On the hot afternoon of June 25 1968 huge crowds were turned away from the ‘Abassiya neighborhood in Cairo. Most were Copts, some poor and humble, some middle class, and even scions of the old aristocracy who felt they had every right to attend the ceremony dedicating the new Coptic Cathedral of St Mark. The relics of the saint were brought back to Egypt from Venice. President Nasser attended, as well as his Vice President and future President Anwar Al Sadat. Emperor Haile Selassie was there, representing the largest Coptic majority country in the world, Ethiopia, whose Christianity emanated from Egypt. Attending was also Catholic Cardinal Duval who said he was “eager to mend a thousand years of suspicion and indifference”. Many Orthodox Patriarchs were also in attendance. There was also Dr Eugene Carson Blake of the World Council of Churches. The night before the dedication Reverend Blake dined in the home of a prominent Copt and described in fascinating details the many times he marched with Dr Martin Luther King, and recalled with sadness his assassination. The age of this blogger did not allow him a seat at the table, and could only observe from a distance. Reverend Blake represented one face of America; religious, seriously committed to equality and intolerant of intolerance. It was ironic that many who attended the reception in his honor were not able to attend the dedication and were pushed away by the police. But that is Egypt. Nasser speeded the process of clearing the legal hurdles to building the new Cathedral and even contributed a modest amount of state money toward its construction. It was rumored that this was done to allay the anger of the Coptic Patriarch, the formidable and now canonized Kyrillous VI, over the sacking of a single church in Aswan. The majority of the money to build it came from Copts; rich and poor , powerful and humble, pious and less so. It was their Cathedral, built with their money and sweat, and named after their saint and Apostle of Christ. It was the “Batrachana”, the home of the Patriarch, but also the focus of their indelible dedication to their faith, regardless of whether they held it firmly or tentatively.
On January 7 2019 another Cathedral was dedicated in Egypt, not in Cairo, but in a spot far off in the desert. An autocratic leader paid for its construction, perhaps in return for the decades of sacking of many Coptic churches, especially in August 2013 which resulted from his removal of a Muslim Brotherhood elected President. Or simply as a show piece for the new capital. There were no spontaneous crowds to hail the dedication, and it was named in a way that no Copt would suggest. An Egyptian-American historian called it “the ultimate symbol of Dhimmitude”. As far as we know, only one prominent American visited it, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He did so after giving a speech at the American University in Cairo, a symbol and a by-product of the best of American Protestantism. Pompeo hailed it as a great improvement and a step forward for religious freedom. Many Copts however would happily trade it in for the repair of many existing churches, tasks as simple as tiling a bathroom, or the building of new ones close to where the faithful live, and like the Cathedral of no-man’s land, cheek by jowl to Mosques.
This is where Egypt is today, half a century after the last Cathedral was dedicated. This is also where America is today.
— Maged Atiya
On April 14 1977, at 1 PM, a commercial airliner touched down at Kennedy Airport in New York City, carrying the Patriarch of all the Copts. Few Coptic patriarchs had ever ventured outside Egypt, and those who did went to places such as Ethiopia. Hours before the touchdown the TWA terminal teemed with Egyptians, so many that the overflow crowd stood outside the terminal and into the parking lot. As soon as the Patriarch stepped off the plane a crowd of dignitaries rushed to greet him with enthusiasm and the usual Egyptian insouciance toward personal space. The greeters included priests and bishops, diplomats and notables, common folks who were lucky enough to make it to the front row, and a single cameraman who recorded the venue for posterity in jittery and grainy details. The aural space was occupied by two dozen deacons, in vestments and with cymbals and triangles, who broke into ancient hymns in Coptic. Outside the terminal the crowd turned the place into a festival of traditional reverence, newfound pride, and customary jostling. A young monk, recently arrived from Egypt, stood in the middle of traffic beaming beatifically. A New York City police officer approached him with gentle deference. “Padre, would you mind stepping onto the sidewalk?”. The monk smiled back insisting that “God wants me here”. Eventually he stepped onto the sidewalk, in perhaps a sign of God’s mercy on New York motorists. A man at the back of the crowd, near the parking lot, took up the unwise, and possibly sacrilegious chant “Shenouda, Shenouda Malik Al Aqbat”. (Shenouda, King of the Copts). No one seemed to follow him and he eventually gave up. A couple of Mukhabarat types hung out on the edges, easily recognizable by their sense of fashion, sunglasses and worn out shoes, representing the inability of Egyptian intelligence to blend in, or possibly its desire not to do so.
