Copts have hundreds of liturgies throughout the year. Few are as moving as the Good Friday liturgies and one of its center pieces is a hymn called “Pek-ethronos” or “Your Throne”. The hymn is a single sentence from Psalm 45 “Your Throne, God, is Forever”. But the hymn typically lasts close to 20 minutes of praise on the darkest day of the Christian liturgical calendar. It is less a song than an audible play of opposites, death and resurrection, suffering and redemption, tragedy and joy, defeat and victory. Strange as it may sound to Western ears (Herodotus’ claim about the strangeness of the Egyptians comes to mind), to most Copts it is a full encapsulation of their history, which is hardly surprising. Except for its early history, and recent times, the Church encoded its theology in hymns and liturgies, rather than commit it to scholarly books. Such thoughts come to mind on hearing liturgies read for the first time in a new Church. This particular one, nearly the 250th Church in 50 years of immigration, is located the East Side of Manhattan, in the heart of the so-called “Silk Stocking District”. The genesis of that single Church is a reflection, writ small, of Christianity as it enters its third millenia.
The Church, a designated landmark, was built in 1886 for the prosperous burghers of German descent in what was rapidly becoming the home of the wealthy of New York, less than 3 square miles dense with museums, schools, cultural centers, Churches and elegant mansions and apartments. As new waves of immigrants came, the Church changed its character, becoming home to Irish and then Italian Catholics, as our “Lady of Peace” Church. Aging population and declining attendance forced the Catholic Church to merge the parish into another and lease the Church to the Copts, while negotiations are ongoing for outright purchase (on occasion involving both Pope Francis I and Tawadros II). All New York stories, as they say, are about real estate. The celebration of the Copts was a stark contrast to the previous image of the Church as a hushed place of worship sometimes sparsely attended by the older faithful. The Copts overflowed the pews with entire families, mostly young, many with children adding what the parish priest, Father Gregory, called the “sound, not of noise, but of growth”. But the deeper backstory to this small event is a large one, about the destinies of Eastern and Western Christianity, the differing threats they face, their changing relationship, and finally the fortunes of the Copts both in Egypt and outside it.
No Coptic Church event in America these days fails to reference the suffering of Egyptian Copts, especially those events that tell of the dynamism and good fortune of the American Church. The most recent instance was symbolized by seven killings and a funeral. The killings were brutal door-to-door murders that successfully removed all Copts from the North of Sinai. The funeral was that of the “Blind Sheikh”, a man who dedicated his life to hate and mayhem, first of his fellow Egyptians, Muslims but especially Copts, and finally Americans who had given him refuge in their country. He died in prison of old age, but his funeral in Egypt was a raucous celebration and chilling reminder of the hold his angry and murderous vision still has on many Egyptians. Meanwhile in the Church on the East side of Manhattan, the presiding Bishop, Anba David, gave the assembled throng a brief sketch of how this new Church came to be. His friendship with the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan, was forged two years ago in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of 21 Copts in Libya. The idea of obtaining a Catholic Church building for the use of Manhattan Copts germinated at a memorial service for the murdered men. In this case, the blood of the Martyrs was indeed the seed of the Church. Further assistance came from Pope Francis I, who waved aside the usual theological and historical differences between the Catholic and Orthodox rites to claim a unity and “ecumenism of blood”. It is possible to see the actions of Francis as that of a powerful Church lending support to a persecuted one. It is also possible to see it differently, that Francis wishes to revive his Church by reminding its members of the power of faith and hope as demonstrated by the persecuted Eastern Christians, as indeed he did by quoting the Coptic monk and theologian, Matta el Meskin (Matthew the Poor) to the Curia on December 22 2016.
The event at the Coptic Church ended with a short speech by an early immigrant, a member of the “Class of 1969”, who reminded those attending it of how, less than fifty years ago when liturgies were usually heard in private homes, this event would have seemed exceedingly unlikely. Those not attending it, however, can also use such a reminder. The 21th Century, still young, has already delivered plenty of carnage, hate and reasons to fear that established good orders are at risk from negligence, malice or indolence. As with the message of the Good Friday hymn, hope, however naive in the presence of adversity, remains the most potent force to overcome it.
