Can We Survive Toleration?

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Comments made at the second Coptic Canadian History Project, slightly corrected and amended for clarity.
Unlike everyone here, I am not a scholar, or at least not a scholar in the areas represented by this conference. So I am way out on a limb and thus tempted to ask you to join me on that limb by listening to some uncomfortable questions. Nothing I say here is scholarly, but simply notes from the field. I will start with an anecdote, move to a thumbnail history and finish with questions. The anecdote is that of a child observing adults, and the questions are those of an adult still observing adults.
One of my early childhood memories was being in a room at the old Batrakhana to see Pope Kyrillous. The room was sparse, with no luxury except for nice rugs everywhere. The adults waited on one side and the children on the other. The children were to told to behave and be silent or else, the “else” delivered with a menacing stare. After what seemed to be an eternity standing there, but was probably only just a few minutes, the door flung open and what seemed to be a giant of a man stepped in. In fact, later in life I learned that he was of average height and build. Perhaps it was the beard or the attitude of the people that made him seem larger. He wore a black galabiyya, nothing special, and no shoes, just heavy socks. The adults rushed toward him but a monk waved them away. He made a beeline toward the children, and as with a politician working the rope line systematically greeted them, gave each one a gentle pat on the head and a sign of the Cross on the forehead. He smelled of incense, which is fitting for he is now officially a saint. After he was done with the children he moved toward the adults who rushed in, kissed his hand and spoke into his ear. One man, an acquaintance of our family, said something to him and the Patriarch’s face became stern and his body language issued disapproval. A few months later we found out that our friend left for Canada. I never found out what the man said to the Pope, but it left me with a sense to this day of immigration as a rebellion. Some months ago, Pope Tawadros made some comments to a newspaper also disapproving of immigration. All of us here are, in some sense, rebels, collaborators in this rebellion. But who are we, exactly? In the end what makes a “people” is a combination of real shared experiences and just as importantly, imagined shared experiences. So I move to the thumbnail history, what did the first rebels make of their experience, and then of what we need to make of this rebellion now. I need not remind you that rebellion is central to the Christian experience, which started with Adam’s rebellion. But we Copts were traditionally raised to be accountants not rebels, and that maybe why immigration is forcing a reinvention of the Coptic identity here, perhaps.
The earliest cultural activity among immigrants, who were numerically a tiny group, was to translate the Agpeya, the Coptic Book of Hours, into English. It is curious indeed for people to translate their prayers into a language they had yet to fully master. But that was an act of rebellion, declaring for all to see their un-Arabness. Building Churches was also an act of both belonging and rebellion, something hereto difficult in Egypt. Agitating for the Copts of Egypt in Canada and America took on an air of rebellion. Few tried to negotiate anything; it was mostly demonstrations and words of anger. There was delight, as with many teenagers, when these symbolic acts of rebellion set the leader of Egypt aflame with rage at what Sadat called “his children”. The Church worried incessantly about its “sons and daughters abroad”. It feared their rebellion, and it still does. Pope Shenouda confided in Sadat that some of his children in America might have emotional problems but they could be managed and brought back to love him. But the acts of rebellion were not always negative. Cultural activism was sometimes positive, an assertion of a newly formed self. In the interest of time I will focus only on two acts of cultural activism that stand out. Both started out in the Spring of 1980, but their roots are deeper in Egypt. Dr Rodolph Yanney began to publish the Coptic Church Review in March 1980. Almost at the same moment, in early April 1980, Aziz Atiya convened the editorial board of the Coptic Encyclopedia. Both efforts reflect a desire to define a Coptic cultural narrative; one broader than Egypt. But beyond a common goal, they could not be more different. Yanney’s quarterly publication cost a few dollars and focused almost entirely on devotional subjects. It never had more than a few contributors, with some from the West (John Watson, Tim Vivian, Otto Meinardus,etc). Atiya’s effort was broader, eventually having more than 250 contributors. It was held at the Rockefeller foundation center at Lake Como. The attendees were a “who is who” of the old Coptic intellectual elite (Mirrit Ghali, Fouad Megally, etc). The final set of volumes, 8 in total, leather bound, cost $1100. Yanney was a devout and intensely religious man. Atiya, was far more secular. Yanney finished college in 1952, and became heavily involved in the day-to-day Sunday school work of specific churches; he was literally and figuratively the man in the church basement. Atiya completed college in 1919, and then embarked on graduate studies and a long career as a historian in prestigious universities, and rarely attended church, but was usually found in the company of bishops and popes. The two men approached their solution to the Coptic identity from different angles. Yanney wanted to render the West more acceptable to the Copts, utilizing Western authors to show their interest in the Copts, and convince his fellow immigrants that this place could be home. Atiya wanted to render the Copts more acceptable to the West, securing a place for them as major creators of Christianity through the efforts of their church Fathers. In their own very different ways, both projects were broadly patristic. I do not want to overplay the duality, but they were different efforts by two men, a generation apart, physically outside of Egypt yet still psychically anchored in it. While both efforts generated a great deal of scholarly output, they did not make considerable inroads among immigrants. I suspect that the reason neither effort found ready inheritors was the bitter communal divisions of the 1980s that accompanied Shenouda’s exile at the hands of Sadat, and the return of Shenouda to full command and mastery over his “children” abroad. I was dismayed to visit a church in the late 1990s where the basement reading room once held copies of many interesting books, and several issues of the Coptic Church Review, to find only “Al Keraza” magazine. But things are changing now, evidenced by many gatherings and efforts such as this (CCHP), and of the new churches and groups, some taking on frankly foundational and pioneering attitudes, such as dedicating a Princeton, New Jersey church to St Anianus. Others are aiming to reconcile Western cultural attitudes, such as feminism, with entrenched patterns. There is a chance to change the misconception, only partially false, that the Copts have no culture beyond prayer.
So I finish with my questions, which I will limit to three, and for which I have no answers.

