On February 18 1978 members of the Palestinian Abu-Nidal gang shot and killed Egyptian writer and government minister Yusuf Al Siba’i while in Cyprus. In response, the Egyptian government dispatched a squadron of special forces to the island, violating its sovereignty and engaging in various bloody encounters there. This incursion was a rare and uncharacteristic response from the Egyptian state. The mess did not end on the tarmac in Cyprus. Sadat, visibly angry, cut diplomatic relations with Cyprus and called its leader a”pygmy”. That resulted in a diplomatic crisis with the Central African republic. It was heavy price to pay for the life of a writer, especially given the general value of such lives in Egypt. But Yusuf was more than just a writer who produced dozens of novels and short stories. In fact, too little attention is paid to his life and what it symbolized. He deserves a closer look, and perhaps an entire work centered around his career. That career started in earnest three decades before his death at age 60. The arc of it was rather unusual but prophetic. Yusuf was a military man; he was of the same age as the Free Officers and joined the military at the same time as all of them and served with distinction until he retired as a Brigadier General. His subsequent career as a writer and intellectual was not a departure from his military service but a continuation of it by other means. Egypt after 1952 featured many military men who officially retired and then were assigned to manage commercial enterprises, state entities, provinces, political parties and even the presidency. Siba’i’s assignment was culture. He was an intimate of Nasser and wrote many of his speeches. If Mohamed Hassanein Heikal spoke for Nasser, then Yusuf Al Siba’i thought like him.
Yusuf’s rise was symbolized by his role in the Third Conference of Arab Writers organized by the Egyptian state in December 1957. The previous two conferences were modest academic affairs. But this one was an entirely different beast. Albert Hourani described it as the moment of death for Arab liberal thought. Siba’i wrote the opening talk, it is rumored, but Nasser read it. He welcomed the writers to Egypt and identified their task as “create Arab literature that is free”. He went on to describe that freedom as “freedom from foreign control and foreign direction”. He assigned them the task of “realizing our goals” and bid them God’s protection. The speech reads closer to what a commander might give to a graduating class of cadets. The attending writers, by and large, competed in showing their dedication to the task of pan Arabism and their devotion to their assignment. There were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the Tunisian Mahmoud Al Mas’adi, who spoke of individual freedom and autonomy, and was denounced as a traitor to the corp and the imaginary uniform. Taha Hussein spoke elliptically about the necessity for thought as the foundation of writing, but few listened. In the next decade he delivered a series of valedictory speeches and interviews to rebut this vision of the intellectual as a servant of the state but few listened. In a TV interview with Layla Rustum he lamented that “the problem with Arab writers is that they write more than they read”. Without mentioning names he was castigating the entire group and its leader, Yusuf Al Siba’i.
It is sometimes said that Nasser served as a bookend to Muhammad Ali, and there is truth to that. Ali attempted to build a state without a nation, while Nasser, who ended Ali’s dynasty, attempted to build a nation as an arm of the state. He had the assistance of many in that task, none more effectively than the men in uniform and those who took up the pen as their special weapon. Levantine writers were especially enamored with Nasser, for much the same reason as young men are attracted to uniforms and military service; belonging, adventure and purpose. As with these young men, the writers and intellectuals were to realize all too soon the dangerous and tragic nature of their calling. Mas’adi predicted the likely failure of this project decades in advance. He also castigated the practice of conflating anti-Colonialism with anti-Western intellectual thought. The common wisdom today is that the poverty of Arab thought and intellectual discourse is the result of authoritarian governance. But there is a darker explanation. It was perhaps the willingness of Arab intellectuals to be drafted to the cause of the state that ultimately gave rise and support to these authoritarian regimes. It was the exceptional figure, such as Adonis or Nazik Al Malai’ka, who denied that the intellectual’s primary obligation is to serve a national vision, or the state that often articulated it in violent thoughts and actions.
In many ways, Yusuf Al Siba’i was the genteel face of the intellectual as the state’s servant. At the height of his fame, during the 1960s and 1970s Al Siba’i was ever present on the Egyptian scene. He headed many of the the cultural institutions and publications, including Al Ahram, and thus was technically Heikal’s boss. His novels were assigned reading in Egyptian schools, especially the 1952 “Al Saghamat”, always hailed as a work of Egyptian realism, but in fact it was largely political fiction. Siba’i mastered political fiction as thoroughly as Nasser mastered political theater. An elegant man with careful diction he faithfully represented the state. His political views were always subject to trimming by his service. He was a soldier at heart; his mission was not to ask why, but to do or die. For decades he lionized the Palestinian Fedayeen, only to turn against them when they attacked Sadat for visiting Israel. He published paeans to socialism in the 1960s and defended its dismantling in the 1970s. Siba’i was the epitome of the writer as a civil servant. Under his tutelage a generation of Egyptian writers grew up not to write the great Egyptian novel but to become the head of its writers’ union. Many who opposed the state still invested in Siba’i’s vision of the writer as a servant of a cause.
Half a dozen years before his death the ideology of Siba’i’s career claimed one of its victims in a horrific but little examined assassination. On July 8 1972 Ghassan Kanafani, an extraordinarily talented Palestinian writer, indeed possibly the Kafka of Acre, was blown up in his car. He had loudly, but largely without participation, supported the Lod airport massacre. To this day it is not fully known if his murder was a retaliation by Israel or part of an internecine fight within the Palestinian militant groups. Regardless of the truth, it was a terrible waste of a life and a talent. A futile demonstration of the Arab insistence that the artist represent not his individual beliefs, but his people, right or wrong. That was the message of the life and death of Brigadier General Yusuf Al Siba’i, soldier and writer.
— Maged Atiya
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
A previous post dealt with the rise of Coptic political activism early in immigrant communities, especially in the US. The early activism was marked by the success of Pope Shenouda in winning over its leaders and subsequently enlisting it as a component of his project of placing the clerical hierarchy as the central leadership of the Copts. The passing of Shenouda and the changing conditions in Egypt signal a change of circumstances. The failure of activism to affect the official policies of the Egyptian state is part and parcel of a larger failure of all outside forces to influence the ponderous state. As with all political movements, failure will result in either disappearing into irrelevance or an internal struggle to assess the means, methods and goals of the movement. This was amply demonstrated by one of the largest groups, Coptic Solidarity, around its recent conference in June 2017. The conference title “Egypt: Combating Terrorism Without Sacrificing Civil Rights” is laudable and sensible enough. The organization attempted to reach out beyond immigrant Copts, inviting various US political figures, academics, intellectuals and even a Shi’a Imam. Yet somehow, the entire proceeding was hijacked by the now notorious “Zogby affair”. James Zogby, a leader of the Arab American community and a political operative within the Democratic party, ostentatiously rescinded his acceptance to chair a panel over what he called “individuals spreading …hurtful anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda”. A spokesman for Coptic Solidarity further inflamed the issue by leveling a charge of “Dhimmitude” against Zogby. Although the author of the charge was unnamed, many in the know felt that it bore the mark of Magdi Khalil, one of Coptic Solidarity’s founder and a leading thinker and writer. This charge would be unknown to most Christians in the world, and indeed to many in the East, but is a uniquely familiar one to Egyptians*. This was the Coptic id lashing out at what it perceives to be collaborators in its oppression. Here was an American organization reverting to its Egyptian core when it views itself under attack. Any temptation to ignore the meaning of the Zogby affair would later be undercut by a little noted article. Tectonic shifts are seldom noticed until they break out in spectacular forms, while the attention is invariably focused on surface ripples.
