RELIGION

AP Explains: Who are Egypt's Coptic Christians?

Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church is enduring a dark chapter in its history with the community increasingly victimized by attacks from Islamic militants, including Friday's attack by gunmen on a bus transporting Copts to a monastery south of Cairo, leaving 29 dead.

The church traces its roots back to St. Mark, an apostle of Jesus and a Gospel author. Tradition holds that Mark established the Coptic church just a decade or two after Jesus' death and resurrection.

Today, the Copts make up around 10 percent of Egypt's 92 million people.

Here's a look at Egypt's Coptic community, its traditions and challenges in the Middle East:

WHAT COPTS BELIEVE

Copts believe in the Ten Commandments and practice sacraments such as baptism, confession and confirmation and the intercession of the saints. But the Coptic Orthodox Church split from other Christians in 451 A.D. over a dispute about the nature of Christ. Unlike Roman Catholics, they do not believe in papal infallibility or purgatory. They believe in the immaculate conception of Jesus, but not of the Virgin Mary. Their priests can marry.

Copts celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, meaning it falls on Jan. 7. The run-up to the holiday is marked by a 40-day period of fasting when red meat, poultry and dairy products are forbidden. Copts break the fast with feasting and celebrations after a Christmas Eve liturgy that ends near midnight. Easter is preceded by a 55-day fast where no meat, fish or dairy is eaten.

___

PERSECUTION IN MODERN TIMES

In modern times, relations with Muslims have been generally good, although changes started to come about since the hyper-nationalism of the 1950s stoked by military strongman Gamal Abdel-Nasser. In Nasser's drive to liberate the country from Western influence and purify the Arab nation, Christians — whose religion is more often practiced in the West — began to take on a less favorable light among the majority Muslim masses.

Many Copts consider themselves to be descendants of the ancient Egyptians, with a direct connection to pre-Arab times — hardly a view that made them popular in the days of pan-Arabism. As conditions in Egypt worsened following a series of Middle East wars, the Copts began an exodus. President Anwar Sadat's overtures to Islamists and his addition of references to Islamic Law, or Shariah, to the constitution spurred on the departures, and millions of Copts live as expatriates today.

Although generally allowed to practice their religion inside Egypt, Copts face restrictions on inter-religious marriage and church building, and are banned from proselytizing to Muslims. Activists say Copts are discriminated against and kept from high office, and have campaigned to have religions removed from Egyptian ID cards.

___

TARGETED BY EXTREMISTS

While sectarian killings did happen as early as the 1970s, they have been mostly sporadic over the years, with the exception of the 1990s, when the state battled an Islamic insurgency and Copts faced some retaliation.

On New Years' Eve 2011, a bomb in an Alexandria church killed over 20 people — the first major assault with a high death toll in living memory and a crime still unsolved to this day. Attacks picked up in the aftermath of the army's overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

Last December, an Islamic State group suicide bomber killed 30 people at Cairo's Coptic Cathedral. The extremist group pledged more attacks on the Christian minority, which it views as an ally of the West in a war against Islam.

In February, a series of murders and killings claimed by IS in northern Sinai led hundreds of families to leave the area for safer parts of Egypt.

Last month, twin bombings by suicide bombers hit churches in the coastal city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta. At least 43 people were killed and scores of worshippers injured in the Palm Sunday attack, which narrowly missed a ceremony presided over by Pope Tawadros II in Alexandria's St. Mark's cathedral.

On Friday, masked gunmen ambushed a bus carrying Coptic Christians to a monastery south of Cairo, killing at least 28 people. Egypt responded by launching airstrikes against what it said were militant training bases in Libya.