Mini-Explainer: What Are "Coptic" Christians?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Sept. 14 2012 11:10 AM

The Film That Sparked Protests at U.S. Embassies Was Made By a Coptic Christian. What Is That?

Coptic priest Father Samaan Ibrahim puts a cross on the forhead of an Egyptian woman.
Coptic priest Father Samaan Ibrahim puts a cross on the forhead of an Egyptian woman during a service in July at the St Samaans Church also known as the Cave Church in the Mokattam village in Cairo.

Photo by Gianluigi Guerica/AFP/Getty Images.

The California man who is believed to have produced Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Islam film that appears to have sparked the violent protests at U.S. missions in the Middle East and North Africa this week, has been described as a Coptic Christian.

Advertisement

So, what are Coptic Christians?

Coptic is an umbrella term for a handful of native Egyptian Christian groups that follow an ancient form of Christianity complete with its own language and rituals. About 10 percent of the Egyptian population as a whole identifies as Coptic, and 95 percent of those adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The church traces its founding back to Saint Mark, and split from the rest of the Orthodox churches in the mid-5th century over a theological disagreement over the nature of Christ.

Copts generally trace their roots back to the ancient Egyptians, and the language of the church, Coptic, is the last iteration of the Egyptian language—though most Coptic Christians now speak Arabic. 

Coptic immigration to the United States and elsewhere started en masse as a reaction to nationalization policies following the Nasser revolution in the 1950s, and increased again in the 1970s and early 80s. Copts fared relatively well under Hosni Mubarak, but have faced increasing persecution from fundamentalist Islamists since his removal from power in 2011. (For more on Coptic immigration to the United States after the Arab Spring, you can check out this Wall Street Journal article from last December.) By the Associated Press' count, there are currently about 300,000 Coptic Christians living in the United States, with the largest clusters in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Cleveland.

We should also note that the response to the film from Copts in Egypt and those who have moved to the United States has been a near blanket rejection of its message. The Coptic Orthodox Church's Los Angeles Diocese, for one, issued a statement on yesterday condemning both the attacks in Libya that killed four American diplomats and the film itself. "The producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions," the church wrote. "The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives."

Related slideshow:
Protests Erupt at Multiple U.S. Embassies Across Islamic World

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company

Sports Nut

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 18 2014 1:34 PM Americans Fault Obama for Giving Them Exactly the Anti-ISIS Strategy They Want
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 18 2014 12:47 PM How One of the Most Prolific Known Forgers in Modern History Faked Great Works of Art
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 12:03 PM The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Everyday That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 1:15 PM Beyoncé’s 10 Greatest Live Performances
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 1:24 PM Can the Celebrities Whose Photos Were Stolen Really Sue Apple? It may be harder to prove “harm” than it seems.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.