Nine months after the 2017 conference, Magdi Khalil, published an article titled “The Copts as Lord Cromer saw them”. The article is in Arabic making it clear that its intended audience is in Egypt, even if its tone and lineage is American. The few in Egypt who do not choose to ignore it will read it as a plea, or a threat, or more ominously as a pink slip. To gaze upon the Copts from Cromer’s imperial eyes is by itself an unsettling statement. Cromer, the man who effectively ruled Egypt for a quarter century, was known for his dislike of the Copts. He denounced “their habits of servitude”, and resented their resistance to his administrative modernization, which lessened the Copts’ traditional control of the state’s administrative apparatus. Khalil uses Cromer as a pretext to level 17 questions to the Coptic church and community. None of these questions are really new, as most have been around for a while, but they were never considered suitable to be asked aloud in polite company. All the questions are backward looking and Egypt focused, but Khalil contends that answering them is essential for the future progress of the Copts, especially outside Egypt. In effect, Khalil expands the charge of “Dhimmitude” to include many Copts and the clerical hierarchy. It is strong and uncomfortable stuff, but it should not be ignored or dismissed lightly. Those who are not tapped into the Egyptian and Coptic history and psyche may find the entire set of questions odd, but that does not render them irrelevant. If others follow suit and ask the same questions then they may have the weight of theses nailed to a door.
Khalil’s first question relates to what he perceives to be the Copts’s original sin. “How could we have allowed a few thousand Bedouins to occupy and rule our country [in 641 C.E.]?”. From that question the remaining sixteen cascade along similar lines. “Why did we not connect with Nubia and Ethiopia?”, in effect asking why there was no project of Reconquista similar to Spain. Why has the church resisted Byzantium far more vigorously than the Muslim rulers, Khalil asks. He also takes the clerical hierarchy to task for becoming willing collaborators in the oppression of the Copts under Muslim rule for centuries. The clerics are weak, he asserts, because they lent no support to the rebels of the Pashmuric revolts of the 9th century C.E. or the current activists in immigration. He widens his scope to accuse the community at large of being slavish to priests, subservient to Muslims in general, while ferocious toward each other in their internecine fights. Finally he indicts the entire community for becoming “prisoners” of the church walls and the monks who man them, and refusing to have fruitful interactions with Western Christianity. He strikes at the core of the old Coptic identity by accusing the Church of developing a theology of submission, humiliation and martyrdom, rather than of liberation, justice and revolution. Khalil’s hammer spares no pillar of traditional Coptic thought. It is tempting to think that Khalil’s arguments will have few listeners, but it would be wrong. It is also tempting to think that the historic longevity, as well as the institutional strength of the church and its leaders will render them immune to his criticism. But the leaders of the church should make no such assumption,at least not without a careful listening to many outside Egypt. On a personal level, this blogger can attest to the resonance of Khalil’s questions among many young Copts born and bred in the US, and who grew up without acculturation to the “habits of servitude”. The new Copt does not look like the old Copt. It remains to be seen whether that new Copt will look on the old with understanding, or cast a gimlet eye on the deficiencies. That said, we can level a modest charge of historic inexactitude, even revisionism, against Khalil. As with many nationalist retelling, history is sanctified by a division of its actors to patriots and traitors. But the reality is less neat. Khalil is a smart observer and has demonstrated a keen grasp of Egyptian and Coptic history. His questions can only arise from a polemical plan rather than simple historic ignorance. They fit neatly, although far more discordantly, in a line of thought that threads through recent Egyptian and Coptic history. Why are the people such willing slaves to their rulers? Many an Egyptian intellectual has asked in despair about the persistence of authoritarianism and clientism in the country’s governance. Passionate young men of the Society of Coptic Nationalists would kidnap a Pope in 1954 in equal despair over the communal inability to rid itself of a weak and unqualified man at the top of the clerical hierarchy. One of these men would thunder to this author, a quarter century after the events, that the Copts are “weak, weak, and therefore undeserving of respect”, while pounding his fist on the table in a dingy basement restaurant near Dupont circle in Washington DC, to the point where he was nearly ejected. Magdi Khalil’s words tap into an existing but largely hidden vein, but to what end?
Many nationalist narratives have a familiar arc. First there is a statement of the “fall”, the once proud people who have fallen into a disgraceful state, unable to unite or improve their lot. The fall must be followed by redemption, where proper leadership and individual sacrifices will lead to a greater collective good. This is the narrative of Egyptian nationalism, and also the narrative of the Copts. Once they were able to meld their story and that of Egypt into a single thread, but that is becoming increasingly more difficult. Too many Copts are not Egyptian, and too much of Egypt has drifted into Islamism. While the Egyptian church and the few lay Coptic leaders in Egypt extol the benefits of a unified nation, many Copts outside Egypt see the entire narrative as a farce. In some ways, the current situation among immigrant Copts bears a striking resemblance to that of European Armenians at the end of the 19th century who increasingly saw the promise of citizenship within the Ottoman Empire as unrealistic, if only because others, including Turks, had also come to the same conclusion. Khalil challenges the notion that what made Copts survive for 1400 years will enable them to do so in the future, and more radically, he challenges the notion that a similar survival is even worth the effort. The Egyptian church, and also the lay community, are busy with the difficulties and travails of life in Egypt and have little time to engage in such thoughts. They would likely see Khalil’s ideas as disruptive, even dangerous. They simply want their old Egypt back. But whether today, or at some future date, a reckoning is bound to happen between these two divergent lines of thought. Once again, as they did in the 1970s and early 1980s, the numerically smaller Copts in immigration are leveraging their more fortunate position for a louder voice within the community. In immigration their christian identity is not sufficient to distinguish them from the larger community around them. Neither their orthodoxy, nor their non-Chalcedonian theology which few truly understand, are sufficient for a distinctive identity. Agitating for the good of Egyptian Copts is however their unique burden and identity. The real question is whether newer generations will take up the burden with equal vigor or abandon it as quixotic. Either way, the Egyptian church can not long remain Janus faced, able to satisfy two very divergent groups of faithful follower. There are passionate arguments that insist that the only future for the Copts is out of Egypt, while other, equally passionate arguments, insist that the only hope for Egypt is to be a country where the Copts can remain an integral part of its fabric. Nothing at the moment seems to favor either view.
