In the late 1970s and early 1980s the term “Aqbat Al Mahgar” was formed by some extreme Islamists, and even taken up by President Sadat, to describe the emerging Coptic activism in North America and Australia. These Copts were deemed unrepresentative of Copts at large, a bad element indeed. Two broad charges were leveled against them. First, they were anti-Muslim ingrates besmirching Egypt’s name when they should make it clear that the very survival of Copts in Egypt is due to Muslim tolerance. Second, they were cowards speaking words from the safety of afar that they could not utter in Egypt. The two arguments undercut themselves. The idea that existence is a grant, not a right, is repugnant. The second argument merely underlines the social and political oppression in Egypt. In any case, the arguments identify two groups of Copts, good Copts who mind their manners, and loud uppity Copts who risk the lives of Copts in Egypt by their primal screams. It was a useful myth, but myth anyway. In reality there are no neat two groups. Famously disputatious, the Copts may exhibit more groups than individual Copts.
It would be good to consign the term “Aqbat Al Mahgar” to the memory hole of the bad old days. Unfortunately some strain of it is making a come back in more serious, refined and genteel circles. A twitter thread by Dr Hisham Hellyer, a scholar of religion and the Middle East revives the myth of two groups. Dr. Hellyer is a thoughtful man without a bone of intolerance in his body (he edited one of my early essays). Yet he unfortunately revived this dichotomy, almost certainly unwittingly. At large, there is general reluctance to address sectarianism in Egypt in raw and honest form, rather than confusing circumlocutions. In response to an earlier post, many of my close Muslim friends expressed the wish for a different Egypt, one where people practice religion privately, but are only Egyptians when they step into the public sphere. It is a great dream, with a touch of the French homogenizing model, and it was of course the cry of the “Liberal Era” between the 1920s and the 1950s. It also failed. The Liberal Era begat military rule and religious conflict. One wishes that Sa’ad Zaghlul and his Coptic notable friends and supporters would have lived long enough to witness the massacres at Maspero and Rab’a Squares, where their dream turned into a nightmare.
The trouble with that dream is that it runs counter to reality and deep seated cultural norms. The public sphere in Egypt is thoroughly Islamic, and Copts can participate as “Egyptians” only if they mute their identity. A Coptic minister can not open a meeting with a prayer true to his or her faith. This is the essence of the problem and the one fact that I have been unable to break through to friends. Egyptian sociologist Sana Hasan, herself a product of the liberal Muslim aristocracy, noted this in her book “Christian vs. Muslim in Modern Egypt”. She claimed it was harder to write about her fellow Egyptians, the Copts, than the Israelis, because she had to learn new “mnemonics”. Coptic memory, cultural terms, and references amount to a national culture, separate and distinct from Muslim Egypt, but not in opposition to it. If there is any hope for Egypt it consists of abandoning the French model for something closer to the American model of cultural coexistence. The increased Muslim presence in the West has shown the wisdom of the American over the French model. A wish for a well governed and free Egypt can be realized by building a liberal state representatives of two nations, or perhaps three to include the Nubians. Surely people can practice, and should practice religion privately. But they need not deny their culture publicly. In the case of the Copts, we must remember that they are not merely a religious group. Many who have lapsed in their faith still identify as Copts. Others exhibit keen interest in the philosophy and theology of other faiths, especially Islam.
The Copts continue to exist as a vestigial culture of a Christian Egypt. They do so in Egypt and increasingly around the word. This is not division, but true riches for Egypt, a country fond of selling pearls for false dreams, and never honoring its best. The Copts come in many varieties, some exceptional and a few truly regrettable. While Copts need to reform their discourse in many places, the world at large can not simply pick the Copts it likes, but must accept the Copts it has.
— Maged Atiya
In a recent interview with the Coptic Canadian History Project, Dr Angie Heo, a scholar of Coptic culture, stated that she sees a special responsibility for diaspora Copts, as
“In light of these [persecution of Copts] horrific realities, however, I believe it is all the more important to ensure the diagnosis for these problems is not reactionary but carefully accurate. Coptic scholars and scholars of Copts can help mitigate Islamophobia by directing attention away from the “essence” of Islam and toward the larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement that impact all minority communities, Christian and Muslim alike.“
In spite of the high-sounding but awkwardly constructed language, it is easy to detect a message that is increasingly common among some scholars of the Copts. Diaspora Copts, especially those in North American and Australia, have to censor their exposure of the increasingly tenuous conditions of Egyptian Copts lest such discourse be used by anti-Muslim bigots in the West. There is also a subtle threat in this warning. Any discussion of how Islam and its cultural content may contribute to systemic persecution of Eastern Christians is verboten. It may further endanger these same Eastern Christians while enabling anti-Muslim bigots. Copts, by virtue of being victims, are charged with a special responsibility to “mitigate” the reactions of the larger culture in which they exist and over which they have little control.
The statement also sets up a false equivalence. While there is a nasty strain of anti-Muslim prejudice among some Western Christians, the experience of Muslims in the West and Christians in the East are not “alike”. Nor are the ‘larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement “ the same. Christian mobs are not sacking mosques in the West on a weekly basis. The rise of ugly white supremacists has yet to result in legal strictures on the practice of any religion.
It is certainly true that there is a residue of anti-Muslim feelings among some recently immigrated Copts. This is an expression less of their religion than of their native culture. In the clash between the christian message of “love thy neighbor” and the knowledge that it was this very same neighbor that drove you out of your homeland, the lesser angels sometimes win. This must be combated on an on-going basis, not only for the good of Muslims but also for the cultural progress of the Copts. But that effort should in no way curtail the reasoned exposure of systemic religious persecution, nor should it dilute such exposure by making it overly general about “all structures of violence and disenfranchisement.” To insist that specific and often horrific violence should be addressed by an effort aimed at a larger reform of humanity is to allow the continuance of this violence by a quixotic, but ultimately insensitive, idealism.
