Pope Francis I is due to visit Egypt for two days this week. The visit is generally covered as yet another chapter in the anxious serial of the life of Christianity in the Middle East. These anxieties are heightened by the desire of the so-called Islamic State, and a few other Jihadi groups, to eradicate the Copts from Egypt. It would be a historical mistake if the sole purpose of the visit is to give another expression to such anxieties.
The first Francis to visit Egypt was the original one, St Francis of Assisi. He came to Egypt in 1219, during the waning days of violent religious wars generally branded as “Crusades”. He hoped that his strong faith and golden tongue would persuade the Muslim rulers of Egypt of the truth of Christian doctrine and thus “restore” Egypt to Christianity. Surprisingly enough, St Francis made little contact with Egyptian Christians. Had he done so he would have found out that the country was still substantially Christian. St Francis is not the first Westerner to confuse the rulers of the Egyptians for the natives of the land. He was but an interlude in a long history that runs from the Roman Emperors to French Generals to British Proconsuls to American Senators. Nor was he the first Westerner to attempt to introduce the Gospel of Christ to the Egyptians who had known of it and believed in it as early as any people. He was also not the first Westerner to feel that lecturing Egyptians is the way to guide them out of their troubles. In fact, had he made substantial contact with the Copts he would have found that his oratorical skills, which worked with birds and beasts, to have little efficacy beyond arousing the habitual suspicion of Egyptians about foreign motives. St Francis left Egypt with kind words from its rulers and nothing else.
Pope Francis shows an early promise to avoid such errors. He is genuine about the power of hope and faith to overcome fear and violence. But if the trip is to leave a lasting effect beyond a few days of headlines, it must recognize two centralities. The first is the centrality of Eastern Christianity to the Western and Global Christian culture. Western attitudes toward Eastern Christianity have sometimes been confused and confusing; whether viewed as heretics or souls lost behind enemy lines or as an opportunity to exercise missionary zeal. Pope Francis displays a more subtle and understanding attitude, seeing them as authentic brothers and their struggles as integral to the larger Christian world. The second centrality is one that Egyptians, rather than Pope Francis, must recognize. This is the centrality of Christianity to Egypt’s identity. Christianity is tattooed on Egypt’s soul as indelibly as the small Crosses many Copts tattoo on their wrists. Egypt’s establishment, including Pope Tawadros II, is keen to label attacks targeting Copts specifically as attacks on all Egyptians. If so, then any diminution of the rights of Copts, whether by Jihadis, frenzied mobs, or indolent policemen, is an attack on all of Egypt. If such claims are anything but an attempt to avoid dealing with a difficult issue, then Egypt’s political and spiritual leadership must preach a message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. This can begin by viewing the visit of Pope Francis as that of a Christian to a land that is and will remain both Muslim and Christian.
— Maged Atiya
A French Jesuit by the name of Sicard remarked in 1723 that “the Copts in Egypt are a strange people far removed from the kingdom of God. Indeed many of them are so odd that outside their physical form scarcely anything human can be detected in them” and “in any event we should not omit to teach the ignorant Copts in the faith as incapable as they always are of learning its mysteries without incontestable effort”.
Less than two centuries later, in 1911, a British Assyriologist and Egyptologist, Archibald Sayce, remarked in an introduction to a pamphlet by a Copt, Kyriakos Mikhail, that “ They [Copts] alone trace an unadulterated descent from the race to whom the civilization and culture of the ancient world so largely due. Thanks to their religion, they have kept their blood pure from admixture with the semi-barbarous Arabs and savage Kurds, or other foreign elements whom the licentiousness of Mohammedan family life has introduced into the country.”
What is remarkable about these two accounts, different as they are, is how little they seem to focus on the Copts, except as a means of confirming preconceived notions, or as ancillary tools to support other endeavors. Little is said of individual men and women, or their joys and sufferings, of their triumphs and tribulations. They are simply “Copts”. Of course, the accounts contain kernels of truth wrapped in layers of cultural and racial prejudices. We would like to believe that we live in more enlightened times. Things have indeed changed, for both the West and the Copts. The West is far more open to diversity, and the Copts are acquiring new identities, beyond that of Egyptians, as many are born and raised in the West. Egypt, where 90% of the Copts reside, has changed too. Islamism has weakened the notion of an Egyptian national identity, to which Coptic thinkers contributed heavily. The Copts are targets of both extremists and political opportunists. At some point they may need to abandon the idea that they can love Egypt hard enough to stop the majority from kicking them in the teeth. One thing, oddly enough, has not changed, which is how Western eyes -or the majority of them- view Copts. They are still seen as “others”, victims and thus scarcely human. When atrocities occur, horror and grief are expressed in profusion. In between atrocities little thought is given to what really matters to Egyptian Copts. In fact, recommendations are made out with a healthy dose of confidence of what is good for them and for Egypt. Few pundits today would approve of Sicard or Sayce; yet many regularly provide cleaned up versions of their ideas. When Western eyes are cast on the Copts, they see what they wish to see and disregard the rest.
