church in the world, traditionally believed to be founded by St Mark in around 42 CE, was able to resolve disputes over the formulation of the faith in the Nicene Creed.”

“This creed, now a cornerstone of the Christian world, was based largely on the teaching of a man who eventually became the pope of the Coptic Church, St Athanasius of Alexandria. The Coptic Church also established the monastic movement through the work of St Pachomius the Cenobite in the fourth century. It is the Mother Church of Africa.”

He adds that the Coptic Church played the major role in spreading Christianity all over the continent, contradicting claims that Christianity came to Africa from Europe. His book looks at different aspects of the Coptic Church’s contributions in Africa, stressing that the cultural and educational influence of the Church started in Ethiopia and Sudan before spreading to Kenya, Congo and other states. Some tribes in East Africa speak a language similar to Coptic, he says.

Paulus Halim, an official spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said that Archbishop Marcos Sobhi had been appointed to serve in the West African state of Gabon earlier this month and a prayer service for the Coptic Orthodox had been held for the first time in the country.

This came as part of plans for the Church to expand its influence in Africa in order to extend its spiritual services to the places where Coptic Orthodox Christians live, among them 100 different countries around the world. The Church’s attention to such communities began under the reign of Pope Cyril VI, expanded during that of the late Pope Shenouda III, and will be continued under Pope Tawadros II, he said.

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