See also Coptic language.
By some accounts there are approximately 50 million Coptic Christians, primarily in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and in significant numbers in Sudan and Israel, and in diaspora throughout the world. However, as applied to the Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia, which before 1950 was a part of the Coptic Church of Egypt, the word Coptic can be considered a misnomer because it means Egyptian. The Eritrean Orthodox Church similarly became independent of the Tewahedo Church during the 1990s. Those three churches remain in full communion with each other and with the other Oriental Orthodox churches.
The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Greeks and Jews in Alexandria, and according to tradition the church there was founded by St. Mark. In the second century Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into local languages.
In the third century, during the persecution of Decius, some Christians fled to the desert, and remained there to pray after the persecutions abated. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was reorganised by St. Antony and St. Pachomius in the 4th century. It attracted the attention of Christians in other parts of the world, and many came to Egypt to see what was happening, and took monastic ideas back home with them, so monasticism spread throughout the Christian world. It was an indigenous movement of Egyptian Christians.
In the 4th century a theological dispute about the nature of Christ started by an Alexandrian priest called Arius spread throughout the Christian world as well. The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) was called to resolve the dispute, and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. Another theological dispute in the 5th century led to the calling of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), but many Egyptian Christians including many monks, were unhappy with the decisions of the council, and pro-Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian parties formed in the church, and tried to get their candidates appointed as the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, who was the chief bishop of the church in north-eastern Africa. Eventually the two parties split. Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading churches of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem. The non-Chalcedonian group called them "Melchites", meaning "the king's men", because their party was supported by the Emperor in Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party became what is today called the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Ethiopian Church followed their lead. Ever since then there have been two Popes in Alexandria. The Coptic Orthodox Pope today is Pope Shenouda III, while the Greek Orthodox Pope is Pope Petros VII.
The Chalcedonians sometimes called the non-Chalcedonians "monophysites", though the Coptic Church denies that it teaches monophysitism, which it regards as a heresy. They have sometimes called the Chalcedonian group "dyophysites". A term that comes closer to Coptic doctrine is "miaphysite", which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibility in the Incarnation.
Since the 1980s theologians from the two groups have been meeting to try to resolve the theological differences, and have concluded that many of the differences are caused because the two groups use different terminology to describe the same thing. In 1990, The Coptic and Greek Orthodox Churches agreed to mutually recognize baptisms performed in each other's churches, making rebaptisms unnecessary. In the summer of 2001, the Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox agreed to recognize the sacrament of Marriage as celebrated by the other. Previously, if a Coptic and Greek wanted to marry, the marriage had to be performed twice, once in each church, for it to be recognized by both. Now it can be done in only one church and be recognized by both.
In the Coptic Church only men may be ordained, and they must be married before they are ordained, if they wish to be married. In this respect they follow the same practices as does the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The name Copt is an Arabic rendering of the Coptic word for Egyptian, gyptios.