In the Catholic magazine Crisis this morning, I provide some historical background on the embattled and courageous Coptic Church of Egypt:
Egypt today is the site of a persecution of the Church on a scale unseen in Western Europe since the darkest days of the French Revolution; the Coptic Church is fighting for its life under vicious and escalating attacks from Muslims. A Muslim Brotherhood government is coming to power that promises to be more hostile. Yet in these dark days the Copts enjoy little support from Catholics who often only dimly understand the great debt we owe to the Church of Alexandria.
It was not ever thus. The Patriarch of Alexandria was once the third most-powerful prelate in the Church, after those of Rome and Constantinople; he was so designated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Lateran Council, moreover, was merely restating and ratifying — quite belatedly, for a variety of reasons — a canon of the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, which was held over seven and a half centuries before it, in 451.
The Fathers of Chalcedon, for their part, were actually demoting the See of Alexandria from the second position that it had enjoyed before the Roman Emperors moved their capital to the new city of Constantinople, which accordingly became a great metropolis and a patriarchal see….
The bleakness of the situation for Christians in Egypt today, with the Muslim Brotherhood poised to take power, cannot be overstated. Might elegies be in order for a See and Church that was once among the most influential and powerful in all of Christendom? The Lord may yet see fit to save the Church that has produced so many martyrs for fourteen centuries now, and certainly Coptic heroism has not dimmed. But however events may unfold, the Coptic Church deserves our prayers and help — not only in simple Christian solidarity but in gratitude for the great gifts of grace God has given us through the noble Church of Alexandria, the Third See of the ancient and undivided Church.