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One of oldest Christian groups enjoys a renaissance

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in Christendom. According to tradition, the church was founded in Alexandria through the preaching of St. Mark in the first century. With 6 million members, the Coptic Church is the largest national church in the Near East. The Copts consider themselves the real Egyptians -- the word ``Copt'' is derived from the Greek word for ``Egyptian.'' But the Copts are a minority in Egypt and feel discriminated against. Under Egyptian law, for example, if a Muslim marries a Christian, their children must be raised as Muslims.

Though many Copts are educated professionals, they are underrepre-sented in government. The highest-ranking Egyptian official who is Coptic is Butros Butros-Ghali, the minister of state for foreign affairs.

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The Coptic Church has a long history of monasticism, claiming, correctly, that the first monks were Egyptian Christians. All its bishops are former monks. Under Arab and Turkish rule, however, the influence of the monasteries was weakened and only nine remain. The rites of worship are celebrated in the now dead Coptic language and in Arabic.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the church has experienced a marked renaissance over the past few years, mainly because of lay initiatives. Some evidences of renewal:

1. Church schools have arisen offering courses in the catechism.

2. Large numbers of young people have joined desert monasteries.

3. There has been a marked flowering of religious literature, dealing especially with spirituality.

Before World War II, the Coptic Church was effectively cut off from other Christian churches. After the war, the Copts expanded their contacts with other Christian churches and are actively involved in various theological dialogues.

Besides Egypt, Coptic congregations are found in the United States, Canada, Australia, East Africa, and South Asia.

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