When Bishop Bishoy, a senior conservative leader of the Egyptian church, remarked in 2010 that Islam is a “guest in Egypt”, he created a firestorm. By his very same reasoning Christianity is also a “guest in Egypt’, having arrived a mere 600 years earlier. Such views are bound to seem odd to Copts born in places such as the US or Canada or Australia, where any one can become a full-fledged citizen within a few years. These countries have no “guests”, or more accurately, have nothing but guests. From that vantage, Magdi Khalil’s questions are paradoxes; on one hand they imply that Copts have a special responsibility toward Egypt, while insisting that they need to consider their communal health first and foremost. But these are the paradoxes of an identity in formation. For what it is worth, the church in Egypt, and indeed the wider world, needs to listen carefully to the discourse of immigrant Copts. As Buffalo Springfield would have it; something is happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
— Maged Atiya
* The notion of “Dhimmitude” was introduced into common Western lexicon by Gisele Littman, writing under the name of Bat Ye’or. She was born in Egypt and left it at age 23 under the difficult circumstances of 1956.
This is the half-century mark of the large scale immigration of the Copts from Egypt, which began to gather steam in 1968. It is a good time to reflect on this historic phenomenon and its implication for the ancient people, even if it is still ongoing and its impact remains fluid. As always with the Copts, their predicament is a microcosm, a test case, of the larger Egyptian problem. Their evolution in immigration, although interesting for its own sake, contains clues about Egypt at large. We can begin to understand how Egypt might fare if its political and social systems were freer by understanding what happened when Egyptians were suddenly placed in a freer society.
Immigration involves a departure and an arrival, or a “push” and a “pull”. In the case of the Copts, conditions in Egypt provided the push, where both the successes and failures of the Nasserist project were problematic for them. America, Canada and Australia provided the pull through social changes that made these places more hospitable to non-Westerners and changed their laws to allow more immigrants from outside Europe. For example, the Civil Rights revolution in America overturned the emergency quotas of 1921 through the Hart-Celler act of 1965. Canada and Australia underwent similar changes. Immigrants usually undergo a transformation that leaves them with a hyphenated identity to serve their new needs and the circumstances of their new countries. These identities are marked by various levels and types of activism; social, cultural and political. In the case of the Copts these forms of activism took different paths and were marked by differences in acceptance and success. Social and charitable activism proved most successful, in part because it built on pre-existing norms and practices in Egypt. Cultural activism proved weakest reflecting the tragic history of the Copts since the schisms of the 5th century, and more so in the aftermath of the Arab invasion in the 7th century. To keep their faith, the Copts have surrendered every facet of their native culture, language, music, literature, and all arts except icon painting and liturgical music. But it was political activism which proved most flammable and discordant, and in the end was to deeply mark their interaction with their ancestral home, and their evolution in their new homes. This post will attempt a summary of its earliest evolutions and its current uncertain role.
Political activism is usually grounded in some past, at times mythic, and is forged by the present and articulates a vision for a desirable future. For the immigrant-led activism that rose in the early 1970s, the past was a history of loss and dispossession, while the present was a crucible of conflict, and future was an imagined Egypt where the Copts were finally equal citizens. Fifty years later, its vision for Egypt remains unrealized, and perhaps further undermined. Political activism is still the province of a few leaders and with minimal participation from the larger community. It would not be harsh to declare it a failure by its measure of success, and yet influential in unanticipated ways. There are many causes for this outcome, none more vital that the decade-long conflict, from 1971 to 1981, between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda. Many books and articles have described and examined that conflict reliably and credibly. In almost all of them “immigrant Copts” play a role, often portrayed as secondary to the conflict. In fact, they were essential to the conflict, and in many ways served to aggravate it and drive its course. Immigrant Cops played the role of children in a bitter divorce, where the two parents play to the audience of their children for acceptance, support, approval and on occasions even emotional vengeance. This conclusion is not radical when the facts are looked at afresh. A question that can never be answered, but important to ask, is whether the Sadat-Shenouda conflict would have played out in the same manner, or to have occured at all, had there been no vocal immigrant community. “Aqbat Al Mahgar” (Immigrant Copts) is the term coined by many Islamists, and government officials, as a derogatory shorthand for the critics from afar. This is the clearest sign that immigrant political activism represented more than a passing nuisance, and that its message, and perhaps more importantly its methods, struck a nerve.
Sadat arrived to the President’s office a year before Shenouda rose to be Patriarch of all the Copts. By 1972, and certainly after the 1973 war, both men were comfortable and secure in their new offices and engaged in a punishing match of wills. The two men possessed similar temperaments but occupied different vantage points; indeed different planets. Yet the conflict between them was ahistorical by Egypt’s modern standards. Since the waning of Ottoman power in the 17th century, the rulers of Egypt largely avoided open conflicts with the Copts, regardless of how they felt about them or their degree of tolerance for religious differences. On the other side, Popes never saw fit to adopt a policy of open defiance toward the ruler. These two men, however, were different and came to conflict with unequal powers. Sadat possessed a strong grip on the instruments of the Egyptian state, including the army, police, civil service and propaganda channels, and after 1977, the appreciation of the West and most of the world at large. Against that Shenouda had only a grip on his shepherd’s staff, the symbol of his office. Those who knew Egypt intimately felt that the two men were headed for serious trouble, with more in store for Sadat. The Egyptian papacy is the oldest continuous institution in the country’s history, nearly 2000 years old. It has been headed by 117 men as successors of St Mark the Apostle. They possessed the full range of human characteristics, including saints and thieves, wise men and simpletons, reformers and dolts, and every shade in-between. Yet the office endowed them with power and a form of innate historical wisdom, so none could be touched or easily removed even by the most tyrannical of rulers. Byzantine emperors, Abbasid Caliphs, marauding soldiers of fortunes, European colonialists, and especially powerful lay Copts, found that going up against the Pope, even when their cause is right or just, to be a daunting prospect. At the height of the conflict between the two men in 1980, a man who disapproved of Shenouda’s handling of the relationship with Sadat summarized the grim prospects for the President. “Sadat can ignore Shenouda and appear weak, imprison him and thus become his prisoner, or kill him and be hounded on earth and in the afterlife”. Shenouda’s unyielding stand was perhaps understandable, but Sadat’s escalation of the conflict seemed to be a foolish gambit from a man who displayed a survivor’s wit, keen political instincts and on many occasions a daring ability to change course. Indeed there were many times when the relationship seemed to be taking a better course, only to have outside events inflame it again. For Sadat, it was always the fixation on “immigrant Copts”, a tiny group of little influence that raised his ire beyond reason. Abdel Latif El-Menawy, who once headed the News division of the Egyptian Radio and Television Organization, catalogues the times Sadat blew his top over small provocations from New Jersey or Washington DC. “Why do these Copts want to turn the Christians of the World against me and Egypt”, Sadat complained over and over again. Of course, the immigrants could no such thing; their tiny newspaper ads were little noticed, and the police kept their small demonstrations politely but firmly out of Sadat’s earshot or line of sight. El-Menawy, who knew Shenouda well and interviewed him often, relates a remarkable 1977 exchange between the two men. “How could our children abroad speak against us … they are complaining about me to Carter”, ranted Sadat. Shenouda cuts him off, rising to say “The first thing I want to say is that some Copts might have emotional problems.” He continues on to insist that these emotional problems are the results of discrimination in their past lives in Egypt. He then pivots to deliver a counter punch.”Our children abroad have done a great deal for Egypt. They served us during the war of October 1973 and God knows how much effort they exerted … they are worried about the [new] laws, … should we comfort them it will be over and you won’t be so upset with them”. Shenouda seems to simultaneously disavow immigrant activists while using them to accomplish his desired goals. That encounter encapsulates the trouble with political activism among immigrant Copts. They can irritate the Egyptian state but not alter its behavior. They can provide stout support to the Church in Egypt, and at the same time find themselves in trouble with it. For half a century the activist leaders looked obsessively in the rear view mirror, or fixed their gaze on a very distant horizon, often missing what is directly in front of them. Like generations of Egyptian political activists, they excelled at stating the problems but rarely made an effort at compromise toward a solution. They found a home in the margins and could scarcely imagine themselves wielding any power. Today, with all the concern about the fate of Christians in the Middle East, new activist leaders are unable to formulate a workable set of realistic goals or “asks”. They remain the children of Shawky Karas, the man who kick started Coptic political activism in 1972 and became its prototypical leader, and warning example.
