Christianity And The Coptic Church

“Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands to God....”

Solomon lived nine hundred years before Christ. Following the legend of the Queen of Sheba’s visit, Ethiopia recedes into the mists of history and it is difficult to pierce the veil. But there is clear evidence that a young Phoenician of Alexandria named Fromentius made his way south to Abyssinia in the early part of the fourth century. The story is that he went with two companions, Meropius, a merchant of Tyre, and a Greek, Aedesius. Meropius, the leader of the expedition, is said to have been killed by Ethiopians on the shores of the Red Sea while on his way to India, but the two young men with him were taken to the Holy City of Aksum and gained great favour with the King. Their great intelligence and manly bearing gave them, in course of time, considerable power in the kingdom, and they lost no opportunity of interesting the friendly ruler in the teaching of the Christian Church.

The origins of the city of Aksum and the state which it ruled are rather obscure, but it seems clear that in the first century after Christ the Greek traders set up permanent colonies along the shores of the Red Sea and that one of these became very wealthy, gaining control of a people of some culture, with whom the colonists mingled, and whose prosperity they considerably increased. This people were certainly the forerunners of the modern Ethiopians. They were not conquered by the Greeks, who merely mixed with them as equals, obtaining power by superior commercial ability. How long the city had existed prior to the arrival of the Greeks it is impossible to say—certainly many thousands of years, if the Ancient Book of Aksum, one of the great treasures of the Coptic Church, is to be believed. So far as historical evidence goes there is no mention of the city until the first century after Christ, but it was clearly very much older. When, in the third century, Fromentius was brought there he found the city at the height of its prosperity and fame.

The conversion of the Aksumites to Christianity was probably much easier than Fromentius expected. They believed in one God and had been trading with Christian merchants for at least two hundred years. The legends say that St. Matthew brought the gospel to Aksum within twenty years of the death of Christ, but whether that is true or not, the ease with which the young Phoenician missionary gained the ear of the King suggests that the doctrines which he preached were not entirely unfamiliar. There was also a political motive which possibly influenced the King. He had many enemies, and an alliance with the great powers of the Mediterranean—Rome was by now in rapid process of becoming a Christian empire—must have been a very strong inducement, had such been needed, for the King to embrace the Christian faith.

Fromentius returned to Alexandria and was consecrated first Bishop of Ethiopia in A.D. 326. It was the great Athanasius who conferred the bishopric upon him and whose famous “Epistola ad Constantinum” gives impressive particulars of what the young evangelist had suffered and achieved.

After the first success of Fromentius, however, there was a period when the new faith made very little progress, and it was not until the influx of monks began in the sixth century that the Christian Church obtained a real hold upon the land. The details of the conversion are very puzzling, for some records say that it was not Fromentius but St. Philip who first brought the gospel, and that the Phoenician evangelist found an established Church. This seems unlikely, though the probability of earlier missionary visits is considerable. What is important is that the doctrines preached by Fromentius, of which more will be said, were preserved in astonishing purity while western Christianity was undergoing considerable and vital changes, and that they are found unaltered in Ethiopia still.

Yet to-day if there is one Ethiopian institution which Europeans find more puzzling than the rest, it is the Coptic Church. The ordinarily well-informed churchman in Great Britain is well aware that besides his own Church, there are two other Christian Churches, those of Rome and of Byzantium. He is aware in general terms of how this division, a natural result of the splitting of the Roman Empire by pressure from the barbarian tribes along the Danube, came into being; and if he is less clear as to the doctrinal distinctions involved, at least remembers that in the matter of Christian unity the Greek Church has proved less intransigent than that of Rome.

But when—with the entry of Ethiopia into the news, he discovered that this last of the African kingdoms was a Christian country, and that it had a church of its own, an offshoot from that of Alexandria, which was known as the Coptic Church, he found the fact disturbing. Religious matters were surely complex enough already without this fresh complication. Most Englishmen, it is to be feared, evaded the question by saying—“One of those queer Eastern faiths—not really Christians, you know”—and leaving it at that.

When, however, it appeared that war was certain, the question of religion cropped up once again. If the Ethiopians were indeed a Christian people, who, surrounded by warlike pagans had succeeded with the aid of God and of the hills from whence came their help, in preserving their religion intact for many centuries, it seemed rather strange that they should now be forced to defend themselves against a Christian power, especially that power which sheltered the head of one of the three great Christian Churches within its borders.

Honest churchmen in Britain were conscious of a desire to know something more definite of the history and doctrines of the Coptic Church.

A good deal of information was to be had in the Library of the British Museum. Unfortunately, most of it lay between the covers of such works as Schenute von Atripe und die Enstehung des national-aegyptischen Christentums (J. Leiopold, Leipzig, 1903), where, it is to be supposed, it was allowed to lie. This chapter is an attempt to exhume a little of the extensive material available and to give a fair summary of the religious principles, history and present character of the Coptic Church, the whole strange story of which, taking the student as it does to the struggles of the early Christians, is a puzzling and fascinating by-path in world history.