— Maged Atiya
Once upon a time a Copt named Boutros Ghali rose to be Prime Minister. The time was the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The place was Egypt. Boutros was the son of Ghali Nayrouz, who had become an overseer of Khedival lands, just about the best kind of job open to capable Copts since the Arab invasion in the 7th Century. Boutros Pasha begat three sons and a daughter, Naguib, Wassif, Youssef and Galila. The humbler and poorer Copts were proud of him, and many named their children after his (This observer’s paternal uncle and maternal grandmother were accordingly named Naguib and Galila). Naguib Boutros Ghali begat two sons: Gueffrey and Merrit. Wassif had no children. Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Boutros, Wassif and Raouf. Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali begat three sons: Youssef, Boutros and Kareem. Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali has edited a new book called, “A Coptic Narrative in Egypt : A Biography of the Boutros Ghali Family”.
It is possible to read this handsome book, with its elegant typography and many photographs and reproductions, in the spirit that the author intended, a praise of famous men lest we should forget them. But there is a certain weariness in the first paragraph of the preface “people who are condemned to repeat history must seek to find truth in it”. It is an implicit urging to find other and more nuanced readings in the book. While the author does not explicitly point in these directions, the possibility is raised by the insertion of one word in the title, “Coptic”. It is an indication, indeed a surrender, to the otherness of the Copts, the Sisyphean nature of their struggles, and to the indelibly sectarian nature of Egypt, regardless of all the grand pronouncements by many great men, including several family members in the book. This is, after all, a remarkably accomplished family (there has been at least one member in the upper echelon of Egyptian governance since the 1850s. The family has outlasted several empires). The title could have included any number of descriptions, but “Copt” is the one to have leapt to the head of the line. Also the “a” is an indication that there are other narratives, equally compelling, and indeed also threading through the book. Yet in spite of the title much of the book is really about Egyptian history, an indication of the truism that Egyptian Copts are frequently a stand-in for the country at large, whatever their predicament. These are matters to come to in due course, but first about the book.
It is clear that the author consciously wishes us to see parallels between himself and his great-grandfather, noting that both were made Finance Ministers 111 years apart. Both men attempted, and nearly succeeded, in setting Egypt’s finances on a more favorable course. Both were ultimately undone by compromises with the powerful, which they saw as attempts to lessen oppression, but were easily portrayed as a collaboration with oppressors. And there are more parallels. As his great grandfather was assassinated by a proto-Islamist, Youssef was chased out of Egypt by the assassin’s ideological successors. The death of Boutros Ghali prompted a conclave of Copts in 1911 to demand equal rights. The reaction to that conference figured prominently in the rise of the Society of Muslim Brothers. Their demise would come shortly after Youssef’s exile, prompted by their final grab at power. Between the author and his great-grandfather, there were many prominent men in the family. The book has eight chapters on four public men (Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Boutros Ghali , Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali, and the author), four private men (Youssef Boutros Ghali, Gueffrey Naguib Boutros Ghali, Wassif Youssef Boutros Ghali and Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali), and one towering intellectual, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The public men, who served the State, get longer and more detailed treatments that the private men, who served their families and often the Nation as well. As always with Egypt, the projects of State building and Nation building did not work in tandem. The secret to understanding Egypt’s history is to view it as an overbearing State in search of a nascent Nation. Indeed, it was Youssef’s uncle, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali who diagnosed the Egyptian identity crisis in a remarkable essay in 1978. The final chapter in the book is not about a famous man, but a famous Church, the Boutrossiya Church, built to honor Boutros Ghali after his assassination. Within a few months of the book’s publication, the Church would be attacked by the so-called Islamic State terrorists, in what may prove to be a seminal moment in Egypt’s long history, and the Copts’ relationship to the difficult land that they believe God anointed them as its guardians.