From thousands of miles away, Shawky Karas, an academic mathmatician, could raise Sadat’s blood pressure with a tiny ad or a letter to a Congressman or Senator. He reproduced many of these ads and letters in his self-published 1986 book “The Copts Since The Arab Invasion : Strangers in Their Land”. The book, with type written pages, poor editing and plain blue cover, feels like notes from the fringe. It is a remarkable combination, however, of keen insights placed side by side with wild accusations and barely believable conspiracies. The most powerful part of the book is a 20 page response to Sadat’s May 14 1980 speech in which he declared himself “The Islamic President of an Islamic State”. Karas’ counter arguments anticipate the suffering Egypt would eventually undergo as different men and factions tried to provide concrete realization of that claim. Yet Karas makes no mention of his role in raising Sadat’s ire, nor in precipitating the “Easter rebellion” of 1980. For nearly a decade Karas was propagating a redefinition of the Copts, not only as non-Arabs which the majority accepts, but as living victims of Arab imperialism. It is a flammable message, precisely because it contains sufficient truth to give it credibility, with just enough mythology to make it a powerful cudgel. His retelling of Egypt’s history in the first third of the book explains why he never made an outreach to immigrant Muslims, whose voice might have added weight to his message and demands, and just as importantly why they were unlikely to add their voice, even if he asked. He attempted to recruit other prominent Copts to his side, succeeding with some and failing with many others, who found him too combustible for comfort. His major success came in 1977 when he agitated to convince a church conclave to include the following in its January 17 1977 message “ .. the total sincerity [ of the Copts] for the beloved nation, of which the Copts are the oldest strain, so much so that no people of the world had been tied to its land and nationality like the Copts of Egypt”. While the statement may well be true, it also serves to “other” the majority of Egyptians, who are Muslims. In a meeting at the Jersey City church in February 1977 to plan an upcoming trip by Shenouda to the US, Karas claimed credit for the statement and unveiled what would become his signature message and program for two decades to come. He warned about the “Creeping adoption of Shari’a” in Egyptian law. He centered his message on a single verse from the Bible, Matthew 12:25 “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”, and he read from handwritten notes what he deemed to be a suitable template for every speech about Egypt’s predicament at that moment, “will it be unified by nationalism or divided by religion?”. He also advocated for the cancellation of religious celebrations as a form of passive resistance. Such measures were not unknown in Coptic history, but most in the church hierarchy considered them too extreme for the current situation. In time he began to gather support, most notably from men such as Dr Rodolph Yanney, a doctor and publisher of a cultural newsletter, and two “radical” priests from the US West, Fr. Ibrahim Aziz and Fr. Antonious Heinen, as well as the more mainstream Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed of Jersey City. Others proved cold to his message. Bishops Gregorious and Samuel found him too radical for their tastes, and his entreaties to Aziz Atiya went unanswered. Things seemed to change in early 1980 after the Christmas eve attacks on several churches in Egypt. Shenouda intimated to others that he was considering a cancellation of the Easter celebrations on April 6. The news travelled quickly to America and spread both delight and consternation. Karas praised the step and booked space in several newspapers to coincide with Sadat’s visit in early April and his state dinner at the White House. Others worried about the impact of such a step. Bishop Gregorious records in his memoirs a meeting on March 14 1980 with Aziz Atiya, his wife, and Ishaq Fanous, the noted artist and Icon painter. He states the purpose as “discussion of the Encyclopedia”. Curiously he neglects to mention the presence of another man, Mirrit Boutros Ghali. Nor does he mention that at the end of the meeting both Mirrit and Aziz asked him to intervene with Shenouda and warn against cancelling celebrations. In the end, Shenouda did not heed their advice. Both of these men, and Gregorious himself, represented a rare moment in Egypt’s history that was rapidly vanishing from view. On March 26 1980 the Pope gave a sermon that seemed to borrow heavily from Karas’ 1977 notes. He asked the same question of Sadat and demanded an answer. Sadat was too busy preparing for his trip to Washington DC, and provided his flammable reply during the May 14 1980 speech. El-Menawy in his book “The Copts”, tries to discern the influence of immigrant Copts on Shenouda’s sermon and finds him evasive on the subject. Karas tried to stage a demonstration in front of the White House during Sadat’s state dinner but was rebuffed by the DC police. A rally called by Karas on April 6, Easter Sunday, in New York City fizzled because of a transit strike. The New York Times showed Carter and Sadat talking amiably under a magnolia tree in the Rose Garden, with no hint of Sadat’s rising temper. But the mere attempts at rallies were enough to send Sadat into a frenzy, exactly as Karas predicted in February 1977. “He wants to be loved and obeyed”, Karas said of Sadat then, before issuing his version of the “3 Nos”. “We will not be silent, and we will not obey, and we will not love him”.
