Thursday, August 22, 2019

On Coptic-Orthodox relations

From the blog "," an opinion piece on why "the Copts must seek ecumenical union with the Russian Orthodox Church before any other Church."

There are religious, social and political reasons for why we should seek unity with other churches for as long as that ecumenical movement does not compromise the theology or teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Religiously, the push for union is driven by the Bible: Jesus in his prayer to the Father, prayed for the unity of all Christians: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”[1] And Saint Paul exhorts us to be united: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”[2] In fact there are many verses in both the Old and New Testament that form the basis for the ecumenical movement.[3] But like any major change, union with another change will bring about with it huge societal and political change. This is why successive Muslim governments have repeatedly blocked any endeavour to unity with other churches: they couldn’t care less about doctrinal changes or theological rapprochement between different churches. Unity by nature enriches culture and brings about with it certain strength.

But why is the call to seek theological unity with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) before any other church, even the Catholic Church? I believe there are two reasons for that:

First, it is more likely to end in success.

Second, because of the huge benefits it will bring about to our Church and nation.

Let me say that in more detail:
I. We are more likely to reach an understanding and union with the ROC:

A lot of the animosity between the Oriental Churches, of which we are one, and the Eastern Churches, of which the ROC is one, is based on what happened at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451; the unfair way from our point of view our Patriarch, Dioscorus I, was treated; and the persecutions and oppression that followed, imposed by the Byzantine authorities, and backed by the Church of Constantinople, because of our refusal to toe the line and accept the Chalcedonian definition of Christology. Although many scholars think that semantics and lingual differences were to a large extent responsible for the rift, and that the two sides were basically expressing the same Christological view about the divine-human nature of Christ, reunion has been so difficult to achieve so far. In my opinion, historical memories of persecution by the Byzantine authorities that reside in our deep psyche are to a great deal a factor in preventing any understanding. The bitterness felt because of the Byzantine injustice and cruelty is deeply rooted in our literature and culture.

But Russia was not part of the Byzantine Empire; and it was not represented at Chalcedon. Russia became Christian only towards the end of the tenth century when its ruler, Prince Vladimir the Great, ruler of Kievan Rus’ (980 – 1015) abandoned Slavic Paganism and was converted to Christianity in AD 988 by missionaries from Constantinople. Naturally, Russia inherited the Chalcedonian Christology. Since then, Russia has been one of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches, in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, until the ROC severed its relationship with it on 15 October 2018 in response to establishment of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which had previously been part of the ROC – an event which was recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Kiev, which was the capital of Rus’ state, was the residence of the Kiev Metropolitan (Kiev is now the capital of Ukraine) until in 1299 the residence was moved to Vladimir, as a result of the Mongol invasion, and then to Moscow in 1325. The present Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ is Kirill of Moscow (since 2009), a great theologian and moral figure of universal stature.

The ROC suffered severe persecution twice. The first time was when Russia fell under the Muslim Mongol invasion of Kievan Rus’ (1237 – 1242) and occupation of Russia that lasted until Ivan III (1462 – 1505) liberated Russia from the Mongol yoke in the fifteenth century, thereby ending the 200 years Muslim rule. The second time was when the atheist, Communists seized power in Russia, establishing the USSR, which ended in 1991. The Russian people suffered great tribulations; and its history is the mentioning of thousands of saints and martyrs. During these two periods of oppression and persecution the spirituality of the Russian people and their attachment to Christianity were not crushed; and the ROC played a great role in preserving the Christian culture of the nation.

Today, Russia is one of the great and strongest Christian nations; and it stands tall within other Christian nations in withholding the doctrines of the Church in the face of atheist liberalism and the dilution and compromising of Christian values. Patriarch Kirill has been outspoken in his moral condemnation of anti-Christian attitudes of the modern world.

The ROC is rich in its liturgy, theology, iconography, asceticism, teaching, music and architecture. It has one of the strongest traditions of monasticism and asceticism.