The family has a recessive gene for state service, which expressed itself across four generations of men who served in entirely different periods of modern Egyptian history, the British tutelage, the “liberal age”, the Nasser revolution, and finally the Mubarak stagnation. Yet, each politician’s career and life were remarkably similar. There is a rise to prominence powered by personal merit and occasioned by a desire for both personal and national prestige. As the author summarizes in the preface : “they were concerned for the fate of the country as if they were personally responsible for it”. There is also inevitably a fall, as Egypt undergoes an upheaval, and the fall is made more severe by that very same Coptic identity, and perhaps some of its unattractive aspects. Each man performs a difficult high wire act while buffeted by social forces, and tyrannical bosses, that constantly strive to affect a fall. In the case of Boutros Ghali it was the combination of the resentful Khedive Abbas Hilmi and the racist Lord Cromer. His killer, Ibrahim Nassif Al Wardani, accused him of treason to a “nation” whose nature many disagreed about. It is said with some authority that crowds chanted “Al Wardani Qatal Al Nustrani” (Al Waradani killed the Nazarene). Men of the time recognized Boutros Ghali’s contributions to Egypt, and Lord Cromer took a leave from his customary dislike of Copts to note that Ghali was a capable man and true patriot. But he was the last Copt to occupy that position*.The British Foreign Office noted that had it not been for the victim’s religion, the assassin would not have fired the fatal bullets. Boutros’ son Naguib Boutros Ghali served the rulers of Egypt well from before the death of his father until 1921, but the new nationalist regime that took over in 1923 had little use for a man cut in the mold of the past. He spent the last decade of his life in charitable work and away from public life. His brother Wassif Boutros Ghali was more nimble. He rose to prominence as Foreign Minister in various Wafd governments from 1923 onward. In that position, Wassif worked diligently to reduce British influence in Egypt. The crowning achievement of his career was the 1936 treaty with Britain. It also effectively ended his public life. The 1938 election was an ugly spectacle of anti-Copt and anti-Semitic hate, and was rigged to boot. The Wafd party began to trim its sails to match the stronger winds of bigotry embodied in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and would have less use for such men as Wassif, who gradually withdrew from politics for the last two decades of his life. He was the last Copt to occupy the office of Foreign Minister. Wassif’s nephew Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali was equally nimble and a man capable of adjusting to the new Egypt, formed by the rise of Islamism and eventually by Army rule. From the 1950s into the 1990s he served Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak as an able diplomat, but would never rise to his uncle’s station, even if he matched him in talent. He was a self-possessed and proud man. He was neither awed by Henry Kissinger, nor alarmed by the cast of loud and blustering Israeli politicians, generals and diplomats, nor made uneasy by the casual condescension of his bosses (Sadat addressed him as Peter, Boutros or Ghali depending on his degree of irritation with him.). His career culminated in becoming Secretary General of the UN. The new role freed him from the customary deference he showed to Egypt’s rulers and he felt free to talk back to the main financial backer of the UN, the United States. He ran afoul of First Lady Hillary Clinton, and her appointed surrogate, Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State. The latter showed visible glee and scorn when she vetoed his reappointment as Secretary General. His nephew Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali followed him into international service, in the IMF, as a talented economist. On his return to Egypt he rose in various government jobs until he became the Minister of Finance in 2004. And as with his kin, his fall from grace was a result of a historic lurch. A few months after the 2011 revolution, he was awarded a 30 year sentence in a six minute trial. Additional trials added yet another 35 years to his jail time. The charges amounted to little more than hearsay about misuse of government cars. The entire cadre of Egyptian revolutionaries sprang into ecstasy when one of their own assaulted him on a London street. Nearly six years after the revolution many think Egypt needs the skills of Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali, but none are willing to invite him back or guarantee his safety.