Can we survive toleration? This may seem to be an odd question when everyone is worried about Eastern Christians surviving terrible persecutions these days. But for the Copts of Egypt the question of whether they can survive persecution is a settled one; Yes. The entire social and psychic apparatus of the Copts was built to resist persecution, and we have not until recently existed in a place that fully welcomed us. Can the Copts of immigration survive the magnificent freedom and tolerance we see here with York University giving space and support for our cultural efforts? We stand between two risks. First of failure to retain any cultural distinctiveness as we melt into the larger Christian culture around us. That would not be a disaster for individuals, but a loss of a unique culture nonetheless. The second, and perhaps larger risk, is that we develop a culture of exile. To make the point I will quote from an article from by Magdi Khalil of Coptic Solidarity. He quotes Aziz Atiya about the keys to Babylon given to the Arabs on Good Friday, April 6 641. Magdi, in effect, ties the Crucification of Jesus to the Arab occupation of Egypt. Egypt is the literal and sacred place, at once Eden and Golgotha, a singular reference point. He is attempting a reinvention of the Coptic identity, in this case a Judaization of that identity. There is nothing wrong with the Jewish narrative, except that it is not ours to adopt. Few Copts gather to say “Next year in Egypt”. Unlike the Jews we have not experienced the killing ferocity of the West at its most bigoted manifestation. We can not borrow this outfit, as we will look silly in it. Besides, the comparison invites an expectation of resurrection, thus anchoring immigrants to an Egypt they can little affect. Magdi’s destinations are a dead end. We need to fashion our own cultural outfit in immigration. So the question remains without an answer.

Can we de-conflate religious and ethnic identity? Endogamy was a critical tool in the Egyptian Copts’ arsenal of survival. It is partly responsible for the narrative of the “Copts as the true Egyptians”, which is quaint and reassuring for immigrants, but of little practical value. Endogamy is not sustainable in the immigrant countries with the inevitable phenomenon of intermarriage (itself a rebellion within a rebellion). It is further complicated by the church’s theologically incoherent position on cross-denominational baptisms, and its preference for a sexual morality rooted in specific cultural contexts. The net result will be a drain of potential members who are culturally not Egyptian, and ethnically only partially Egyptian, as well as inability to retain new converts. The contradictions go beyond the personal and into the institutional. The Egyptian church will have to contend with a paradox it is ill-suited to resolve. “Copt”, which once meant Egyptian, is now declared on the name of new churches which strive to be explicitly not so. Yet another question without an easy answer.

What about the Church? The Egyptian church has been the backbone of the Copts, and the tent that sheltered them from all manners of storms. But it has not yet understood the subtleties of immigration, and may never be able to fully do so. At a time when many Western churches are suffering from the indifference of their flock, the passion of immigrant laity should be seen as a net positive to the church. But the Egyptian church has a huge burden dealing with the flock in Egypt and it is unfair to expect it to tailor itself to the wishes of the non-Egyptian Copts. On the other hand, immigrant churches cannot realistically be mere outposts or reception centers for new immigrants. I don’t have the exact numbers, but the second generation and beyond of immigrants now likely exceed the number of new arrivals and first generation immigrants. Absent a catastrophe in Egypt that will cause a larger flood of immigration, the demographic trend will remain the same. We know it is not impossible to be a universal church with multiple cultural influences, but we also know that the Egyptian church, since the fifth century, has chosen a different road. The arc of communal history for the past 50 years has seen a steady consolidation for church control over the laity. Although this is a function of the demise of civil society in Egypt, it has also affected immigrant churches. How will the church handle the inevitable diversity of views in an environment where lack of persecution does not provide a ready means of social cohesion. Yet another question to ponder.
I want to thank you for indulging me and allowing me to make my reflections on what is an epochal change within an ancient people, who just happen to be us. In 33 years, the life of one generation, it will be 2051. Perhaps then we might look back on immigration as a providential event that ended 1600 years of solitude.

— Maged Atiya

Additional Links

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Part I

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Notes From The Id

The Copt’s Patrimony

“What is a Copt?” A Review of “Marcus Simaika, Father of Coptic Archaeology”

Among the Primitives – On the “History of Eastern Christianity” at 50.

The Last of Their Kind?

The Empty Mausoleum



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