American Copts, Egypt and the Next Pope

There are no reliable surveys of the size and reach of American Copts beyond an excellent but limited scope study by Jennifer Brinkerhoff of George Washington University

Copts estimate their numbers in the United States as between 500,000 and one Million. As with all Egyptian numbers, reliability is an issue. There are over 200 churches, and even a simple calculation will yield something comparable to 500,000, ranging from first to third generation Copts. Most came to the US in waves that started after the 1967 war. Scant, but reliable, parish records indicate that as many as 1 in 3 Copts have intermarried with the general American population, mostly Catholic and Protestant Americans. As a result there maybe more than 1 Million Copts and “Copt-tinged” Americans. This is not an inconsiderable number. The vast majority are solidly middle and upper middle class and disbursed across the country, with concentrations along the coasts, Midwest and southern states, such as the Carolinas.

The Coptic church in the US grew rapidly after 1970, and has been largely a creation of the local community but with a very strong support from Pope Shenouda. He took a personal interest in the US church. He had first hand knowledge of all its clergy, having vetted the vast majority of them personally. He was also instrumental, early in his papacy, in translating the Mass to English and making English the standard liturgical language in the US. The American Coptic clergy has been a strong supporter of Pope Shenouda and rarely, almost never, critical of him. In the last year, as he visited the Cleveland Clinic multiple times, many of the American Clergy trooped to visit him. As least a dozen priests rushed to Cairo to attend his funeral.

The attitudes of the American Coptic laity are different. Unfortunately their attitudes can not be easily documented, since the church controls access to much of the community. It can only be gauged through anecdotal evidence.  Few of the Copts are politically prominent. People such as Dina Powell, who was a senior figure the Bush State Department, are more the exception than the rule. Copts as a whole tend to reflect the political trends within their geographical locations and are mostly clustered around the American center. The year since the Egyptian revolution has heightened political awareness among American Copts, as well as increased the general visibility of Coptic issues among the American population in general. There is a nascent pro-Coptic feeling among Americans in general, and stronger support among certain groups, such as Evangelicals, which is surprisingly similar to the broad American support for Israel. The American vision of Copts is somewhat more quaint and romantic than the reality, but these feelings tend to be powerful. Copts have been reluctant to cultivate or exploit these feelings. Pope Shenouda was strongly against that. He felt it would endanger the position of Egyptian Copts with the state. The passing of Pope Shenouda could alter this picture considerably.  Something is brewing :

1- Most American Copts feel that they will have little voice in the selection of the next Pope. There is no mechanism to allow that.

2- Many American Copts have had a long simmering resentment against the Egyptian church for its shoddy handling of social services for poor Copts. A good many have opted to use personal and third parties to channel aid to poor Copts,  bypassing the church hierarchy.

3- Calls for stronger Coptic political involvement and activism have fallen on deaf ears during the last 40 years of Sadat and Mubarak. There was too much to risk and too much respect for “el Batrak”. This is changing. There is even talk of raising funds to support the nascent “Coptic Brotherhood” movement in Egypt. But such action is divisive even within families.

4- American Copts, like most immigrants, have a nostalgic vision of Egypt. They refuse to accept the Egypt of today, yearn for a gentler place with less visible religion and more liberal attitudes. As a result, they vehemently oppose any Islamist politics. Some have begun an outreach to American politicians, mostly in the House, to highlight the Coptic issues. We will see during this summer of American Presidential conventions whether there has been any traction.

To summarize, the picture from the US is still murky. There is indeed a likelihood that Coptic movements outside the church, such as “Coptic Brothers”, might receive strong moral and financial support from American Copts. The shape of this support and its effects will depend on whether Egypt takes a strong Islamist turn in all institutions, or remains a balance between Islamist and non-Islamist forces. It will also depend on the the personality and policies of the next Pope. What could emerge is something akin to the Islamist picture in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is a politicized body rival to the traditional Al-Azhar clerical establishment.

Egypt is unlike any other country in the Near East experiencing political upheaval. And it is partly  because no other country has as large or as native a christian minority. Islamist politics in Egypt will always be affected by this simple fact, and by the Copts’  fierce attachment to the Egyptian national character, including those 2 or 3 generations away from having lived in Egypt. In that respect American Copts are similar to the American Irish, who have affected both American and Irish policies for over a century. Whether Copts will do so remains to be seen.

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