These stories of rise and fall find echoes in the lives of many other great Coptic men too numerous to list, whether it is the wily politician Makram Ebeid or the eminent scientist Rushdi Sa’id. All lived at the mercy of their Coptic identity, the futility of downplaying it, and the capriciousness of rulers. All of them would have nodded in agreement with the author’s claim that “like my great-grandfather, my great uncles and my uncle, I worked for an autocrat who, with time, grew to trust me and let me implement reforms that I believe served Egypt best and brought progress even if late and never enough“. Indeed, even an earlier distant relative would have agreed. In the 1840s Muhammad Ali had his faithful Coptic accountant, another Ghali, strangled for honestly reporting a budget shortfall. The accountant’s son kissed the killer’s hand. Such is the pathology of the Coptic condition in Egypt. These events occur with a regularity that belittles their grotesqueness. Two generations after that event, when the 1911 conference was called in the aftermath of the Ghali assassination. Boutros Pasha’s son, Wassif, refused to attend, insisting that “I would rather side with the those who killed my father than those who wish to kill my country”. Wassif’s nephew Boutros, the UN Secretary General, chaired a Human Rights panel in Egypt that did little to point out regular violations against Copts. The sociologist Sana Hasan, a rebellious daughter of Egypt’s Muslim aristocracy, called him to account on such matters. She pressed Boutros about the absurd claim that there is no discrimination against Copts in the foreign service. He, clearly irritated, responded “You have been listening to too many frightened Copts. Besides, instead of whining and lamenting they should do something about their problems. Let us face it, the Copts just don’t have balls!”. In response, Hasan lumps Boutros with another famous Copt, Makram Ebeid, as “more finely attuned to the call of the minaret than to their own people’s cry of distress”. These two positions are also a template for the general, and generally futile, discussion of modern Egyptian governance. Is the State a reflection of the people’s supine attitude, or are the rulers to blame for ignoring the people’s needs? The answer is likely that it is both in uncertain and varying measures. The author lends his voice on this matter at the outset of the preface “the passive resistance of those who know they cannot throw their yoke but seek to lighten its burden. The courage to face challenges often gets misinterpreted as weakness and capitulation”. This brings us back to a fundamental question; is Egypt doomed to authoritarianism and the best that can be done is to make it light and enlightened, or is there a different path? A hint of an answer is also within the book in the life of Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali.
For more than half a century, from the 1930s until his passing in 1992, Merrit Ghali, by word and action, outlined a different vision for Egypt and its Copts. Although technically half Armenian (his mother was the granddaughter of Nubar Pasha), he embraced his Coptic identity naturally, while advocating for a country that respected diversity as the cornerstone for proper governance. Although nominally a member of Egypt’s diplomatic corp, he served where his interests led him (generally Ethiopia) rather than the whims of his bosses. He neither endorsed nor revolted against the various manifestations of the State, but sought to build a better alternative in its shadow. His recipe for success, advocated in a variety of writing including his book “Traditions for the Future”, is simple. Egypt must recognize the diversity of its religious, cultural and ethnic heritage, and refuse to identify itself as only one thing or another, as its frequent and disrespected Constitutions insist. Although a leader in the revival of Coptic studies, he never engaged in the injured and injurious Coptic discourse of “we are the only true Egyptians”. He, and many members of his wide circle of friends and collaborators, also sought to keep scholarship apart from the Church’s hagiography. There is a rare photograph in the book showing him behind his desk receiving the usually indomitable Pope Shenouda almost as a supplicant. There is a hint of a deeper desire to see culture and religion on equal footing, with neither appropriating the other for its purposes. His wide interest in African Orthodox Christianity, and his involvement in Coptic studies in the West, point to a future, now almost within reach, when Copts might outgrow the narrowness of the Egyptian identity. In contrast to many of his men folk, he seemed to be a man of the future, and if hope persists, the first rather than the last of his kind. For it will take many like him for Egypt to escape its current predicament, where power, not politics, mediates social differences.
There are those who study Egypt hoping to understand its storied history, and then there are those who see in its history repeated couplets of an encompassing and all too human threnody. This elegiac book is a work of the latter, especially as its author remains marooned outside his country, and the Church of his family subjected to a horrific attack. Much of the current discourse about Egypt, and indeed the wider region, consists of laments about golden days, and tears for the “last of their kind”. This is understandable, and whatever sympathy that may elicit must be balanced by a desire to develop new kinds, anchored in traditions but not weighed by them.