The 18 months between Sadat’s April 1980 visit to DC and the end of his life were marked by further strife and nasty sectarian attacks. Karas and his merry band of immigrant Copts were not silent, and did not cease from writing to Congressmen, Senators, Governors and anyone who would listen. They did not seem to realize that few Americans cared about the “Coptic issue”. Peace had broken out between Egypt and Israel, and war between Iran and Iraq, and between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. There was enough strife, and even diplomatic hostages, to divert the spot light. The death of Sadat, the exile of Shenouda and the appointment of a papal committee changed the conflict from one between immigrant Copts and the Egyptian state, to an internecine fight between different groups of Copts. What started out as a noble movement to enlarge the rights of Copts turned in on itself. A movement that started out narrowly Coptic, became ever narrower; indeed sub-Coptic. The entire focus of the activists from 1981 until 1985 was on the release of Shenouda from his desert exile. It can be said that the heat and noise from America did little to accomplish that. In the end it was insider negotiations, and Egypt’s usual reversion to the mean, that released Shenouda. But Karas became a Shenouda partisan, both agitating for his release from internal exile, and passionately ferreting out “enemies of Shenouda”. By 1985 all of Karas’ requests regarding the rights of Copts to politicians were regularly and politely rebuffed. On the other hand, he had won at least one internal battle. Those who opposed his methods, and had doubts about Shenouda’s, were now in retreat. Some walked away from their churches, others fell into silence. The “enemies” included many who might have formed a broader coalition for a broader good in Egypt. Karas’ group, the American Coptic Association, became unintentionally true to its name, having produced a larger impact on American rather than Egyptian Copts.The effect of the movement’s fading in the late 1980s was not to alter the nature of Coptic political activism, but to preserve it in the amber memory of those glory days when a single 2 inch newspaper ad could shake the walls of the presidential palace in Cairo. Soon enough, Shenouda asked the activists to pipe down, as Mubarak had a serious insurgency to deal with. The demonstrations were far and in-between, the demands as grandiose and vague as ever, and new organizations specialized in inside politics in DC, holding conferences and commissioning panels that would regularly identify the problems and not much else. The Copts’ demands became further subsumed within the general worry about terrorism and the demand for democratic reforms in the region. Few bothered to analyze or learn the lessons of the 1970s. The vast majority of immigrants got on with their lives, built their churches, prospered and lived contented lives without much involvement in Karas’ style of political activism, even if they were formed in some degree by it.
When Karas passed away in October 2003, age 75, condolences came by the hundreds from across the US, Canada and Australia. Many mentioned his activism, and more specifically his loyalty to Pope Shenouda. None called attention to his attacks on the Papal committee, or his involvement in the communal fights of the 1980s. While his activism failed to alter conditions for the Copts in Egypt, it did cement the loyalty of the vast majority of the immigrant community to Pope Shenouda. Many of the early immigrants were “children of Samuel”, the bishop who tended to their needs, helped them establish churches, and brought thoughtful discourse to the problems of immigration. In time that influence waned as a well, but not without considerable pain for many. Political activism originally meant to erect a barrier between state and religion in Egypt, brought forth a new immigrant identity that saw the church as a actor in every facet of the Copts’ life, both in Egypt and outside it. Immigrant Copts continued to embrace a cherished Egyptian identity, but one that rarely reached out for the other 90% of Egypt. New churches in the New World were being built at the rate of a handful a year, and all of them were becoming more than houses of worship; instead disciplined outposts for a nation without geography, as Sana Hasan aptly put it.
A generation later things are very different in America and Egypt, but Coptic political activism remains largely true to its older self. It has become vestigial. This is to be expected from a movement whose evolution is subject less to conditions in the new country than in the old one. Egypt has thrown a curve ball to these movements. Yes, sectarian attacks are more frequent, but bishops are not tossed in jail by the dozen, as in 1981. The rights of Copts in Egypt are further eroded, but so are the rights of many others as well. The Islamists who were once on the rise in Egypt in 1970s are now on the outside, themselves in America agitating for change in Egypt in a manner eerily reminiscent of the Copts’ agitation then, and equally likely to become vestigial as well. Protests in America against political oppression and sectarianism in Egypt are rarely cross-confessional, and sometimes even illiberal in character. If there are rays of hope they are usually among the young, those shaped by America, and not deformed by Egypt’s struggle with identity. The irony is that any possible emergence of a genuine “Egyptian-American” hyphenated identity might happen only among those who have far less to do with Egypt than their parents or grandparents.
— Maged Atiya
The recent short shutdown of the US Federal government was attributed to irreconcilable differences about “Dreamers”, or children of undocumented immigrants. But that was really the smoke behind which lies a great and dangerous fire. A significant portion of the American Republican party now feels emboldened to overturn the Hart-Celler act of 1965 and in effect return to the immigration policies promulgated by the emergency quota act of 1921. It serves no purpose to be coy about the reasons behind this desire. One part is fear of the “browning” of America, another part is fear of Muslim immigrants who seem to carry different, and perhaps hostile, attitudes toward diversity in America. But there is another unintended consequence which will result from any change in the landmark act of 1965. Given the rigor of American constitutional law and the manner in which it is interpreted by almost all legal authorities, the return to the 1921 act will have devastating effect on the prospects of Christian immigrants from the volatile Middle East. No religious test on immigration will pass muster. Any attempt to limit it based on threat to people will also not work in a meaningful way. In short, the GOP desire to overturn the Hart-Celler act will be the most damaging blow to the prospects of Eastern Christians in the last decades. Whatever the reasons behind the desire of GOP members to overturn the act, the practical result will be profoundly anti-Christian.
The 1965 law increased quotas from many non-White countries. One of the primary beneficiaries of that change have been Christians of the Middle East, foremost amongst them are the Copts of Egypt. It has been said that Copts have traditionally been averse to immigration. In fact, as soon as the possibility of immigration opened up they undertook it with considerable zeal. They had been living for centuries as second class citizens in their own land, but equality in a strange land beckoned and became attractive indeed. It also true that the Christians of Iraq, forced to face the disastrous effects of Saddam’s adventures and the subsequent American invasion of the country, found escape and survival in immigration. But beyond the 1965 act there were two additional changes; the “diversity” lottery act of 1990 and the relaxed administrative rules toward reuniting of families, what many GOP politicians derisively call “chain immigration”. This enabled many poorer Christians who would not qualify on the merits of their educational and economical power to immigrate, and subsequently bring in additional family members. This provides a significant avenue for many. The policies that some GOP politicians have attacked have benefited the beleaguered Christians of the East. The new immigrants provide a vital link to those at home and their efforts, both personal and organizational, also lend much needed help to their brethren suffering persecution. These efforts exceed any other governmental or NGO help to them. A significant change to the current US laws on immigration will dry these sources of assistance and may prove quietly devastating to those still in the old homelands.
Recently Vice President Mike Pence ambled to the Middle East to embrace Israel and declare to the Christians there that “help is on the way”. He could lend further and perhaps greater assistance at home by becoming a voice of reason in the current debate on immigration. As politicians and legislators debate changes they need to heed Deuteronomy 10:19 “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the Land of Egypt”.
— Maged Atiya
Vice President Mike Pence rushed back from the Middle East to cast the deciding vote in the US Senate for confirming former Governor and Senator Sam Brownback as “Ambassador at large for religious freedom”. The reason for the close vote was that Mr. Brownback has acquired many opponents in his native Kansas and outside it by seeking to curtail the rights of homosexual Americans, and by pursuit of economic policies that favored ideology over evidence and thus nearly bankrupting that otherwise industrious and striving state. Still, many hailed his appointment to the post as a man with deep convictions and support for religious freedom and commitment to protect the Christians of the East. Mr. Brownback identifies as an “Evangelical”, a large and uncertain grouping that should not be viewed as a homogeneous block, suffering deep divisions as evidenced by the warring camps of the Moores. The division pits those who seek secular power at any cost vs. those who are ambivalent about these same costs; the Roy and Johnnie Moores against the Russell Moores. Without casting any doubt on the integrity and sincerity of Mr. Brownback we must ask whether in fact his appointment will help the cause of these Christians, or other minorities such as Yazidis, Baha’is or Rohynigas . Will Brownback have their back?