The majority of Western experts on Egypt treat the country as part of the “Middle East” (an invention of an American Admiral), the “Arab World” (an invention of wacky Englishmen) or the “Muslim World”. It is the rare few who see Egypt as unique, a diverse culture, a country as much Christian as Muslim, as much African as Arab, as much Mediterranean as Middle Eastern. Most do not know individual Copts, even if the majority of Westerners of Egyptian descent are Copts. In the rush to study the region, identify its problems and recommend solutions, the Western experts on the region have disappeared the Copts, except when inconveniently their dead bodies call their attention, and perhaps complicate their neat theories. In between massacres, many Western pundits lecture Copts about “support for dictators”, recommend free elections that will bring bigots to power, demur when asked about support for true liberalism that will actually protect those few in number or different in belief. They might even employ those who advertise love for “illiberal democracy”. Others find it easy to use the difficulty of being a Copt in Egypt to buttress simple bigotry toward Muslims. Their arguments float better on the blood of Copts. And so it goes, on every ideological side, the “Copts” remain a powerful tool to use or put away as need be.
Those of us who know Copts can not romanticize them. “The Coptic mind can have a sharp edge”, in the words of John Watson, an English clergyman who knows them. But at least he views them more than victims or tools for arguments. To have a mind, and occasionally express anger, justified or not, is to be human. Humanity is precisely what is often denied the Copts, by their killers and their self-identified defenders.
Instead of condolences, please get to know us.
— Maged Atiya
Empress Catherine the Great fancied herself a ruler of a mighty empire. It is said that when she traveled to the rustic Crimean countryside her aide, Count Potemkin, put up facades of fake villages to shield her eyes from the brutal reality of poverty and underdevelopment. The same can be said of the several dozen cruise missiles, Tomahawks, fired by the US at a Syrian airbase near Homs. They are a distraction from a more difficult reality.
The cause for firing the missiles was a chemical gas attack on a village north of Homs which killed dozens of people, mostly civilians. It is likely that elements of the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad were behind the attack. It is also possible, but less likely, that the regime airplanes hit depots of such weapons held by the rebels. There was widespread applause for the missile attack among the American policy elites. Most argued that it is a fitting punishment for Assad, and perhaps a deterrence against future attacks. Few provided evidence of how the attack which destroyed a few replaceable planes and killed a number of enlisted men actually “punishes” Assad personally, or those who made the decision to use these weapons. None can confirm with any certainty the likelihood of deterring future attacks. There have been two instances of use of these weapons, killing a number of civilians. But the people killed by chemical attacks are a drop in the torrential downpour of blood unleashed on the Syrians by Assad and his opponents, and indirectly by earlier American actions. No leader or pundit has offered a workable solution for ending this bloodshed. Even if the Tomahawks restrain further use of chemical weapons, the death and agony will continue. The attack set back the US taxpayers some 100 to 200 Million Dollars, enough to feed a million refugee Syrian families for a month. It is doubtful that the US Congress would have appropriated such amounts for refugee aid in the matter of the few minutes it took the missiles to reach their target. In fact the very man who allegedly ordered the attack has insisted on slamming the door in the face of these refugees and occasionally using the boot to affect their removal rather than their assistance. What the Tomahawks did was provide a teeny evidence of manliness for the man with small hands. But more urgently, they distract us from the crushing reality of the failure of American policy in the region, and more broadly of the decline of American good sense as the once venerable Republic breathes its last and morphs into a full fledged Empire.
There is an American folk saying that when in a hole one must retire the shovel. The men and women who manage the American Empire have retired the shovel, but instead brought in massive backhoes to digger faster and better. Every military intervention in the Middle East is billed as a more vigorous attempt to curb the disastrous consequences begat by earlier efforts. A rare few have noted that American imperial efforts in the Middle East have coincided with abandonment of the virtues of a limited Republic, and have noted the dangers they create for it. That nightmare seems to be coming true. The country that sponsored many a “regime change” to affect lofty ideals seems to have fallen victim to a regime change scheme by one of its bitter enemies. We may not know for sometime if that effort will permanently succeed or fortune will somehow favor the American Republic, if only because of the many decent qualities it has exhibited over time. The Tomahawk peccadillo may temporarily obscure the larger issue here, as much as Potemkin’s facades hid poverty from the royal eyes. The spectacle of blaze and smoke in the night was meant for American eyes, not to edify but to obscure. It will do little to help the suffering Syrians. In fact, short of sending a massive army to put down all the combatants, and ruling the country for decades thereafter, all our efforts will prolong the suffering by providing temporary incentives for the multitude of participants in the Syrian bloodshed. Of course that idea on sending an army was tried before, but patience ran short, as well it might. America can rule and reform the Middle East or preserve its liberal society. It can not do both, however well-intentioned we wish to be.
— Maged Atiya