45 killed in attack on Egypt's Coptic Christians: All you need to know about the community

At least 45 people were killed and nearly 120 others injured in powerful blasts triggered by the Islamic State in two churches packed with worshippers celebrating Palm Sunday in Egypt's Tanta and Alexandria cities, the deadliest attacks on the minority Coptic Christians in recent years.

The explosion comes weeks before the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt on 28 April.

While Egypt is a Muslim-majority country, Coptic Christians, who represent 10 percent of the population, have played an important role in the country's history.

Here is an all you need to know about the Coptic Church and its adherents.

Etymology of the word "Coptic"

According to Encyclopedia Coptica, the word Coptic comes from the Greek word "Aigytos" which is derived from "Hikaptah", one of the names for Memphis, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. Coptic is now used as a term to identify Christians in Egypt. They are considered as the successors of the original Ancient Egyptians.

Based on the teachings of Apostle Mark

The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who introduced Christianity to Egypt during the reign of Emperor Nero in first century AD.

One of the oldest churches in the world, the Coptic Church, according to its UK branch, has "carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith in its earliest form, handing it down through generations, remaining true to the Apostolic doctrines and patterns of worship".

Seven sacraments

The Coptic Church observes seven sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Repentance and Confession, The Eucharist, Unction of the Sick, Matrimony and Priesthood/Holy Orders. According to Coptic Church, "sacraments are considered sacred actions by which believers receive an invisible grace, through material or visible signs and elements".

File photo of the attack on the Coptic Church in Alexandria. AP

File photo of the attack on the Coptic Church in Alexandria. AP

Leadership of the Coptic Church

The head of the Coptic Church is the Pope of Alexandria. The incumbent is Pope Tawadros II, who is based in Cairo.

Parish communities are served by married priests, who are nominated from within the community. Those nominated are then ordained into the ministry by the bishop.

Bishops as well as the pope are selected from within the monastic community.

Indeed, the monastic order is the hallmark of the Coptic Church. Founded by Saint Anthony, the monasteries were once found in plenty in the deserts of Egypt. According to Coptic Church, "Monks came from all over the world to benefit from their words, seeking spiritual guidance and documenting their teachings".

However, according to media reports, only 20 of the Coptic monasteries remain now.

Persecution in the Islamic era

After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the Seventh Century, Copts were given considerable autonomy after being made to pay "jizya", a special tax for the minorities.

However, according to World Council of Churches, persecution of the community rose around 1000 AD when an Caliph is said to have destroyed around 3,000 Coptic churches and forced Copts to convert to Islam.

The community was treated inferior to the dominant Muslims until the mid- 19th century, when the Mohammad Ali dynasty lifted "jizya" and allowed them to participate in every walk of life.

The Coptic Church in present day

The Coptic Orthodox Church has its presence largely in West Asia, with at least 10-15 million followers in Egypt.

The Church claims to have experienced "rapid growth" in United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australasia, with over 15 dioceses and 500 parishes outside Egypt. Over a million Coptics live outside their native country.

Under-representation of Copts in Egypt government

According to a Brookings report, Copts are under-represented in the Egyptian government. Only 36 out of the 596 members of Parliament are Copts. In addition, 24 Copts were awarded seats through a religious-based quota system.

Copts under al-Sisi's regime

While the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 states complete freedom of religion , yet it declares Islam as the state religion and bans conversion to other religions. With harsh blasphemy laws in place, several people have been prosecuted by the Sisi government.

Prominent Copts

Copts have had an important role in shaping Egypt's literature, music and academia. Boutros Boutros Ghali is one of the most famous Copts in the world. He had served as the UN Secretary General between 1992 and 1996.

Sir Magdi Yacoub is another prominent Copt, recognised as one of the leading heart surgeons in the world.

Billionaire Fayez Sarofim, who resides in the US and owns the NFL team Houston Texans is also a Copt.

Recent attacks on Coptic Christians

February 2017: Hundreds of Egyptian Christians flee their homes in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, fearing attacks by Islamic State militants. The group's North Sinai affiliate had killed at least seven Coptic Christians in the restive peninsula in less than a month.

December 2016: A bombing at a chapel adjacent to Egypt's main Coptic Christian cathedral in Cairo claimed by IS kills 30 people and injuries dozens during Sunday Mass in one of the deadliest attacks carried out against the religious minority in recent memory. The high death toll serves as a grim reminder of the difficulties of Egypt's struggle to restore security and stability after nearly six years of turmoil.

July 2016: Pope Tawadros II says that since 2013 there were 37 sectarian attacks on Christians in Egypt, nearly one incident a month. A Muslim mob stabs 27-year old Coptic Christian Fam Khalaf to death in the southern City of Minya over a personal feud.

May 2016: A Muslim mob ransacks and torches seven Christian homes in Minya after rumor spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman. The mother of the aforementioned man was stripped naked by the mob to humiliate her.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2017 13:45:33 IST

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