First we should reject the argument that such overt support should be avoided for fear of arousing the anger of the majorities. Those who seek to disadvantage Christians or eradicate Christianity, or example, do not condition their feelings or actions on the displays of outside help. That said, it is natural to be wary of white men rushing east proclaiming, as Mike Pence did, that “help is on the way”. Often less is delivered than promised, and when delivered it is frequently inconstant. The record of the West in assisting Eastern Christians or religious minorities in general is less than stellar. Exactly a hundred years ago the English scholar S. H. Leeder published a volume called “Modern Sons of the Pharaohs” in which he detailed the condescending and hateful attitudes of the British imperial authorities towards the Copts of Egypt even while advocating loudly for minority privileges and rights. The Copts managed to thrive in spite of these attitudes, or perhaps because of them. Further east the Assyrian Christians cast their lot with the British only to be abandoned to the cruelties of the Arab and Kurdish irregulars. Even the linguistically irrepressible Churchill was silent on the matter. Armenians suffered the first modern genocide under Western eyes and in close proximity to Western power. But there is clearly a desire to change this historical reality. For example, more recently various Evangelical groups, and also Vice President Pence, drew close to the government of Egypt and voiced their concerns about the fate of Christians. This is commendable, and some minor practical improvements followed. Time will tell how long lasting the effects will be. In any case, there are more pressing reasons why the entire idea of support for religious freedom needs to be recast and reworked in different terms.
Any support for religious freedom that casts persecuted religious minorities as actors in the West’s battle of identities is unlikely to be helpful in the long term. An ambassador for religious freedom with solid support across all camps in his or her homeland is preferable to one with grudging support. If none can be found, then perhaps none should be offered for that support is neither deep nor sincere. Mr. Brownback was pressed into service with a poke in the eye of those who opposed him, and with little attempt to find a more conciliatory figure, or understand why many reasonable people expressed serious concerns. There was no attempt to see if Mr. Brownback is agreeable to those whom he seeks to advocate for. The last point is not a trivial one given his public record. Will Mr Brownback advocate for a gay Coptic woman in Egypt that opposes military government? (Such people do exist). It is almost as if America’s long struggle for civil rights left no mark on many who seek to export it. These concerns point to deficiencies of form. There are also deficiencies of substance.
Any time help is offered to others it is often a delicate balance between what they expressly desire and what we believe is good for them and possible for us. Yet the genuine voices of the persecuted are often absent in the Western discourse about how to help them. They are considered, by and large, our persecuted minorities. The problem is that the needs are different for different groups, both varied and complex, and in many cases offer unappealing or difficult choices for Americans; choices that may incur huge costs in treasure or lives, or at the very least in immigration visas. As a result the help offered is often thin on substance. The offers are also cast under anxious shadows; reflections of uncertainties about Western identities or memories of previous errors, and rarely with understanding that the persecuted have different powers of their own and agency over their fate. If the form of help must be made solid through expressed support across various divisions, then the substance of help must be made more lasting by allowing it to achieve long term objectives. This is why endowments exist. The entire purpose of such constructions is to turn one-time support into long lasting, flexible and responsive long-term help. America doesn’t lack for endowments. If freedom of faith is worth supporting then it is worth endowing with significant financial and managerial support and setting up structures to manage and deliver such help. This is not a simple task, but the very difficulty of it provides an expression of seriousness of purpose. If the purpose is to get to the moon then one creates NASA rather than nominate a lunar ambassador. Religious freedom deserves no less.
— Maged Atiya
In the late summer of 1967 a white-haired academic read the final drafts of a book about to be published in England and soon after that in America. The book evolved from a set of lectures he had given at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City a decade earlier. It is easy to imagine him working in a study on the second floor of his Victorian house on Perry Avenue nestled in the hills east of Salt Lake City by the university campus. He was a year shy of 70, and soon to approach a second retirement, but life was to offer him two more decades which he used to great purpose. The news from the land where he was born, grew up and spent a good part of his adult life was difficult. He was to become an American citizen within a few years, but his connection to Egypt rarely wavered, however the circumstances, and whatever neglect and bias the country threw his way. He also remained involved in the affairs of his church, although he was neither outwardly religious nor a frequent church goer. He expressed this attachment in the preface of the book by offering it as “the fulfilment of a lifelong vow”. “Vow” may seem a paradoxically religious description for an act of scholarship by a man who was largely secular in tastes. But terms such a “secular” and “religious” could not easily be applied to one whose elliptical confession of faith reads “it must be stated that I, a historian by vocation, am also a member of the Coptic Church by birth and upbringing”. “Vocation” along with “Vow” color his life and work with a certain Christian religious brush, even if the bulk of his scholarship was devoted to the study of Islamic history and the late Crusades. Of the book he completed he writes “As a matter of fact, I allowed myself to be persuaded into shouldering this arduous task, partly as a modest work of scholarship, and partly as an act of faith”. These statements and many others throughout the book leave no doubt that his purpose was more than producing a simple scholarly and dry exposition of what the author calls the “primitive churches”, those of the “the Coptic and Ethiopic, the Jacobite, Nestorian, Armenian, Indian, Maronite, and the vanished churches of Nubia and North Africa”. And it is to the “more” that we must pay attention on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Aziz Atiya’s “History of Eastern Christianity”. Although the book does an excellent job of summarizing the history of these churches, it is the Copts that occupy the leading and largest chapter in the book, as befits the confession of the author. There is much to mine in the book, coming at the halfway mark of the last eventful century in the life of the Copts. A close reading of the book leaves the impression of a paradox of an author who both transcended and was limited by the circumstances of his time. The underlying worldview of the book is anti-colonial but not post-colonial. The mood of the author is one of pride in his heritage but unease about what has befallen it in over the centuries. The words that emerge have an uneasy balance between a desire for speaking truth and a reticence born of the author’s position and the consignment he received as a born Copt.
