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Coptic Church
North Africa

North Africa was an early cradle of Christianity. Indeed Christianity's links with Africa started nearly two thousand years ago, just weeks after the birth of Jesus when according to the bible, the holy family fled the wrath of King Herod.

"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying: 'Arise, take the young child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled, which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, 'Out of Egypt I called my Son."
St Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 3, verses 13-15.

Listen hereListen to St Mathew's Gospel, Chapter 3, Verse 13-15

Christianity spread to North Africa less than 150 years after the death of Christ. Christian beliefs were introduced by missionaries from Jerusalem and spread among the Jews of Alexandria, on the Egyptian Coast, some time in first century AD or second century. There, the new faith was adopted by the Greek community from the Jews. Christianity spread west, and was taken up across North Africa. It reached as far as modern-day Morocco, where it was enthusiastically embraced by the Berber people. It is quite possible that Christianity came to Africa before it came to Britain and other regions in Northern Europe.

Spread of Christianity
Under the Greeks and during the early years of Roman rule, Egyptians had worshipped their traditional gods as they had during the time of the Pharaohs. Some historians believe that there were elements within such traditional religion that made people receptive to the Christian message.

"Consider how the pharaoh Akhenaton more than one thousand years before Christianity taught and preached how there was one creator for the universe. Look at the statues in ancient Egypt…there is the sign of the cross which was engraved upon it. It was called the ankh - the sign of life, of life after death.

Even the idea of the trinity…in Memphis there was the trinity of Isis, Osiris and Horus, all combined into one. So many of the teachings of Christianity were not foreign at all."
Fouad Megially, former Assistant Professor at the universities of Alexandria and Cairo.

Listen hereListen to a Coptic mass, recorded at the eleventh century Church of St Mary in Cairo, also known as the Hanging Church

The branch of Christianity that developed in Egypt was named after the language spoken by the mass of the Egyptian population - Coptic. Two thousand years later it is still used in Church liturgy.

The early Christian fathers in Egypt developed a strong monastic tradition. There were hundreds of monasteries throughout the country as well as cells and caves occupied by hermits. An anonymous fourth century writer observed:

"There is no town or village in Egypt that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls and the people depend on their prayers as if on God himself, through them the world is kept going."

Christianity was embraced as the religion of dissent and opposition to oppressive Roman rule. It was also, under the teaching of the theologian Origen, a religion emphasising wisdom and physical hardship. Martyrdom became a feature of Christian communities.

One of the earliest documented martyrs was Perpetua, a twenty-year-old wife and mother born in Carthage near Tunis. In 203 AD, she was sentenced to death for her beliefs and her refusal to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods.

"We walked up to the prisoner's dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came to my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: 'Perform the sacrifice - have pity on your baby!'

Hilarianus the governor…. said to me: 'Have pity on your father's grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the Emperors'.

'I will not' I retorted.
'Are you a Christian?' said Hilarianus.
And I said: 'Yes, I am'…
Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us; we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits."
Perpetua's account of her last days, taken from Acts of the Christian Martyrs.

Listen hereListen to a BBC dramatisation of the martyrdom of Perpetua

From the early fourth century, under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, the attacks became more widespread and violent. Churches were destroyed, bibles burned, and Christians faced imprisonment, torture and death.

Persecution of the Christians ceased in 312, when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire. By now, different forms of Christian belief were beginning to emerge and diverse groups of worshippers were beginning to congregate. The most long lasting split over doctrine centred on the nature of God and developed in 451. The Church in Constantinople (modern Istanbul), from where the Roman Empire was now administered, held to the idea that God was both human - in the form of Jesus - and divine. In contradiction to this, the church in North Africa said God was one indivisible unity and wholly divine. This Monophysite belief became the central tenet of the Church in North Africa, which subsequently became known as the Coptic Church.

In the Western regions of North Africa, a more militant, rigid form of Christianity grew up. It was unforgiving of those who collaborated with Roman persecutors. This form of Christianity was known as Donatism and it became identified by the newly Christianised Byzantine authorities as a heresy and equated with dissent and rebellion. It was outlawed by St Augustine of Hippo in his capacity as Bishop of Hippo (in modern Algeria). When Islam came to North Africa in 639, Christian communities were weakened by these divisions and so were less able to resist conversion to the new faith.