— Maged Atiya
* There was another Coptic Prime Minister, Youssef Wahba, who served for a few months during the 1919-1920 revolutionary disturbances, at the behest of the Sultan. His legitimacy was never widely accepted. I am grateful to Samuel Tadros for the correction.
The above cartoon, promoted by many official and Church channels in Egypt provides an equation (reminisceint of old style Socialist Realism agitprop)
Muslim + Christian = Egypt
A more relevant equation for all to contemplate is
Egypt – Christians = ?
— Maged Atiya
Several days after the terrorist explosion at the Boutrosiya Church Egypt is still dealing with its repercussions. A state funeral for the 25 victims, mostly women and children, was tightly organized. President Sisi attended and read out the name of the suspect. Later, Pope Tawadros II presided over the services for the victims, who were interned after scenes of heart-rending grief. Today the Egyptian government announced that the Army will undertake the repair of the Church in 15 days. While the alacrity is commendable, it is also unnecessary, and possibly counter-productive. Anything less than an exacting restoration will add to the grief of the community and further diminish Egypt’s dwindling cultural heritage. The Church represents a unique history and the preservation of its structure to the standards of its builders should be the primary goal of the effort, not speed.
The Boutrosiya was built to honor and serve as resting place for the only Coptic Prime Minister in Egypt’s history, Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910, in a crime tinged with sectarian feelings. His three sons undertook the construction effort; the learned Naguib, a one time government official and philanthropist; the worldly Wassif, the Foreign Minister who negotiated for Egypt’s independence from Britain, and the private Youssef, who bought and tended his brother’s lands, and was father to diplomat and UN Secretary General Boutros Youssef Boutros Ghali and grandfather to the man responsible for Egypt’s economic turnaround in the late Mubarak years, Youssef Raouf Youssef Boutros Ghali. The sons spared no effort to build the most magnificent structure they can afford. When Egyptian artisans could not do well enough, they imported Italians. It opened as a trumpet call announcing their faith to fellow Copts, their prominence to all Egyptians, and Egypt’s rising status to outsiders. If the Church was built to project power and status, it was also appropriated for an entirely different purpose by another of Boutros Ghali’s grandsons, Merrit Naguib Boutros Ghali. The grounds served as home for much of Merrit’s cultural interests and outreach. Merrit, a polymath who was fluent in several European and African tongues, established the Society of Coptic Archaeology and ran it from the Church (actually a misnomer since he undertook repair of Islamic antiquities as well). At one time, the Church contained over 13,000 volumes of books, some exceedingly rare. He made friends with many other scholars, who followed his template to establish other cultural centers and initiated a variety of efforts. Men such as Murqus Simaykah, who founded the Coptic Museum, Yassa ‘Abd El Messih, who cataloged the St Catherine Monastery rare collection, Sami Gabra, who co-founded the Society of Coptic Archeology, and with Aziz Atiya, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, Labib Habachi, who excavated Nubia for the University of Chicago, Ragheb Muftah who rescued ancient Coptic Church music from oblivion, and many others too numerous to name in a short post. All these men passed through the Church at one time or another because of Merrit. These were interstitial men, neither fully Eastern nor fully Western, yet better able to bridge the cultural divides. Most wanted to serve Egypt, but the confluence of Army men and Muslim Brothers made them focus more closely on Coptic culture. Even there, they struggled mightily to raise scholarship to eminence above hagiography, and sometimes suffered Clerical reproach for it. For these men, work was prayer and learning a higher piety. They elevated their fellow Copts, even if the majority is barely able to recall either their names or their accomplishments, much less so other Egyptians.
The notion that the Army can fully and faithfully repair, in 15 days, significant damage to the Church which was a background to these activities seems miraculous. It is more likely that the job will be hastily done to meet a political deadline. The Church hierarchy may feel compelled to accept this seemingly generous offer, but lay Copts, especially those abroad, should advise caution. This is a historic site, and excellent restoration can be done, but likely at a painstaking pace. It deserves no less. As does the memory of men who strove to elevate their peers. The work of nations is varied, but the building of a nation is primarily cultural. A meticulous effort, supported by a communally raised fund, and done under private supervision of qualified art historians and restorers may well be the single ray of light in this bleak episode.
