The Copts, which constitute the largest religious minority in Egypt, claim descent from the ancient Egyptians; the word copt is derived from the Arabic word qubt ("Egyptian") and the Coptic language is the last stage of the development of ancient Egyptian.
Tradition has it that Egypt was Christianized during the first century A.D. by Mark the Apostle, when the country was part of the Roman Empire. Thus, the Coptic Church claims to preserve an unbroken line of patriarchal succession to the See of Alexandria founded by Saint Mark. Egyptian Christianity developed distinct dogmas and practices and, by the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Coptic traditions were so different from those in Rome and Constantinople that it caused major religious conflicts.
Dissension persisted for 150 years until most Copts seceded from the other Christian churches because they rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon that Christ had a dual nature, both human and divine, believing instead that he had a single, divine nature. The Coptic Church's clerical hierarchy is headed a patriarch, referred to as the pope, and a synod or council of senior priests (people who have attained the status of bishops) is responsible for electing or removing popes.
Unfortunately, the Coptic Christians are not treated very well by the Muslim majority or the Egyptian government. During the 1990s, Islamic terrorists began a well-orchestrated campaign of intimidation and assaults upon Coptic communities, killing hundreds of people. This violence horrified Muslim neighbors who were quick to condemn the attacks, but these condemnations did little to stem the attacks - it certainly did not move the government to actually treat the Copts like real citizens worthy of protection.
Repeatedly, Copts are charged and convicted on ridiculous, trumped-up charges or are sentenced to severe prison terms for allegedly saying things critical of Islam. Police routinely ignore acts of mob violence against the Copts, but they use investigations as an excuse for their own acts of intimidation and violence against these small and relatively defenseless communities of Christians. Coptic leaders are, for example, denounced for inciting violence against Copts while those who actually do the killing, burning and looting are let off without punishment.
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