The Dilemma of American Copts

The Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris tweeted : “The world is in God’s hands but Egypt is in his heart”. This attitude of near certainty about God’s affection is exceedingly common in Egypt.  The Coptic Church regularly conflates geography and religion. The biblical verse “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” is often quoted as integral to a Christian tale of fall and redemption, where the hospitality Egypt gave to the Holy Family erases its guilt of cruelty to the Israelites. For the better part of Egypt’s modern history, Copts, both Church and laity, have been enthusiastic producers and disseminators of Egyptian exceptionalism.

That exceptionalism is not alien to American ears, although the American variety is significantly different. The latter rests not on America being a favorite of God, but of God being a favorite of Americans.  It declares America and Americans as different, a brand new world both more moral and less cynical than the tired old world. The interplay, and occasional collision, of these two exceptionalisms is at the heart of the current dilemma of American Copts; a dilemma most are only dimly aware of.

As an immigrant tale, American Copts are a success story, both materially and spiritually. The majority has achieved Middle Class status, and many have done even better in the professions and business. Spiritually they have kept their ancient faith. In four decades the number of Churches increased a hundred-fold, from 2 in 1970 to over 200 today. There is little “return migration”, all are in the US to stay. Increasingly they display “ethnic” pride in much the same fashion as most Americans, with the symbols of the old and the new country linked together. The Cross, the Ankh and the American flag seem to mix easily in their various demonstrations. In America they have declared themselves exclusive bearers of the Egyptian identity, and kept their distance from the wider regional identities, whether Arab or Muslim.

But events in Egypt continue to unsettle their new world, especially in the past 3 years. Initially the concerns were largely about the discrimination against Egyptian Copts and attacks on their persons, properties and Churches. These are concerns easily managed within the American identity, as reasons to advocate religious and personal rights and protections. But those clear cut issues are now crowded by new ones, more political and more complex to manage. The revolution of 2011, the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, have put most of them in opposition to American policy toward Egypt. In the last few weeks the Egyptian Church seemed to go along with the strident anti-American rhetoric in the country. This is not unexpected, as the Church does not wish to be seen as anything but a fully national force. Nor is the idea of Americans opposed to their government policy an unusual or even undesirable one. The problem is that this collision of loyalties and policies is forcing many into darker explanations that will do little to either assist their coreligionist in Egypt or to further the political and social development of Copts in the US.

The most logical course of action for American Copts is not to demonstrate outside the gates of power, but to push hard for admittance to its corridors, both to inform and shape policy. To do so effectively would involve keeping a certain distance from the Egyptian Church and its current attitudes. But the patterns of organizing and mobilizing are entirely along Church affiliations. For 2000 years Copts saw a constant alteration between laity and clergy for influence in the community. We live at a time when the clergy is ascendant in that balance. To affect American policy, American Copts must be seen as partisans of broad and desirable ideas, not specific political groups in Egypt. It is a sign of “failure to communicate” when an American newspaper describes American Copts as “pro-coup”. It is an even bigger sign of failure when the community seems to count on the support of the most deranged political elements in the US.

The Egyptian Church is now under strains of historic proportions. It is not an exaggeration to claim that dangers to the flock and the physical and cultural heritage exceed any since the 1300’s. It can not be expected to divert its attention, at this moment, to dealing with the consequences of becoming an international Church where more than a quarter of its flock is not Egyptian. The best American Copts can do now is to hold tighter onto their American values, and distance themselves from the paranoid discourse in Egypt. It would be ironic to fall into right-wing paranoia in the US in order to further a liberal outcome in Egypt.

Pope Shenouda was reputed to have quipped that “the only American thing about American Copts is their paperwork”. The most charitable thing you can say about this comment is that it lags behind the times, and reality. In fact the only hope forward for Copts is to turn this sentiment on its head by insisting on a cultural and religious identity that transcends the limited boundaries of ethnic identification. Were American Copts to start down that path, they will not only strengthen their own community, but perhaps provide a useful parable to Egyptians. There will be plenty of those who oppose such a path, but its ultimate success will sway all opponents, including those inside the Church.

— Maged Atiya

2 Comments on “The Dilemma of American Copts”

  1. Mutamassik says:

    the diaspora is also important to link all minority struggles on a wider level which can be helpful to many groups worldwide.
    as a coptic priest in Queen, NY told me, “So many African Americans come to me and complain about how they are being treated in the U.S. as second-class citizens and it reminds so much of Copts in Egypt!”.

  2. Ed Iskander says:

    Thanks so much for the excellent article and its brilliant insights/perspective.

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