— Maged Atiya
In almost all Coptic Churches women and children sit in separate pews from men. At the end of the liturgies, both groups crowd the Altar to receive Communion. It is usually a joyous occasion, as the faithful are a bit closer to heaven than to their quotidian worries. At a little before 10 AM Cairo time, 8 AM GMT, on Sunday December 11 2016 an explosive device ripped through the women’s section in the Boutrossiya Church in Abassyia, Cairo, killing 25 mostly women and children, and injuring dozens more, some of whom are barely clinging to life. When the dust settled, the responses were familiar. The Egyptian State expressed outrage at the terrorists it has been battling for the better part of 50 years. The Coptic Church reminded its flock, in all likelihood needlessly, of the words of Tertullian. Outside observers who felt capable and eager to opine on such matters placed the blame on a variety of historic ills and practices. Most arguments felt tired and worn out, as most people have barely inched from their deeply held beliefs and saw the occasion as an opportunity for further hectoring. Well meaning souls from around the world extended prayers to Copts, who are notorious for the frequency and length of their prayers. Sending prayers to Copts is about as useful as dousing a drowning man with water.
All that was too late for sisters Marina and Veronia Faheem Helmy, and for Ensaf Adel Kamel, and Ensaf-adel and Aida Mikhail and Eman Youssef and Amany Saad and Amany-Saad-Aziz and Neveen Adel Salama and Regina Raafat and Nadia Raymond Shehata and Nadia-Raymond and Varina Emad Amin and Samia Gameel and Sohair Mahrous and Mohsen Elios and Widad Wahba and Samia Fawzy and Marcelle Guirguis and Neveen Nabil Youssef and Jihan Albert and Suad Atta Bishara and Sabah Wadih Yesa and Nabil Habib Abdallah, and for many more victims. Liturgies will be read for them today, and their souls consigned to Heaven, and sadness at their passing assigned to those who survived them and will forever miss them. But what about the living? What can be done for them?
The response to such an event should be grounded in reason, not anger; in desire to protect the living rather than merely avenge the dead; and to display an unwavering commitment to the sanctity of every life. One modest proposal, which skips past all the grand plans for historical changes, is to borrow from practices seen around the world in public buildings. Copts should protect their own Churches more effectively, to save lives and frustrate terrorists. The proposal is simple. The Church and the community can purchase their own detection devices and employ, at their expense, a civilian corp to man them. We are bound to hear from conspiracy-obsessed Egypt that such an act is a prelude to a “Coptic militia” to “divide Egypt”. If such concerns are valid, then they could easily be put to rest with simple steps. The corp should be unarmed, composed of men and women who are Egyptian citizens and of Muslim faith. The leader should be a government security official. The State can vet potential members, who should be paid handsomely, as it does the current police and army officers. The President of the Republic should be able to disband this corp at any time, and without giving reason, by a simple decree. This is hardly a cure for the persistent sectarianism of Egypt. A future happier Egypt should not need such a corp. Until then, we can at least save a few lives.