The ROC, despite not being part of any, believes in the seven ecumenical councils: the First Council of Nicaea (325), the First Council of Constantinople (381), the Council of Ephesus (431), the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Second Council of Constantinople (553), the Third Council of Constantinople (680-681), and the Second Council of Nicaea (787). The Coptic Orthodox Church does not believe except in the first three; in addition, it believes in the Second Council of Ephesus (449), which the ROC does not believe in. But, the Council of Chalcedon is the problem. Having said that, it is not difficult to sort out the differences created by Chalcedon particularly with Russia which was never part of the bitter feelings created in us by the way Byzantium treated us.

The Copts can identify easily with the Russian people, with the ‘Russian soul’ and with their great Church. And all that makes the reunion with the ROC desirable and feasible. While the Catholic Church always insisted on the Coptic Church abandoning its independence and following the Catholic Church, there is no indication that the ROC would insist on the same: the unity will be between equal brothers, not a union between follower and the following.

II. We will benefit from its rich spiritualism represented in its monasticism, asceticism, theology, liturgy, art, music and ecclesiastical organisation: Russian spiritualism is well known; and it is close to the Coptic soul. There is no doubt that the Copts and their Church can benefit a lot from the spiritual point of view from being united with the ROC.

III. The spirituality of the ROC is reflected in the ‘Russian soul’: The Russians are some of the kindest peoples in the world, and despite the cruelties committed by the Communists, of which the Russian people is innocent, the Russians hate cruelty and are imbued with lofty feelings of brotherhood to humanity and the suffering, and elevate the values of honesty, understanding and forgiveness. This is reflected in their great literature, to which all other literature is second rate – a literature that includes giants like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov. But Russian spirituality is reflected in more than in literature: its philosophy, arts and music are only some other areas that were influenced by Russia’s Christian values. The Copts are not very advanced in some of these areas, and, undoubtedly, will benefit from that.

IV. The union with the ROC will be a good start and foundation stone for communion with other Churches: first, the multitude of other Eastern Orthodox Churches, particularly the Church of Greece; and, second, the Catholic Church, with which we have greater theological differences.

V. Communion with the ROC would mean linking us up with the Russian people, who would constitute a strong ally in times of trouble.


[1] John 17:23 (KJV).

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:10 (KJV).

[3] See, e.g., Mathew 23:8; Ephesians 1:10, 2:14, 4:3, 4:11-13, 4:16; Colossians 3:13-14; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 3:26-28; Romans 6:5, 12:4, 12:16; Philippians 2:1; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 John 4:12; Psalms 133:1; 2 Chronicles 30:12.


  1. Wonderful article. I have always thought that "ecumenical dialogue" would be infinitely more fruitful with the Oriental churches rather than the now liberalized Roman Catholic church. The Oriental communion is much closer to us in tradition, theology, and culture than the Latins have been since the 8th century.

  2. The handful of Coptic families that I have known in my various (Chalcedonian) Orthodox parishes (all married families, all here in the U.S. for advanced degrees) have all shared a "traditional" mindset and disposition. An easy going secularism does not appear to be a real option in their situation back home - real sacrifice is required to remain even nominally christian, which apparently weeds out nominal Christianity. I can see how they would be attracted to the "rigorous" (to choose a term) Russian piety and history.

    All that said, the author of this opinion piece has some interesting but slightly eccentric expectations of the outcome of any real communion with ROC (which of course would mean communion with all the rest of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy). I appreciate the perspective and intent however...

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  4. So the Oriental schisms were at least as motivated by Egyptians wanting their own Church instead of rule by Hellenistic bigots as by narrow doctrinal differences.

    This scenario keeps playing out, over and over, but nobody knows how to deal with it or even talk about it.

  5. The reason why dialogue between Alexandria, Antioch and Rome (and Jerusalem) is unique is its Petrine connection. These three Sees were personally founded by St Peter (and therefore) views its Office holder in a slightly less collegial manner than most EO are comfortable accepting