LEADER TIMES WEEKEND RELIGION ARTICLE FOR
September 1, 2012 by William H. Scarle, Jr.
With the prominence of Egypt in the news lately it might be helpful to remember that Egypt was not always Moslem. With the overthrow of the secular government of Egypt, and the ascendency of a president affiliated with the Moslem Brotherhood we may be tempted to think that Egypt, along with the rest of the Middle East, has no other history. Muhammad was not born until about 570 AD. Christianity came to Egypt in the first century. Even today ten percent of the population of Egypt is Coptic Christian.
The word “Coptic” refers to the Coptic language, which is a derivative of ancient Egyptian. The Christian population continued to use this language even after the Moslem conquest in about 639 AD. Thus, the designation of the community as Coptic. The Egyptian Christian body of believers was founded by John Mark, who traveled extensively with Peter and later became the Bishop of Alexandria from about 49 to 68 AD, when Coptic tradition says he was martyred. He was followed by a succession of Bishops beginning with Anianus who shepherded the community from 68 AD to 85 AD.
Perspective is important when thinking about the Middle East and the Moslem mind set. Islam sees their faith as the original religion reaching back to Adam. They think of every other faith as interlopers who refuse to submit to the true religion. It is difficult, if not impossible, for them to realize that there was a Christian community in Egypt for six hundred years before Islam was born. The Coptic community in Egypt has always faced persecution, but as Islam becomes more dominant, life for this ancient fellowship becomes more difficult.
Christianity spread rapidly over the Roman Empire and beyond during the first three centuries of our era. In May of the year 330 AD the Byzantine Empire was founded by Constantine with its capital at Constantinople. The Empire included most of the Mediterranean coastal areas including all of North Africa. It included the great centers of Christian learning like Alexandria, Carthage, Rome, Athens, and the cities of western Asia. Athanasius of Alexandria was a prominent leader at the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. The Empire had a population of about five million.
Mohammed died in the year 632 AD. He had unified the Arab tribes in Arabia. Arab armies broke out of Arabia and conquered Roman Syria, which includes Israel, between 634 and 638 AD. These wars were not defensive but aggressive. They were waged for wealth and power. North Africa fell to the Arab armies between 639 and 698 AD.
My point here is simply to put history into perspective. The Middle East is not Arab and Moslem by some eternal right. Most of it was conquered from the Christian Empire of Byzantium. Some of it was recovered in later wars, such as Spain, parts of Europe and the Mediterranean islands. Through a succession of controlling powers it ended up under the Ottoman Empire which fell with Germany at the close of the First World War.
The oldest religious community in Egypt is the Coptic Christian Church. World opinion should be appalled at their treatment by Moslem authorities in Egypt. And, this is only one story. Christianity in the East has a remarkable history which unfortunately is little known.
(Bill Scarle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).