— Maged Atiya
Times are good for most American Copts, and beyond just the material comforts. Half a century after the first trickle of immigration there is now a desire to develop a distinctive culture that transcends Egypt, the motherland to which they remain emotionally attached, and weave that culture into the larger American tapestry. Away from their historic repression in Egypt, they can now develop fully, and do such “Un-Coptic” things as become actors, politicians, athletes, or display assertiveness and independence once denied to them in Egypt. This moment was exemplified by the recent Television Emmy award for Best Leading Actor to Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek. The media hailed his award as the first of its kind to a “non-white” male in nearly two decades. Others rushed in to claim him as the first “Arab-American” to do so. There was also an immediate and visceral reaction from many American Copts; “he is no Arab, he is a Copt”, most seemed to say publicly. The private reactions were more pointed and in many cases angry. Once again, the Copts seem to upend the fashionable views of the so-called “Post-Colonial” discourse. The paradox of one of the largest of ancient Christian groups that was doubly disadvantaged, once under the Arabs, then under the West which disadvantaged the Arabs, now discovering strength and voice as citizens of the West, is poignant. Lord Cromer, the British banker who ruled Egypt for a quarter century is notable for his intense dislike of Copts. We can’t be sure of the reasons behind his feelings. Perhaps it is simply the product of his servitude to the Empire that bred him. It could also be that the Copts’ fervent Christianity challenged his conception that good Christians should come only in the form of High Church Anglicans. The West is now thankfully more accepting of diversity, especially of native non-whites. But that benefit is sometimes withheld from the Copts. Still, such matters are small compared with a larger looming issue; that of their relationship with the Egyptian Church. On the occasion of President Sisi’s visit to the UN General Assembly, the Church sent two senior Bishops to urge American Copts to provide a supportive welcome. There was no need for the Bishops to take the trouble and come to the US; the vast majority of American Copts had no intention of protesting his visit. The trip betrays a historic anxiety among the Egyptian hierarchy about political activism among immigrant Copts.
The Egyptian Church has sometimes been wary of political and cultural activism among immigrant Copts since the late 1970s. The Church’s initial reaction to immigration was less than approving; viewing those that left Egypt as abandoning their post, and fearing decline as the best educated and most adventurous left for other lands. As the first immigrants breathed freedom in America, a few among them felt the need to call attention to the growing sectarianism in Egypt under President Sadat. Sadat did not appreciate either the critics, or even those who supported his policies but saw a need to acknowledge the obvious. As far as the great man of peace was concerned, the only good Copt is a silent one. The Church hierarchy, including Pope Shenouda who was having a strenuous relationship with Sadat, also showed little approval of the activists. There were many reasons. The Church was ascendant in the historic tug of war with lay leaders over communal matters and influence. It feared, correctly, that some among the activists may be motivated by bias as well as concern about the “Coptic problem”. It also wanted a free hand to deal with the rising challenge of Islamists who were using long-standing social bigotry to swell their membership ranks. More than once it challenged such activism as well-intentioned but harmful meddling from a group ensconced safely an ocean away. But perhaps the most ominous reason, when taking the long point of view, was a lack of understanding of how quickly Copts were becoming Americans. A decade after these events, Pope Shenouda commented, pithily but inaccurately, that “the only American feature of US Copts was their passports”. To this observer, and many others, this seemed like a slap in the face for those who are forging a positive new identity, and who struggle with acculturation in a new environment radically different from their conservative roots, but still wanted to remain in conversation with a painful patrimony. The patrimony of the Copt includes many things, glorious early Church history, painful oppression lasting centuries, revival, and perhaps most confusingly Egypt itself. The last part of this patrimony has been adopted as a central feature of the Church’s narrative of the community and itself. Pope Shenouda repeated Makram Ebeid’s phrase “Egypt is not a country we live in, but a country that lives in us”. This view is harmless enough for Egyptians seeking a national identity beyond religious distinctions. But if adopted as near Church doctrine it will distance the Church from what it frequently calls “our sons and daughters abroad”. Most Copts, one suspects, would accept the moniker “sons and daughters”, but they are not abroad. America is their home, and so is Canada and Australia. The presence of non-Egyptian Copts should not be viewed as a net loss to Egypt, nor to its Christians. The challenge of immigration is increasingly as large as that of Western missionaries more than a century ago, which produced consternation in the Church hierarchy, but ultimately reform as well. Similarly, the challenges of immigration can be turned to advantage, but that will require the Church to view the immigrant churches as more than satellites of the Egyptian Church. Patrimony is not a fixed inheritance, but each generation can add or subtract from it as it sees fit. The central question today is the role of the “Egypt” part of the patrimony. How central is Egypt to the Coptic identity and how freely can Copts outside Egypt alter or even discard that identity without a permanent alienation from the Mother Church. This is not a question merely for non-Egyptian Copts, but for the Church itself and its bishops, including a new generation raised in the West, and is familiar with its ways and the appropriate discourse to acquire supporters and friends.