We to-day, while rendering homage to the devotion which inspired the early Christians to suffer the most terrible tortures for their faith, are inclined to set them down as quarrelsome and pedantic factionaries when we read the tale of the disputes in which they so often indulged. This is not altogether fair for, clearly, if a man thinks his faith sufficiently important to lay down his life for it, any fellow-believer who seems to him to be doing that faith damage is guilty of an appalling crime. And in those times appalling crimes were met by appalling measures.

Before we dismiss the “two and seventy jarring sects” as idle “pip-splitters” (we should say hair-splitters to-day, but the ancients spoke of pips) we must remember that under the stress of persecution they believed with a fierceness hardly to be experienced at the fireside of a country vicarage, and, as is true of everything and everybody, showed only too plainly the defects engendered by their good qualities.

Osiris, the harvest god of Egypt, was believed by the Egyptians to die and rise again with the changing seasons. Pharaoh was his earthly incarnation. Isis, goddess of the crescent moon and star of the sea gave birth, after the death of Osiris, to Horus, a god of the dawn, who became Osiris when he reached full stature. Isis was pictured as standing on the crescent moon with the infant Horus in her arms. Later, at the time of the Greek conquest, great temple was set up in Alexandria known as the Serapeum. There Serapis was worshipped—who is Osiris, Isis and Horus—three in one. Serapis is known as “he who saves souls.” This God confers immortality upon true believers.

From this brief and doubtless in some ways misleading summary of Egyptian belief (for their logic was so different from ours that only after years of study can a European penetrate towards the real meanings of Egyptian worship) it can be seen that Christianity had much in common with the Alexandrine cults. Isis was certainly confused with the Virgin and Serapis with the Trinity.

The Greeks in Alexandria, from whose fermenting minds so many philosophies emerged, were the first converts to Christianity, but there is ample evidence that within two hundred years of the death of Christ His faith had spread widely among the Egyptian population. By this time Rome was master of the Mediterranean world and soon was persecuting Christianity. The Christians of Alexandria suffered with the rest and many of the martyred were Egyptians. St. Anthony, who perished somewhere about the year A.D. 270 was of Egyptian blood.

These Christian Egyptians were called Copts. The word as spelt to-day in Europe represents the attempts of twelfth or fourteenth century travellers to translate into western tongues the Arabic word Kibt which is a corruption of the Greek word for Egyptian. The Coptic language, which fell out of usage four hundred years ago, was a queer mixture resulting from the confusion of tongues in Alexandria. It arose from attempts to write the spoken Egyptian language in Greek characters.

In the early days of Christianity the Copts adhered to much the same doctrines as the rest of the scattered Christian Church; but when, with the coming of power there came also dissensions, the Christians of Alexandria, who were simple-minded souls, always stood for the plainest and to them most straight-forward presentation of Christian belief. They had never any gift for the subtle theology which developed in Byzantium and Rome.

Athanasius, who is said to have received inspiration from St. Anthony, was Bishop of Alexandria in the early fourth century. He steered a noble course among the disputes of Arians (who were themselves divided into Anomoeans and Homoeans), Sabellians, Niceans and all the other shades of Christian opinion, and kept the Alexandrians well within the boundaries of the Church; but in the following century a further dispute arose which was to alter the whole trend of events in Alexandria and lead finally to the isolation of the Copts from the rest of Christendom.

In the fifth century certain elusive doctrines were responsible for continual trouble within the framework of the Church, which had by this time conquered Rome and was flourishing while the Roman Empire declined. There were many sects but the chief lines of demarcation were those between the Monophysites and the Nestorians. These latter considered that Christ had a dual nature; while the Monophysites insisted that His nature was one whole. This view was later expressed by the Monothelites in a rather different form when they said that Christ had two distinct natures but only one will. The earlier Monophysites admitted no such modification of their belief. In this they were supported by the Copts.

The Nestorians not only maintained the dual nature of Christ but held views concerning the Virgin Mary which were a terrible insult to followers of her cult, maintaining that she must not be addressed as “Mother of God”; and, as a consequence the Church was torn to pieces by these contending sects. Several councils were held to attempt settlement. But while wise Christians aimed at composing differences, the politically-minded were not slow to see that these differences could be exploited for their own advancement. The Synods were thus not friendly discussions of common difficulties but rather the battleground of factions who sought to obtain control of the Church and to share the spoils of office.

The famous Synod of Ephesus (Whitsuntide A.D. 431) resulted in the defeat of the Nestorians, but this verdict was soon reversed and though in the end both of the disputing sects lost favour with the orthodox Church, the Nestorian doctrine fading away towards the East, before this had happened the Copts had rebelled.

The patriarch Dioscurus having been condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, his Coptic followers in Alexandria refused to abandon their Monophysite beliefs. They were thus denounced as heretics, Dioscurus was deposed and a new Bishop elected. The Greeks in Alexandria sided with the orthodox Church. They were known as Melkites.