Aziz Suryal Atiya (1898-1988) would have been 120 years old next July 5. He had mused that he wished for a biblical lifespan of 10 dozen years. His tenure on earth was shorter, amounting to seven and half dozen years, and in a broad sense was marked by 12 year cycles of challenges and achievements. At 12, as an aspiring young student in Cairo away from his provincial family, he witnessed the events surrounding the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali and remembered them well into his late years. At 24 he was a poor but ambitious young man who left medical school due to lack of funds (his official biography notes that he was kicked out in 1919 due to his nationalist agitation). He experienced Dickensian poverty in the intervening years, made bearable only by the support of a stern father, a loving mother, and an adoring brood of siblings. He walked the streets of Cairo in shoes stuffed with newspapers, unable or unwilling to spend the streetcar fare, but with dreams of studying medieval history abroad. The poverty neither dimmed his ambition nor weakened his spirit. At 36 he had acquired several degrees from England and was headed to a respected professorship in Germany. He completed a study, now a classic, of the 14th century crusade of Nicopolis, one of the last crusades and an event pregnant with future meaning for Christian-Muslim relations. But Germany in the late 1930s was no place for a brown man and he headed back to Egypt. By 48 he was a resident of cosmopolitan Alexandria, a founding member of its university, married to an intelligent and spirited daughter of the Coptic aristocracy and raising two young children. He would soon start on a project that ultimately led him to America; the microfilming of the library of St Catherine monastery in the Sinai. His collaborators were mostly American and European refugees to America. In 1951 he was invited to summarize his findings to the Library of Congress and his speech was introduced by the then Egyptian ambassador Kamel Bey Abdul Rahim. Those years also brought ominous clouds. His neighbor and friend, the physician and intellectual Ahmed Zaki Abu Shady would immigrate to America one step ahead of the government provocateurs and murderous Islamists. The move, unique at the time, would presage a later flood, as well as Aziz’s own life. The nativist wave that started in the late 1940s and culminated in the educational “reforms” of 1954 occasioned his demotion and finally his departure from Alexandria. Unhappy with the lack of recognition for his work and general badgering by the new regime he resigned one step ahead of the purge. As the so-called liberal age was ending he became increasingly occupied with Coptic studies and affairs of the Church and community. His turn to Coptology bore echoes of earlier involvements with such scholars as Ragheb Muftah and Mirrit Ghali, but was clearly a new occupation for him. During the years immediately following the 1952 coup, when his career in Egyptian universities was nearly at an end, he made three critical contributions to the Coptic community. He established the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies with Sami Gabra, he mentored many students who joined the clergy in senior capacities, and persuaded the Coptic clerical hierarchy to ease its historic suspicion of Protestant churches and initiate ecumenical relations with many other Churches. After leading a delegation to the World Council of Churches conference in 1954, his trips to America became more frequent and at 60 he finally settled in Salt Lake City to head a new institute at the University of Utah. The next dozen years were exceptionally productive. Aside from his academic work, he finished several books, including the “History of Eastern Christianity” and was even involved in such esoteric pursuits as locating the hieroglyphic rolls at the foundation of the Church of Latter Day Saints. At 72 he did not settle into retirement. Instead he was assisting the Egyptian Church with selecting suitable pastors for new immigrants by working with his former student Bishop Samuel in that capacity, and planning his next project. That project was a compendium of scholarly articles on all aspects of the Copts. He succeeded in his ambition to make it an international work of scholarship, with as many non-Copts as Copts involved in it. It was a dozen more years before the project was firmly established and at age 84 he felt certain that a final product might come out in his lifetime. He missed the deadline by only a handful of years, having passed away in 1988 after falling ill while working at his desk, writing the introduction to the eight volume work.
The “History of Eastern Christianity” summarizes the history of these churches with quick brushes and substantial number of references. But beyond the impeccable scholarship there is also a polemic that looks critically at how the West perceived Eastern Christians. Of Catholic writers he notes “[are] usually men of great learning and erudition who viewed the East from the narrow angle of their own profession with sectarian vehemence and considerable lack of understanding”. On the other hand, Protestant writers “failed to come to grips with the essence of Eastern Christian primitivism”. What is needed, he argues, is a narrative by “native historians”. In its purpose the book anticipates later works, such as “Orientalism” by Edward Said, published a decade later. However, in method and conclusion, it is entirely different. It reflects the author’s belief that it is pointless to try to call out bias or demand that it ends; rather it is best to elevate the “native” so that such biases are made silly in the light of new accomplishments. His awareness of the condescension of the West toward Eastern Christians exists side by side with respect and fascination with Western culture and its methods and advances.He grew up among the Coptic clergy who harbored undisguised dislike for the West and Western Christian methods. Yet in 1954 he persuaded an anti-Protestant Pope Yus’ab to bless a mission of a bright young monk and a priest to the World Council of Churches by telling him that “we must strive to educate the Protestants, who are our younger brothers”. More than a dozen years later he looked on the fruits of his argument with some satisfaction. “The Coptic Church, which had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitism since the black days of Chalcedon in 451, is now steadily recapturing its faith in old friends and foes overseas and in distant climes. The aloofness and traditional suspicion of the patriarchs towards other Christians of different sects is gradually being replaced by a sense of mutual regard and a measure of cooperation ..”. He does not absolve Eastern Christians, and specifically his tribe, the Copts, of a measure of complicity in the Western gaze. Of his people he writes “The place of Copts in the general history of Christianity has long been minimized, sometimes even forgotten, because the Coptic people themselves had voluntarily chosen to live in oblivion. After having led the way for centuries, they decided to segregate themselves from the growing ecclesiastical authority of the West in order to guard their way of worship and retain their national pride”. Rather than air grievances and demand equality, he seeks a position of strength by the jujitsu of proudly adopting the description “primitive”, once hurled by Western missionaries as a rebuke to the East, as a definition for a Christianity uncontaminated by worldly power and its accretions. The epilogue makes clear his agenda of returning the East into a central place in Christian history. He approvingly notes Milton Obote’s demand that “we should have more African clergymen, after all churches are international .. White missionaries have done good work but their era is finished”. From that quote he pivots to making his own demand: “The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions”. Yet he notes that “the Eastern churches are at best too limited in their means to cope with those vast responsibilities”. This leads him to the conclusion that Western Christianity can best assure the survival of its Eastern brethren by aid to the native churches rather than direct intervention. Although this has become the official positions of many of the Oriental churches, it has yet to be accepted by all Western churches, especially the right-wing evangelicals. In a calm and deliberate manner he announces his ambition that the “general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten to incorporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the Copts”, and by implication other Eastern Christians. The insertion of the word “turbulent” hints at his view that the primitives are not entirely blameless in the schisms of the Fifth century. He notes that he possesses the “inevitable passion of one who writes from within the Coptic world and yet who must view events dispassionately with the mind of a historian from outside”. This necessary distancing was to bring him into conflict with many of the Church leaders, including patriarchs, and accounts for the many misguided attacks some Copts still level against his scholarship to this day.