The raucous reception left one of the organizers of the visit in an ebullient mood. Fr. Ghobrial Abdel Sayed had been seven years a priest, taking up the cloth in middle age after a long career as an academic historian. During these seven years he had become the senior pastor of St Mark church in Jersey City and a roving troubleshooter for all things Coptic in the United States. A few days after the arrival he exclaimed to some of his flock “God took our hand and guided us. We received our Patriarch like a King!”. Later in the year he edited the cameraman’s footage in a newsreel style file, providing the background commentary in a voice over suitable for historic events. Another organizer of the trip was more reserved in his assessment of the reception. Bishop Samuel had obtained more votes in the papal election six years earlier, only to lose to Shenouda in the altar lottery. For over a quarter century he had been a fixture on the world stage, representing the Coptic church in various ecumenical councils. He wanted the visit to announce the return of Copts to an equal place in world Christianity, and the reception at JFK was too populist for his taste, as he told his close friends. Still, parts of the trip stayed close to Samuel’s plan. The Patriarch visited every major religious group in New York City. Shenouda arrived at the residence of Terence Cardinal Cooke in the company of a dozen Catholic and Coptic bishops and priests and held fairly amiable talks with the representative of a denomination that he clearly regarded as junior to his own. In a sign of brotherly love he gave the Cardinal an icon painted by Ishaak Fanous, considered one of the greatest of iconographers. Those in the know must have smiled at the presentation, for the Coptic Pope had recently prevented several of Fanous’ icons from being mounted in churches on account of their overtly Catholic manner. Fanous made no effort to hide his opinion of the Patriarch’s artistic judgement, and in time the relationship between the two men grew frosty. There were also visits to Greek and Armenian prelates, and a reception for Muslim Imams. There remained the tricky matter of Jewish religious leaders, as Egypt was still technically at war with Israel. Archbishop Iakovos resolved the matter in a characteristically forthright and blunt manner. He invited several Jewish rabbis (including Rabbi Arthur Schneier) to the gathering with the Coptic Pope and thus settled it. Samuel served as the host master for meetings with mainline Protestants, as many of their leaders were his long-time friends, and the meetings went without a hitch, likely to his relief. The visit to the UN was diplomatically correct, although Secretary General Kurt Waldheim did not expect the Pope to expound with vehemence on how to resolve the Middle East crisis. There was also a visit to the White House. Publicly everyone announced that the short meeting was amiable and friendly, but privately many noted that the President and the Pope did not warm to each other. There was the rumor, never confirmed, that Shenouda’s assessment of Carter was rather blunt, “Ragel broustangi ameen tayb wi ghalban” (A Protestant man of faith, kind and hapless). The Egyptian ambassador in DC pulled out all the stops and invited a host of diplomatic and religious leaders to a reception in the Pope’s honor. There was the rumor, again never confirmed, that the diplomat did so on personal instructions from President Sadat himself. These activities were, however, a side show to the real purpose of the Pope’s trip.
Fr. Ghobrial arranged the visit to be a total of 40 days, conscious of the iconic number. For most of these days, the Pope advanced through the American countryside in the manner of a royal claiming a new possession. He visited many churches, and dedicated as many as half a dozen new ones. The flock in every parish competed to show off their new churches. The lack of a church did not dissuade some congregations from availing themselves of a papal visit. The Long Island parish, totaling a 100 families, had no church. A plot of land in Woodbury, meant to build a new house for a local doctor, was hurriedly contributed to the church by its generous owner, and the Pope blessed the first stone to be laid down. At the dedication, Catholic bishop McGann and the county executive, Ralph Caso, sat through the ceremony with commendable patience. New churches were dedicated in several states. The scripts was always the same. The Pope celebrated liturgies before retiring to the basement of the church to break bread with the faithful, answer their questions and offer his guidance. Some stood up to describe the “situation” in Egypt in unvarnished and unflattering terms. But the Pope would not hear of it. It is not that he disagreed with their assessment, but rather he felt that such matters are best not left to his children. Obedience and loyalty were his due, and for the most part his children agreed. It was the rare man or woman who disagreed with the Pope, or felt as one man said “in Egypt Sadat shuts me up, but in America the job falls to the Pope”, We have no record of what the patriarch thought of all of this, beyond the fulsome praise he publicly gave to his American flock. But time would show that it was the beginning of a dramatic change in the lives of the Copts.