The Coptic experience in Egypt is familiar to many oppressed groups. They are expected to mind their manners, toe the line, walk close to the wall, show deference, or whatever euphemism is available at hand. And indeed for the most part Copts have conformed to these habits of servitude. But in the gloriously noisy and free West, many no longer see any purpose in such displays of caution. They are entitled to their freedom, exuberance, and on occasions, regrettable mistakes. It is bad enough that the Coptic identity must be continuously downplayed in Egypt, to the detriment of every one in the country, be they Muslim or Copt. It need not be so in countries that glorify diversity and expressions of individual and group identity.
More specifically, diaspora Copts have every right to engage in a reasoned discussion of Islamic culture, one devoid of hate or systemic demonization. The conditions in Egypt can not be blamed on a generalized “cultural problems”. Religion plays a large and prominent role in the cultural life and governance of Egypt. We can not engage in any reasoned debate about the flaws in these social and political structures while tip-toeing around both religions in the country. When Christian thinkers, responding to the suffering of Jews and to their own moral imperatives, recognized the role their theology played in antisemitism they opened a pathway for all Christians to become better Christians. Vigorous discourse between Christian and Muslim theologians was the highlight of the ascendance of Islamic culture. The shutting down of such discourse was a hallmark of its decline. There is no greater service a Copt can render a fellow Muslim than a reasoned and respectful critique of his culture and religion. It is thus that we love our neighbor.
— Maged Atiya
It was an unexpected sight. During the African games in Cairo this week a stadium crowd displayed a banner, nearly 30 feet wide, in the red, white and black tricolors of the Egyptian flag. On each color band was the same message “We Love Egypt”. The messages were in Arabic, Coptic and English. Someone, or some group, had gone to a great deal of trouble to create such a large custom banner, so we can only assume it was no accident or a spur of the moment decision. The creators, most likely Copts, were expressing themselves in the languages that mattered to them. Arabic is of course Egypt’s official language and the one spoken by nearly all its citizens. English is the lingua franca for international communication in what is an international event. Coptic was added for good measure, not because it is widely spoken (it is not), but most likely as an expression of identity. What is remarkable about the banner is the similarity it has to video displays of liturgies in Coptic churches in the lands of immigration. In most of these churches there is a large screen display of the liturgies for people to follow along, and mostly in 3 languages, Arabic, Coptic and the local language, which is predominantly English.
The vicissitudes of the Coptic language are notorious. It was both the spoken and liturgical language of Egypt for centuries. It was the Coptic church that first translated its liturgies into Arabic, perhaps to keep the loyalty of the Copts who ran Egypt for its Muslim rulers and were increasingly Arabophone. There were reports of entire villages speaking Coptic as late as the 1500s. But then Coptic died out as a spoken tongue and remained solely a liturgical language. Attempts to bring back Coptic as a spoken language in the late 19th and 20th centuries faltered. Many Copts acquired great facility in Arabic, but since Arabic was often tied to the teachings of Islam, these Copts were still perceived as visitors in what was really their native tongue. Coptic remained alluring as a badge of identity, or faith, but never practical enough to become a demotic tongue again. Two events supported a certain limited revival of Coptic. Since the middle of the 20th century the Sunday School movement has encouraged many Copts to learn and speak Coptic, although most of the material is liturgical as there is hardly any secular Coptic products. The second factor is surprisingly immigration.
Recently I watched a baptism where some of the deacons, drawn from members of the congregation, had better command of Coptic than of Arabic. The mother tongue of these young men is English, but their second language, while in church, was actually Coptic, rather than the Arabic of their parents. Occasionally one hears complaints about the valuable space on the screen displays of the liturgies taken up by Arabic. “It is only for these folks right off the boat, and really they should learn English quickly,” was how one young congregate expressed his views on the multilingual display. These anecdotes are by no means an indication of a massive revival of Coptic among immigrants. There are too many practical obstacles facing such an outcome. But it is an indication that the developing identity in immigration may take unexpected forms.
In Egypt there is more than a small discomfort with public expressions of Coptic identity. Churches can not ring their bells. Houses of prayer are sometimes sacked for putting up a cross. Those Copts who achieve public prominence are expected to play down their identity. Pope Tawadros II has said that “it is better to pray in a nation without churches than in churches without a nation”. It is not clear why there has to be a choice between preserving Egypt and its churches. Surely both can be done at the same time. This moment is a precarious one for Copts in Egypt, and perhaps especially so as the immigrant Copts forcefully assert their identity. The analogy can be made to the Armenians of the late 19th century. Some scholars have argued (perhaps incorrectly) that the assertive Armenian nationalism and identity emerging in Europe and North America at that time gave license to the Ottoman butchers who oversaw the Armenian genocide. What placed the Armenians in the cross hairs of their executioners was ultimately the assertion of a single Turkish identity for the severely truncated Ottoman empire that had recently lost even its Balkan provinces.
But comparing today’s Egypt to the Ottoman empire of the early 1900s would be taking things too far. The Egyptian identity emerged earlier and took a distinctly different path largely in response to the discovery of the glories of its ancient history. It should give us some hope that Egypt still has an opportunity to salvage something from its decades of identity crisis, by accepting the notion of a diverse country with multiple, but equally native identities. Should it do so it will likely find the key to the good governance that has evaded it for decades, even centuries.
— Maged Atiya
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.