Egypt’s Other Christian Churches

“Egypt is home to a number of Christian denominations, who differ from the Coptic Orthodox Church on some key issues”

The vast majority of Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, but there are a number of other Christian denominations with significant numbers of followers in Egypt. Ahram Online takes a look at three of the largest.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria

The Greek Orthodox Church is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which has many adherents in Eastern Europe.

In 451 AD, theological disagreements led the Egyptian Church to split from most of the other churches of the time. The Egyptian church, which went on to become the Coptic Orthodox Church and to represent the majority of Egyptian Christians, disagreed with the decisions of the Chalcedon church council.

The Byzantine emperors who ruled Egypt were pro-Chalcedon and supported the establishment of a Greek Orthodox Church in Egypt that also followed the council’s decisions. Despite periods of persecution, most Egyptians continued to reject Chalcedon and to support the Coptic Orthodox Church, leaving the Greek church with little popular support.

In the modern period, the Greek Orthodox Church in Egypt experienced a revival, as expatriates from countries such as Greek, Syria and Lebanon immigrated to the country. Some estimates place the number of members in Egypt at 350,000.

The Coptic Catholic Church

The Coptic Catholic Church is part of the Catholic Church, meaning that unlike the Coptic Orthodox, it recognises the spiritual authority of the Pope in Rome and is in full communion with Roman Catholicism, although it has its own local variations in worship and traditions.

Catholicism has a long history in Egypt, and the Pope in Rome first appointed an apostolic vicar to take care of the spiritual needs of Egyptian Catholics in 1741. The number of Coptic Catholics in Egypt is estimated to be around 170,000.

Recent years have seen attempts to find common ground and resolve the schism between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church. In 1973 Pope Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III met in Rome, the first such meeting for over 1,500 years. Although progress has been made, there remain tensions over issues such as the conversion of Coptic Orthodox believers to Catholicism, and the question of papal leadership and seniority.

The Evangelical Church of Egypt

There are a number of Protestant Churches in Egypt; the Evangelical Church of Egypt is the largest, with some estimates suggesting around 250,000 members, although many Christians may choose to attend their services while officially remaining members of other churches.

The Evangelical Church was originally founded in the middle of the nineteenth century by American Presbyterian missionaries, but became autonomous in the twentieth century. Evangelicals differ significantly from Catholics, Eastern and Coptic Orthodox in theology, rituals and practice.

In contrast to the Coptic Orthodox Church which under Pope Shenouda III made divorce available only on the grounds of adultery or conversion, Protestant churches apply the 1938 personal status law on divorce, giving members the option of seeking divorce for a wider variety of reasons, including abandonment and abuse. The need to obtain a divorce is thought to be a motivating factor in some conversions from Coptic Orthodox to Evangelical.

The Kasr El-Dobara Evangelical Church, located close to Tahrir Square, opened its doors to revolutionaries during last year’s violent clashes, and was used as a field hospital. A number of key political and revolutionary figures such as author Alaa Al- Aswany, liberal MP Amr Hamzawy, and blinded protester Ahmed Harara attended a Christmas mass at the Church in December 2011.

The presence of revolutionary figures at Kasr El-Dobara stood in contrast to the Christmas mass celebrated by Pope Shenouda at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya, where invited guests included General Sami Anan, a representative of the ruling military council, and a number of other key establishment figures.