Up until that trip the Pope had a distant interest in the American flock. His predecessor, Pope Kyrillous, thought little of immigration. For the previous decade the task of ministering to the new immigrants had fallen to Bishop Samuel. He came to America often, taking personal interest in the new immigrants; on most occasions staying in their homes, praying in their living rooms and sharing meals at their tables. The immigrants developed genuine love for the thoughtful and dynamic man. From the 1960s until his passing he offered practical solutions for their problems and thought deeply about the issues likely to be raised by immigration. He was neither a gifted speaker nor a natural writer and as a result the loyalties and the affection he earned were largely retail and personal. His care and actions should have made him the natural pastor to immigrant Copts. But the trip had changed something in the life of the community. Shenouda, a charismatic leader, secured loyalty with ease, and in the difficult decade to come, these loyalties played a dominant role in the lives of immigrant Copts, and would influence observers in Egypt deeply. The influence of Samuel would fade, and dramatically so four years later after his assassination alongside Sadat. Shenouda shaped the American Coptic church, even while in exile in a monastery. Few now remember that in the early 1980s an American federal court in Houston reaffirmed his role as the sole leader of the church rather than the papal committee. The case was brought on his behalf by American Copts. The community was divided, sure enough, but the force of Shenouda’s personality and Egypt’s history would reside with Shenouda’s partisans. Beginning in the 17th century Coptic lay “notables” assumed larger roles in the community, and in some cases sidelined the church in such matters as appointing bishops and managing church assets. That began to change in the late 19th century, and the century before the trip marked a tug of war between lay and church leaders. The 1952 revolution reordered the power relationships in Egypt, and wealthy lay Copts were on the decline in influence, both in the church and in the country at large. The immigrants that began to come to America in the late 1960s and 1970s were of the middle classes, many had benefited from Nasser’s educational reforms, but were marooned in their country with a degree and no decent job prospects, and increasingly uneasy about the islamization of the public sphere. Shenouda spoke to their needs, and seemed like one of them, while Samuel, for all the affection he garnered, seemed to recall an earlier age. A small incident illustrates the changes afoot at the time. An older women, a daughter of the old Coptic aristocracy, was in the reception line for Shenouda, with Samuel next to him. She bent down to kiss Samuel’s hand, and as expected he pulled his hand away and thrust the cross he carries forward so her lips touched the cross. She repeated the movement with Shenouda, but this time the Patriarch left his hand firmly in place. Afterwards, she was outraged, declaring to her friends that “even my father never asked me to kiss his hand!”. The rest of the people thought nothing of kissing Shenouda’s hand.
Shenouda wanted the immigrant churches to be disciplined outposts of the Egyptian church. His exile to a desert monastery and the growing social and official discrimination towards Egyptian Copts had the effect of binding the immigrant churches closer to Egypt. People close rank when under attack. The majority of Egyptian Copts felt that Shenouda stood up for them, and in his struggles they saw a reflection of their own. Slowly but inexorably he drew them inside the church walls, until the church became the center of their lives, and he, their father in both spiritual and worldly terms. But the immigrant Copts by and large suffered little discrimination, and their lives did not need to center around the church. Shenouda claimed them by presenting the Egyptian struggle as their own, and by a number of edicts and decisions, some theologically dubious such as insisting on rebaptism of the non-Coptic spouse in intermarriage. The tactics favored closing ranks over erecting an open tent. Influencing events in Egypt was, for many immigrant Copts, their due, a small compensation for the psychic pain they endured as a marginalized people in the country before immigration. For many Egyptians, including some Copts, the immigrants’ interest was a mixed blessing. But Shenouda felt that on the whole they represented an asset, and cultivated them through multiple visits, where he baptized their children and consecrated their churches and priests. But his tactics, and the immigrants’ acceptance of them, also delayed the necessary redefinition of a Coptic identity in immigration and away from simply being the Christians of Egypt. The immigrants were more reliable supporters than the old Coptic elite, of which he spoke derisively, “Are the elite just people with a particular philosophy or are they people with actual influence on the Copts in the Church?”, he asked of Abdel Latif El Menawy. The extinction of public intellectuals and civil society brought about by the Nasser revolution fell especially hard on the old Coptic grandees and intellectuals, but for Shenouda it was neither a calamity nor a trend to be resisted. He viewed these men, and the occasional woman, as lacking the fiber necessary to hold the community together during difficult times. He often said that any patriarch would have acted as he did, but this is hardly a statement of modesty; rather it is an attempt to forestall debate over his actions. In seeking to set up the church to make up for the deficits of the Egyptian state, especially towards the Copts, Shenouda fell into the trap predicted by Matta El Meskeen. A church that imitates the state will likely also inherit its corruption. The immigrant churches did nothing to counter such deviations, and in some cases unintentionally furthered them. A people living in economic security and cultural freedom chose to inherit the flaws created by a repressive society. The man who hailed Shenouda as “King of the Copts” in 1977 was wrong at the time, but prescient about the things to come.
