Copts kŏpts [key], the native Christian minority of Egypt; estimates of the number of Copts in Egypt range from 5% to 17% of the population. Copts are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians; they are a cultural remnant, i.e., the Christians who have not been converted to Islam in the 14 centuries since the Muslim invasion. The Coptic language, now extinct, was the form of the ancient Egyptian language spoken in early Christian times; by the 12th cent. it was superseded by Arabic.

Most Copts belong to the Coptic Church, an autonomous Christian sect that officially adheres to Monophysitism, which was declared (451) a heresy by the Council of Chalcedon. The church is in communion with the Jacobite Church (also Monophysite). The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was long part of the Coptic Church, but changes in the mid-20th cent. led to autonomy for the former in 1959 when an independent Ethiopian patriarch was consecrated. In rites and customs the Coptic Church resembles other Eastern churches; however, Copts circumcise their infants before baptism and observe certain Mosaic dietary laws. Coptic, Greek, and Arabic languages are all used ceremonially. The chief bishop, the patriarch of Alexandria, is in direct succession to the 5th-century patriarchs who embraced Monophysitism; he is entitled pope. The current pope, Tawadros II, was enthroned in 2012.

Among the Copts a small minority are in communion with the Roman Catholic pope; these “Catholic Copts” have their own organization and churches but share the rites and practices of the Coptic Church. This community began to develop in the 18th cent. Protestant missionaries have established some Coptic congregations. Besides Copts there are Orthodox communities in Egypt, mainly Greek and Syrian; the Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria traces his succession to the Catholic patriarchs of the 5th cent. There are also many Catholic Syrians, mainly Melchites and Maronites. In recent decades, Copts have been the object of attacks by Muslim fundamentalists and extremists in Egypt, especially in the years since the overthrow in 2013 of President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, by the military.

See D. Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East (2 vol., 1947–48); E. Wakin, A Lonely Minority: The Story of Egypt's Copts (1963); M. Kāmil, Coptic Egypt (1968); O. F. A. Meindarus, Christian Egypt: Faith and Life (1970).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Christianity: General