It is now common to see the rise of Islamists and the violent variants of their ideology as the largest threat to the primitive churches. Atiya was not blind to persecution and its ill effects, but he saw in Western evangelism a different and potent threat. He had studied Islam for decades and came to know it well and see much good in it. His lectures on Islamic history attracted many Muslim students at the University of Utah, and more than a few confessed that he taught them as much about their heritage as their religious leaders, if not more. His views on the threats to primitive christianity were subtle and uncolored by personal biases. This subtlety, and even a certain ambiguity, are demonstrated in his discussion of the turbulent times between Chalcedon and the arrival of Islam. He gives a full account of the theological differences at Chalcedon only to insist that the “political background can not be minimized”. After Chalcedon “The Copts were humiliated as never before, and the Coptic Church suffered the tortures of the damned at the hands of the Melkite colonialist. The wonder is that their communities were able to bear the brunt of such travesties and survive. But the bulk of the Coptic nation remained faithful unto the last, and harboured a deep-seated hatred of the Byzantine oppressors and all things Byzantine, which found natural expression not only in the so-called Monophysite doctrine but also in the Coptic language, Coptic literature, and above all in the Coptic art”. The Byzantine is a stand-in for all those, before and after him, who oppressed the common folk and ground them to a fate of ignorance and poverty, and survival is a testament to faith but also to sheer stubbornness. The book delivers an unambiguous conclusion about Chalcedon, seeing it as an expression of nascent Egyptian nationalism. While most political scientist would disagree with such an assessment, noting that nationalism is a product of modernity, Atiya is unapologetically romantic in believing in the existence of an essential Egyptian “folk”. This may have the product of the intellectual ferment of his youth in Egypt, or of the European scholars he studied with (most notably Paul Ernst Kahle, the notable orientalist who barely escaped with his life from Nazi Germany). This belief colored his view of Egypt’s conversion to Islam. The arrival of Islam would ultimately decimate the percentage of christians in Egypt from the entire nation to 10%, but he does not subject the Arabs to severe criticism. They, and subsequent rulers, “preserved the Copt as a fine source of revenue” , and their arrival may have been paradoxically providential. The Coptic Church was nearing extermination as a heresy and the arrival of the Arabs allowed it to cleverly outmaneuver the Melkites to “become the sole representative of Christianity in Egypt”. Such an interpretation may seem alien to the Western mind, but to a primitive Christian the survival of an undiluted faith trumps any assumption of secular power or the safety of the majority. He amply documents the horrors of pogroms and other persecutions of Copts during the times of the Mamluks, but refuses to lay the blame on Islam as a religion. He gives a full accounting of the horrors of the Armenian genocide, but blames it on the narrow Turkish ethno-nationalism. He attributes the massacre of christians in the mountains of Lebanon in the 1860s to tribal loyalties, cynical ploys by the Ottoman rulers and the general crookedness of humanity. He tries to find a general theory for the survival of the primitive churches in the final pages of the book. The epilogue begins with a question “At this journey’s end, it is fitting to ponder over the causes of the survival of most ancient Christianity of the East in the midst of the surging sea of Islam”, especially given that Islam was a “good religion” and conversion did not “throw a long shadow of shame on an apostate”. He provides two reasons. First that Islam never wanted to eradicate Christianity noting that “there was no humiliation in being a Christian in the eyes of a Muslim”, a statement of opinion that stands in direct conflict to some of the historical facts the book puts forth. Second was the “eastern Christian was able to preserve the purity of his race from pollution through the intermarriage with the ceaseless waves of conquerors from outside …Initially a way of worship, faith in the end became a comprehensive way of life and a symbol of an old culture”. Specifically with Egypt he notes that “the racial characteristics of the Copts themselves, their unwavering loyalty to their Church, their historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, and the cohesive elements in their social structure combined to render their community an enduring monument across the ages”. This is as close as he can come to a theory given the breadth of his experience with the local religions. In a hand-written account he notes his excitement upon first visiting St Catherine and locating rolls long thought extinct. The entire trove proves disorienting to anyone wishing a clean delineation between Islam and Christianity. There were bibles written in Kufic script. There were accounts of saints that are clearly “Islamic” in style, and so on.
Yet for all his deep understanding of the complexity of religious interactions, and his seemingly broad and secular views, the cosmopolitan scholar remained a “primitive Copt” according to a handwritten note to one of his relatives. He spent the last two decades of his life immersed in the Coptic Encyclopedia, sparing no effort to locate experts and cultural artifacts to fill its volumes. In a November 23 1977 note to his friend Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton, he inquires about his health and that of his wife, only to pivot quickly to a request to find him some Coptologists “behind the Iron Curtain”. But this immersion ultimately lessened his immediate involvement in the communal affairs of the Church. He reached out to the most prominent Coptic theologian, Matthew the Poor, and excitedly asked him and the monks around him to be involved in the effort. They turned him down. After the October 6 1981 assassination of Bishop Samuel he seemed to lose interest in meeting and conversing with church prelates, favoring the solitude of scholarship and his own Coptness. His personal travails with the men in black who lead the Church do not prevent him from offering an accurate assessment of the central role of the Church in the life of the Copts noting that “Copts regarded their prelates with the highest deference. To them they looked for spiritual leadership and personal guidance, especially in the days of great trials, which were not infrequent in Coptic annals. Neither massacre, nor persecution, nor dismissal from office, nor confiscation of property could exterminate the Copts as a community, and the hierarchy stood in the midst of all movements to fortify the faithful through times of storm. Faith and fortitude were their means of survival, and their rallying point was the patriarch, whom they feared and revered, not on account of the legal powers accorded to his office, but because of piety and godliness.” It is notable that the quality of great learning does not appear in that assessment.
The publication of the book predates the onset of a historic development for Copts, but also more generally for other christians; the increased immigration to the West. Immigration blurs the neat distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity, and the reduction of faith into a national or racial identification.The realities of immigration, and rapid acculturation, seem to dawn on the author with occasional surprises. In a 1975 note to Weitzmann he apologizes for not stopping by to visit him in Princeton, noting that he spent nearly two weeks driving down the East Coast visiting members of his immediate family, and those of his wife, who now dotted that landscape. In 1982, while dining in a French Vietnamese restaurant in the Soho neighborhood of New York City, he remarked that Pope Shenouda introduced him to some bishops as “Ustaz Amerikani”, or an American Professor. He chuckled at the thought and concluded, in English, “perhaps he is right”. On July 4 1988 he celebrated his 90th and final birthday in a magnificent setting on top of the Rocky mountains, attended by a large number of his immediate family, close friends and many scholars who flew in from several continents. It was an entirely American affair. Of the younger generations in his immediate and extended family, which had grown polyglot by intermarriage with non-Copts, he expressed the hope that “they may not share our blood but perhaps they will remember our culture”. The book from two decades earlier remained the last moment of certainty about his people and their essential nature. After that moment it was increasingly difficult to separate the notion of religion as culture from culture as religion. Just at the moment when he expressed a certainty about what is a Copt (or an Eastern Christian), circumstances of historical proportions threw a large measure of doubt at his answer. It is possible to read the “History of Eastern Christianity” as a relic of a time before the region descended into cultural decay and savagery. It is also possible to read it as a celebration of renewal after centuries of decay. It is probably best to read it as both in accordance with the author’s subtle ambiguity about human effort and the uncertainty of providence. The book remains deserving of a first and many subsequent readings. As for the author, his life should be celebrated as a success clawed from fierce adversity. His wish to be buried in a mausoleum he built with his cousin a short distance from ancient Coptic Cairo, in part with proceeds from the book, remains unfulfilled. He rests in the American Rockies, a primitive Christian among the Protestants.
— Maged Atiya