That said, it would be a serious error to underestimate the strength of the connection between immigrant Copts and Egypt. The focus of that connection is concern for the safety and communal health of Egyptian Copts. Immigrant Copts, regardless of where they place on the ladder of economic success, the spectrum of political affiliation, or the fervency of faith, are committed to see Egyptian Copts escape the ravages of social discrimination, government neglect of their security, and shield Egypt itself from the flames engulfing the region. The expression of that concern, and the actions taken as a consequence, create a definition and narrative of the immigrant Coptic experience. The Egyptian Church is not a bystander in that effort. Through its actions and words, and receptivity to responsible critics, it can shape that narrative. The concern for Egyptian Copts can seem as either an instance of universal respect for human lives or a narrow sectarian team picking. The former will bear better fruits for the Copts themselves, and earn them the support of stalwart and true friends outside the community. The words and actions from Egypt do matter.
It would be a historic mistake for immigrant Copts to drift away from the Egyptian Church, even if at times its language and actions are at odds with perceptions shaped by freedom in the West. The number of immigrant Copts is still relatively small (probably less than a million), and their cultural contributions to the immigration countries correspondingly more limited. A drift, in either name or action, will render both components weaker than the whole, and less able to cross-pollinate and strengthen each other. It is tempting to think that Egypt, in its current state, has little to offer immigrant Copts. But in fact, the very struggle for improving the lot of Egyptian Copts, is an incentive to improve the social and cultural weight of immigrant Copts. It would also be a mistake to think that the affairs of immigrant Churches in America, Canada or Australia, can be managed by command-and-control from the northeast of Africa. The Egyptian Church is subject to the social and political conditions that shaped the country. The rulers often view the Church as the sole representative of the community, and charge it with developing support within that community. Just as critically, the Egyptian leaders of the Church are conditioned by the cultural and political dialogue in the country, and their words and actions can sometimes seem immune to the understanding gained from a distance. The virtue of listening can ensure that these differences create dialogues not disagreements.
If the patrimony is to be kept, enhanced, improved, and left in better shape for future generations, there needs to be a recognition of the obvious, that the Church is no longer merely the Church of Egypt, but an ancient Orthodox Church that emanated from Egypt. This requires many changes in the manner with which the Church hierarchy communicates with the faithful and the larger world beyond. Egyptian nativism plays poorly outside Egypt, and is rarely a benefit to Egypt in any case. In understanding the environment and needs of the Churches abroad, the Egyptian Church can transcend being an imitation of Egyptian governance to becoming an shining example of what a future Egypt could be. We often invoke Tertullian’s words that the “blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. But it is also the efforts of the living to strengthen and improve the Church and community that prove to be the most powerful tribute to their suffering.
— Maged Atiya
The number of Copts in America in 1970 was tiny, and their economic power was meager. Still, some managed to pool their resources and buy buildings to establish native Churches. The process was relatively painless, money aside. Often the building belonged to a previous Protestant or Catholic denomination that saw its numbers dwindle. The permits were easy to come by, and the renovations were limited entirely by the resources of the flock. An early member of the Brooklyn Church in New York City remarked that “we can build more Churches here in America in ten years than in a hundred years in Egypt”. That came to pass. Few have asked how it came to be that Copts were able to come to America in the first place.
The US had placed strict limits on the number of immigrants from “brown countries” until the Celler-Hart act of 1965, which became administrative law in 1968. The Copts of Egypt would have had little chance to be in America if that law had not come to pass. The supporters of the law and the opponents of it are mostly dead or deep in retirement by now. But their literal and ideological descendants live on. When American Copts go to the polls on November 8 2016, one may humbly request that they remember which of the two candidates would have supported or opposed that law. One may further request that the vote be guided by what made their presence in America possible, not by the grievances of the old and damaged country.
— Maged Atiya