Table of Contents
The Coptic Mission:
In contrast to Judaism, Christianity is a missionary religion. The example and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, the preaching of the Disciples to Jews and Gentiles and the mere fact of St. Mark's preaching in Egypt spoke to the Copts very emphatically about the missionary character of the Church. Therefore, the missionary movement began in Egypt early in the first steps of Christianity through the first converts. It followed three channels simultaneously:
a) Individual and Group Witnesses and Missionaries: Here the Copts excelled. The accounts of such individuals from St. Athanasius the Apostolic to the simple nurse accompanying the Roman Legions attest to the zeal and dedication of the Copts to spread the good news.
St. Athanasius, the Pope of Alexandria, was exiled five times because of his adamant opposition to the Arian heresy. Two of his exiles were in Europe, one began in Constantinople and ended in Trier and the second was in Rome. In each exile he preached Orthodox Christianity to both Christians and Gentiles, and he introduced to the West the highly developed monastic rule as well as the spirituality of the Fathers of the Egyptian deserts.
The story of the Theban legion (from Thebes, present day Lurer in Upper Egypt) is a spectacular example of witnessing to the Christian faith. Maximian, the second in command to Emperor Diocletian, ordered the legion to camp at the border of Gaul (France) in preparation to crush a rebellion there (285 AD). The legion camped in present day Switzerland. The night before the attack, Maximian ordered the legion to accompany him to the pagan temple to pray to the gods. The Coptic soldiers unanimously refused to obey and declared that they were Christians, a declaration that angered Maximian. He stood them in file and had them decimated (i.e. every tenth man killed) hoping to intimidate the rest. The remaining soldiers met together and wrote a letter to him, which they all signed. They wrote:
"Great Caesar - we are your soldiers, and at the same time we are God's slaves. We owe you our military service, but our prime allegiance we owe to God. From you we receive our daily wages; from Him our eternal reward. Great Caesar, we cannot obey any order if it rum counter to God's commands. If your orders coincide with God's commands we will certainly obey; if not, 'we ought to obey God rather than man.' (Act 5:29) for our loyalty to Him surpasses all other loyalties. We are not rebels; if we were, we would defend ourselves for we have our weapons. But we prefer to die upright than to live stained. As Christians we will serve you. But we will not relinquish our faith in our Lord, and this we openly declare. "
This steadfastness of the whole legion infuriated Caesar and he ordered the Roman soldiers to wipe out the whole legion, which they did. Pere Cheneau the historian described the event in this way:
"Thus they were martyred.... It was a mighty holocaust; an unparalleled massacre, the plains were drunk with blood and the bodies strewn to the winds. But by being willing to make the supreme sacrifice, the men of the Theban Legion proved that their faithfulness to their Heavenly Lord and King surpassed their valor as soldiers in the army of the temporal ruler."
An accompanying nurse named Verena witnessed all this. After a few days of prayers and meditation, she came to the realization that God, in His wisdom, had spared her to do His work as a missionary to those pagans. Therefore, she spent the rest of her life preaching Christ to the people of Switzerland. In addition, she taught them basic hygiene. To this day she is portrayed in her icon as having a water jug in one hand and a comb in the other.
Coptic missionaries reached as far as the British Isles long before the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury in 597 AD. Stanley Lane-Poole, the well-known historian, wrote:
"We do not know yet how much we in the British Isles owe to these remote hermits. It is more than probable that to them we are indebted for the first preaching of the Gospel in England, where, till the coming of Augustine, the Egyptian monastic rule prevailed. But more important is the belief that Irish Christianity, the great civilizing agent of the early Middle Ages among the northern nations, was the child of the Egyptian Church. Seven Egyptian monks are buried at Desert Uldith, and there is much in the ceremonies and architecture of Ireland in the earliest time that reminds one of still earlier Christian remains in Egypt. Every one knows that the handicraft of the Irish monks in the ninth and tenth centuries far excelled anything that could be found elsewhere in Europe; and if the Byzantine-looking decoration can be traced to the influence of Egyptian missionaries, we have more to thank the Copts for than has been imagined.
Ecclesiastical history is impregnated with captivating accounts of Coptic Christians who preached Christianity in north, west and south Africa, Arabia, Persia, India, and Europe. Archaeological findings support these accounts which were thought to be legendary tales by early historians.
b) Missionaries Appointed to Mission-Fields: Since the Church's inception in Egypt, some early Coptic Christian converts were commissioned to mission fields. Tradition tells us that St. Mark, in his missionary trip from Alexandria to Pentapolis (the five northwestern nations of Africa), took with him some Copts to help him preach to the people of those nations.
Through the writings of the ecclesiastical historian Eusebins, bishop of Caesurae (260-340 AD) it becomes clear that missionary work was an organized movement in the Church and its Catechetical school. Missionaries were appointed and mission fields were assigned to them. He wrote:
"Now at that time there was a man of great zeal for learning named Pantaenus. He displayed such ardent love and zeal for the divine word that he was appointed as herald of the Gospel of Christ to the nations of the East."
In the course of the third and fourth centuries, and with the rise of monasticism, many Pachomian monks in the southern parts of Egypt were sent to Nubia as missionaries. Those, along with some Coptic Christians who fled from the Roman persecution, went southward up the Nile Valley to win converts to Christ. It is intriguing to know that the whole kingdom was officially converted to Orthodox Christianity in 559 AD
However, the most spectacular event in Coptic mission work was the Christianization of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) at the hands of Frumentius. He and his brother Aedesius were Coptic Christians residing in Tyre. On one of their trading trips to India, they had a shipwreck near Axoum, the Capital of Abyssinia. They were taken to the king who appointed Aedesius as his cupbearer and Frumentius as his personal secretary and the tutor of the young crown prince Aeizanas. Frumentius taught Aeizanas the four R's (reading, writing, arithmetic and religion- Christianity). When Aeizanas became king, he was converted to Christianity and decreed Christianity as the official religion of the land. Immediately Frumentius went to Alexandria, to St. Athanasius the Patriarch asking him to send a bishop to establish the Church there. St. Athanasius chose Frumentius and ordained him, giving him the name of Bishop Salama. Since then, the Ethiopian Church looks at the Coptic Church as its Mother Church.
c) Pilgrims to the Alexandrian Church: As mentioned earlier, Christians from almost all the nations of the known world at that time, came to Egypt either to study or to sit at the feet of those spiritual giants, the Fathers of the Egyptian deserts. On returning to their lands, those students and pilgrims imported the spirituality, thought, dogma, practice and monastic rule of the Orthodox Alexandrine Church. There, they wrote books (like John Cassian) and established monasteries, churches, dioceses and even theological schools. In other words, those pilgrims became indigenous missionaries of the Coptic Church in their nations and among their people.