Sooner or later new generations outside Egypt were bound to ask the question of what it means to be a Copt and seek their own path and their personal answers. They are beginning to ask for a different deal from the one their parents accepted from Shenouda. Their passions and support for Egyptian Copts still burn, but they are unlikely to accept a shushing in a church basement. Any patriarch succeeding a man who served for four decades, much less one with an outsized personality, is bound to have his hands full. There are entrenched interests with old loyalties, there are habits once novel now ingrained, and many who feel they could do a better job of leading. This is hardly unique to the Coptic church; it is simply human nature. Pope Tawadros’ II task is made more difficult by many circumstances, some outside his control, others of his own making. The tumult in Egypt and his own involvement with its politics are perhaps the lesser of all the issues that will matter on a historic scale. For the first time in 15 centuries, since Chalcedon when the Egyptian church chose its lonely path and when the common folks followed their leaders and withstood much oppression, the “Copts” will need an identity that transcends Egypt. The immigrant community, now more than 10 times larger than what it was 40 years ago, will likely play a major role in the evolution of the church, constructively or otherwise. The question will be as to what end is the value of social freedom and economic prosperity if they are not harnessed to affect a wider cultural improvement? Egypt will always matter, but its ways can be pushed aside, and some of what is learned in the new lands substituted for them. The rude but direct question is, do the Copts need a king or a patriarch? Will they bend down to kiss a hand or a cross?
— 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
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
In early 1968 Samir Nessim Atiya, an Engineer, met with his cousin Aziz Sourial Atiya, a historian, to plan and build a new family mausoleum. The current one was getting pretty full, and the time seemed right for the project. Samir’s company was prospering, while Aziz’s latest book had just gone to print. Their favored architect was finishing his main project, working on the new cathedral due to open that summer. The Engineer and historian planed for something different from the usual, a daring slab of granite more than 12 feet high in a modernist shape of a pyramid over the underground crypt. By their calculation the new mausoleum would be full by 2018. Others would then take up the task of building the next one. At the beginning of 2018 the mausoleum stands nearly empty. Its occupants are the builders’ two sisters, Linda Nessim Atiya and Galila Sourial Atiya, two strong willed women who feuded with each other for most of their lives before resting peaceably next to each other, alone with no one else.
The builders’ fathers, Nessim Atiya and Sourial Atiya had gone into business together 50 years earlier. The older brother, Sourial, was severe, kindly, deliberate and conservative, while Nessim, more than 15 years younger, was expansive, mercurial, daring and imaginative. Several times they made money together, only to lose it all, before trying again. Eventually, in the late 1920s, they went their separate ways. Sourial invested in land, the only thing he thought to be secure. Nessim started a bottling company producing soft drinks in unmarked bottles which the locals around the Delta town of Senbelaween called “Nessim’s Kazouza”. Nessim seemed to be a marketing wizard. Every week a horse drawn cart pulled into a different village loaded with his bottles. A robust body builder got out and gulped an entire bottle in one go, belched loudly, and then went on to do impressive deeds of strength. The message was not lost on the men in the village. They bought and bought into the promise of virility. But misfortune stalked both men. Sourial was shot by his body guard to rob him of his lands’ rent. Nessim died suddenly and painfully of either kidney failure or prostate cancer when Samir was 8 and his younger brother Maurice was a mere toddler. But the families held together. Aziz supported his brothers education with money from abroad while a student in England. He also became a mentor, and effectively an adopted father to Samir. The brothers Sourial and Nessim had ten children between them who survived to adulthood, seven boys and three girls. All of the ten children were to have relatively successful lives, against all odds. They produced 24 children among them. In 1968 only two of that generation lived abroad. Today more than three quarters of them live outside Egypt. On the occasion of burying his older sister Linda, who passed away at the age of 100, Samir noted that the locks on the underground crypt were hopelessly rusted from lack of use. “Our dead have left Egypt”, he remarked to his son.
— Maged Atiya
From the upcoming "Tales of Immigration"