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Who are the Coptic Christians and what do they believe?

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The California man suspected of making "Innocence of Muslims," the controversial film denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, is a Coptic Christian. The film has sparked protests in the Middle East and may be implicated in an attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and other Americans.

So who are the Coptic Christians? What do they believe? The Los Angeles area is home to one of the nation’s largest Coptic Christian communities. Here’s a look at the religion and reaction to the film.

What do Coptic Christians believe?

  • Coptic Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the largest Christian church in Egypt
  • They trace their founding to St. Mark, who has traditionally been believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark; Mark is credited with converting the Copts, who were native Egyptians, to Christianity
  • The church believes much of the same theology as other Christian denominations, including a belief in one God made up of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that the Bible is the word of God; that Jesus took human form, died and rose again for the salvation of humanity; that Jesus will come again to judge both the living and the dead
  • The church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, which has been a distinct church body since the Council of Chalcedon in 451; it was the first major church split, before the split between the Eastern and Western church and a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation
  • Coptic Christians split when they took a different position over Christological theology from that of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Christology is the study of Jesus within Christian theology)
  • Coptic Christians differed over Jesus’s human and divine nature from a Christian perspective; they argued that Jesus came from two different natures (human and divine) but is only of one nature himself, rather than of two natures, fully human and fully divine

Who are the Coptic Christians?

  • "Coptic" is a traditional term for native Egyptians
  • Coptic Christian history dates back 19 centuries, and the language used in their liturgy can be traced to the speech of Egypt’s pharaohs
  • Once a majority in Egypt, Coptic Christians now make up about 10 percent of the country’s 85 million people
  • They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East
  • Many Egyptian Christians fled to the U.S. to escape what they say is religious discrimination in the majority Muslim nation
  • Since the ouster of Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, a series of anti-Christian attacks has heightened tensions
  • The U.S. expatriate community numbers about 300,000, with the largest concentrations in New York and northern New Jersey, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Cleveland

What’s their reaction to the film?

His Grace Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California and Hawaii said Thursday he doesn’t support the views portrayed in the movie. He also condemned the murders of the U.S. ambassador and three others.

Serapion said in a statement that the diocese "strongly rejects dragging the respectable Copts of the Diaspora in the latest production of an inflammatory movie about the prophet of Islam. The producers of this movie should be responsible for their actions. The name of our blessed parishioners should not be associated with the efforts of individuals who have ulterior motives."

Serapion added: "Holistically blaming the Copts for the production of this movie is equivalent to holistically blaming Muslims for the actions of a few fanatics. Even though Christians often face persecution, injustice and calls for open attacks over the airwaves, we reject violence in all its forms."

The Rev. Joseph Boules, a priest at St. Mary and St. Verena Church in Anaheim, said no one in the Coptic Orthodox community knows the filmmaker, and the church had nothing to do with the movie.

The filmmaker could be an Egyptian Catholic or Egyptian evangelical, he said, noting that the word "Coptic" is often used to denote Egyptian Christians from any Christian denomination.

Parishioners are worried about their security, and at least one church in the nearby city of Orange on Wednesday received a visit from police officers, who advised them to keep their church locked in case of retaliation, Boules said.

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