An African Church

The Egyptian Church is the only apostolic church to have originated among gentiles and not among Jews who followed the path of Jesus.   While the Copts’ New Testament is identical to that of all mainstream Christian churches, the church still has a distinct non-Pauline feel to it. The African church gave rise to many seminal figures of early Christianity, including Anthony, Athanasious, Cyril and of course Augustine. After the Arab invasions the African church vanished except for the Copts, who survived in their traditional homeland of the Nile valley, from the shores of Alexandria to the highlands of Ethiopia.  When Christianity was introduced to the rest of Africa centuries later, it was by European missionaries. The Coptic church has been sending missions to Africa only in the last few decades, and with increasing success.

Across the Atlantic on the American continent, the Coptic church is entirely an immigrant story. There has been little outreach to the American community at large, or to African-Americans. As with most immigrant groups, Egyptians sought economic success and integration into the wider American society, and the struggle of African-Americans was distant to them. This is an odd situation given that African-Americans are both intensely religious and in constant search for African roots, especially connections to ancient Egypt. Black American churches have a wide range, from standard mainline Catholic and Protestant churches, to exclusively Black mainline churches (mostly Baptist) to tiny storefronts with self-appointed preachers.

It is high time that American Copts attempt an outreach to the mainline Black churches, at least on cultural and educational lines. There are many advantages to such outreach, both for American Copts and African-Americans.  American Copts have always tried to highlight the plight of their Egyptian brethren, but with little impact on policy. Their participation in American policy is limited by their recent arrival and their history of second class citizenship in Egypt, which left permanent scars on their collective psyche.  The participation, as such, is limited to a few sparse demonstrations outside the gates of power armed with homemade signs. Alarmingly, a few have drifted into the loony right wing with its odious brand of Islam-baiting. It is time to up their game.

An effective policy platform must be built quickly, and therefore not from scratch. The platform must be hewed from existing timber. One strain must appeal to hard-headed American interest. This is the strain that sees political Islamism as a threat to peace and Western values, and is largely right-of-center. But another equally powerful strain would be the American left, where the Copts’ struggle for equal citizenship will evoke echoes of the American civil rights struggle. The Black community’s struggle for civil rights had two strains, an angry separatist strain that favored confrontation with the wider community, and an integrationist strain that favored working with forces within the society at large to accomplish a peaceful and principled achievement of equal rights. The appeal must be to the integrationist strain that can recognize in the Egyptian church an authentic mainline version of Christianity with orthodox doctrine and deep connections to ancient Egypt. These two foundations will give Copts access to the halls of power with existing and effective lobbying channels.

In the final analysis American Copts need to sort out their priorities and loyalties. The first loyalty is to their adopted homeland; to seek an American policy that serves American interests and reflects American values. Their second loyalty is to their coreligionist in Egypt to provide succor and protection. Their third priority is to the world at large, to expose political Islamism as a modern aberration, a danger to world peace and above all to Islam itself. The outreach to the African-American community serves all these purposes.

Maged Atiya

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