There was a good deal more than a religious difference in this split. It is plain that national feelings were involved. For the next two hundred years there were two Churches in Alexandria and their constant quarrels did much to weaken the Christian faith and to prepare the way for the startling triumph of Islam which was so soon to break upon the world. Theological issues seem curiously unreal to-day, but it is impossible not to admire the tenacity of the Copts. Heraclius, Emperor at Byzantium, having driven back Chosroes II of Persia, who had overrun the whole of the Near East and had taken Jerusalem, did his best, while the outer enemies of Christendom were defeated, to heal the inner dissensions. He made a great effort in A.D. 638 to compose the differences of Greek and Copt in Alexandria. At first he was impartial, but when the native Church proved uncompromising Heraclius employed severe persecution. But in 642 Heraclius died. Without him the Eastern Empire was terribly weakened, and the Moslems were soon masters of all Egypt.

Meanwhile in Abyssinia the Monophysite creed brought by Fromentius flourished, while under ceaseless persecution many of the monks of Egypt gradually drifted south. Justinian, the Roman Emperor, knowing that the Ethiopians were a Christian people, asked their aid on behalf of Christians persecuted in Arabia, and this was loyally given. During a brief period of glory (A.D. 525-600) the Aksumite kings subdued Yemen but the rise of Islam forced Christianity back into the hills where it stood secure.

But in the early eleventh century when the Moslems were at bay an internal peril threatened the Coptic Church. The Falasha tribe—whose Jewish ritual has been mentioned, revolted, and for close on fifty years were masters of the land. They lacked numbers, however, and a long struggle of attrition broke their power, so that by the time that the young Ottoman Empire was offering the sword or the Prophet to the whole of Northern Africa, the Copts had sufficiently recovered to put up a valiant resistance. Even so Mahmoud Grain, most brilliant of the Ottoman commanders, penetrated far into the hills; but he could do nothing against the unconquerable Ethiopians and in the end was forced to retreat with marauding hillmen harassing his rearguard.

Next came the attack of the Gallas from the south. Their religion was pagan and the power of their assault is shown by the fact that even to-day, though not a dominant race, they occupy lands far northward of their original territories. Some estimates state that nearly fifty per cent of the population of Ethiopia are Gallas.

Portuguese Catholics, and then the Jesuits, attempted conversion in vain. The only result was to make the opposition harden, and to drive the Coptic Church back into union with the Copts of Alexandria, the link with whom had been broken during the Mohammedan encirclement.

The Alexandrine Copts had had a hard time. Under Mohammedan rule every possible insult was heaped upon them. They were taxed at arbitrary levels and their goods seized for payment, and for the purposes of collection of poll tax their monks were actually numbered and branded. Their churches were thrown to the ground— sometimes when the congregations were within them, and any church properties which had intrinsic value were stolen; while those which had not were defiled and destroyed.

Every device by which Christians could be pressed into the faith of the Prophet was employed. To single them out for abuse and ridicule, if not for violence, the Christians were at various times compelled to wear degrading dress. But though many lost heart and went over to Islam the rest maintained their faith.

In spite of oppression of every kind they could still fight when it was necessary, and in the race riots which disturbed Alexandria and became open war at Cairo in the early fourteenth century, the Mohammedans were resisted with determination. But the pressure was too great, and the Christians decreased in numbers very rapidly in the following hundred years. At length they were reduced to living in squalid, half-fortified quarters—a sort of Christian ghetto. But their time of deliverance was at length at hand.

With the growth of the power of Christian Europe persecution was to some extent checked, and when the British Government took over the control of Egypt the Copts came into their own. Their religion was secured from oppression of any kind and they, as Christians, found it easier than the Mohammedans to accept administrative positions. They had always been a clever race, and when the load of tyranny which had weighed upon them for so long was removed they showed great capability both in the civil service and in trade.

Mass-produced goods of European origin have now undercut them in their best markets, however, and the importation of more skilled and almost equally cheap labour from Southern Europe has driven them out of industry. They have taken to agriculture, many with great success.

But when the walls of the old “quarters” came down and the Copts mixed freely with the rest of the population, it was very noticeable that, with the stimulus of persecution removed, rapid decay of faith set in. With riches and ease there followed a weakening of moral fibre and the freedom of Mohammedan life—more especially the ease with which divorce is possible, led to many “conversions.”

The whole history is paradoxical. That the descendants of those who suffered for centuries to preserve their faith should, now that the persecution is ended, be snared by the laxer morality of Islam to abandon the religion of their ancestors seems inexplicable. But the facts are easily observed.

One point is worth a final word. Owing to the centuries of ostracism to which they were subjected intermarriage with other strains of blood was rare; and thus the Christian Copts of Egypt show in almost uncanny perfection the physical mould of the Egyptian race before the Mohammedan conquest. This makes them of great interest to the ethnologist, for such survivals as this are hard to find in a world where races and religions mingle and change and disappear.

The Coptic Church of Ethiopia is unaffected by the decay of the parent church. It flourishes, and at least one third of the country’s wealth is in its hands. But it is still ruled in theory from Alexandria. The Head of the Church breathes into a leather bag and sends it to his chosen representative in Ethiopia. This priest breathes in the precious breath and thus becomes imbued with the spirit of his superior and authorised to wield his power.

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