September 11 and the “Eastern Question”

Miniature

In 1957 an Egyptian historian was appointed to the prestigious Patten lectureship at Indiana University. He used the occasion to give a series of lectures on a subject that had occupied him for more than 30 years. In 1961 the lectures were assembled into a slim book, just 280 pages including the indexes. The book would have been much larger, but the historiography and bibliography were assembled into a separate volume, nearly 200 pages long. This blogger is the current custodian of the author’s own first copy of both volumes and can attest that the historiography is far more thumbed than the main volume.The author had a life-long habit of stating his ambitious, even radical intellectual plans, in an understated preface. Perhaps it was his village upbringing that left him with the conviction that modesty and humility are life’s best insurance against the caprice of fortune or the disapproval of God. Of the subject matter knowledge he accumulated over the course of three decades on three continents he says “I never had the courage to attempt a general treatise on this vast and variegated sphere of historical knowledge … until the time of the invitation to the Patten Lectures. Since a major condition was the delivery of the text of the lectures for publication … I had no choice but to succumb to the temptation which I had been able to resist for many years”. This was the preface of Aziz Atiya’s “Crusade, Commerce and Culture”, a remarkable and now prescient book. Of the subject he notes “I have attempted a distinction between the Crusade, a movement with roots deep in the Greco-Persian-Arabic past, and the Crusades as a series of military ventures limited to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries”. With that sweeping and radical statement, it comes as no surprise that the author describes the Crusades as one attempted solution for a historical problem that continues to our day, the “Eastern Question”. The Crusades were merely a phase, a “Frankish Solution” to that question, and neither the first nor the last. The author explicitly states that the “Eastern Question” is narrowly understood to be the definition of the European powers’ concern over what would become of the lands governed by the declining Ottoman Empire, but he notes that the concern is yet another episode of a larger cultural struggle between two worlds, and one that finds it nexus in the Levant.

The book opens with a summary of the various attempted solutions to the Eastern Question, from Alexander the Great, to the Roman occupation of the East, to the Byzantine dominance, the rise of the Arabs and Islam, the Carolingian solution and finally to the Crusades themselves. He gives one of the most concise and brief definition of a then not-yet fashionable term in the West, “Jihad”, before dropping it altogether in favor of a more neutral term, “Counter Crusades”. The author is rather comfortable with many concepts that we now try to avoid in Western intellectual discourse. There is the essential cultural difference between “East” and “West”, on which he finds no side to favor. The author started his intellectual life as an Easterner with a Western education and completed it as a Westerner with Eastern roots. That arc left him with appreciation for both and no fear of delineating differences while noting the larger human commonalities, which materialized in the exchange of goods and ideas; commerce and culture, in that order. He notes that both the Crusades and Counter-Crusades (Jihad) were holy wars indeed, which makes them not the opposite of peace, but the opposite of secular wars. He experienced several such wars in his lifetime, and all of them were crueler and more destructive than the skirmishes he chronicles. He gives in a single page a radical and alternative history of the Islamic conquests, not as a result of Islam, but as a continuation of earlier infiltration of Arab irregulars into the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. This view of early Islam (later expanded and endorsed by such scholars as Patricia Crone, Michael Cook and Glen Bowersock) was likely the result of his copious research in early non Islamic sources in the crucial seventh century C.E. He notes that the continuous competition between West and East co-existed with a great of mutual attraction between the two worlds. Of Alexander the Great he says “Curiously, Alexander who Hellenized wide areas in Asia and who married his soldiers to the daughters of Iran in order to create a uniform Greco-Iranian nation, became himself in the end an Oriental potentate”.  The author’s take on the Jewish revolt of 117 C.E. is also a radical one, defining it as “first instance on record of what might justly be described as wars of religion”. A single and jealous God left no room for the compromises of multiple deities, and would endow those who had faith in him with resolve, a sense of divine law and justice, and on occasions wanton cruelty in defense of uncompromising belief. The Jewish wars, the growth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam mark a fateful junction in human history. “Hitherto, the Eastern Question had been one of race and culture. At this juncture, it became a religious problem”. The impressive research and  rich historical details in the book, especially in the discussion of commerce and culture, make it difficult to take sides in what amounts to a “clash of civilization”. The author remains a detached referee, handing out yellow cards to one side or the other without fear or favor. It is clear that he views the differences in world views as nearly insurmountable, but wishes them to return to an earlier form, that of culture rather than religion. The book had a valedictory air to it, as he never went back to a similar systematic study. The remaining 30 years of his life were spent in the collection of books and the study of Eastern Christianity. He was also fascinated by the burgeoning phenomena of Western Islam, transmitted to him by many Muslim friends who took up residence in the West.

Almost exactly 32 years after the publication of the book, Samuel Huntington took up the same thesis, but with less historical sweep, in the “Clash of Civilizations”. Huntington accepted the alignment of Western values with Christianity, and formulated the regrettable notion of “Islam’s bloody borders”. The borders had been bloody before Islam, and although we can never prove it, would have likely remained bloody absent the rise of Islam. The identification of Christianity with Western values left the Eastern Christians behind front lines they did not intend to create, nor were willing to cross. Atiya, a Copt by baptism, was keenly aware of the rapid Islamization of Egypt and the Levant after the Crusades. The alignment of Western and Christian values was the choice of the West, not the Christians. The West set about purging its perceived domain of Islam, and any domain that was not amenable to such a purge was declared non-Western.

In the author’s view the fundamental dichotomy between West and East was not alleviated by religious commonality. He blames Byzantium’s suppression of Eastern Christians for the ease with which the Arab armies seized the Levant and Egypt, and notes that “The growth of peace, justice and security in the countries of the Levant was accompanied by the steady development of a new superior Arab civilization to which the Eastern Christians contributed no mean share”. The subsequent 300 years of mutual diplomacy and peace between West and East, the Carolingian solution, ended with the age of the Crusades. The author notes “Strictly speaking, Muslim terrorism as the order of the day in the Near East must be identified with the predominance of the Turks, who were new to Islam and had no comprehension of the language of the Qur’an”. This view, which must seem odd today, was in fact a not uncommon discourse among nationalist Egyptian intellectuals during that time, who prefered to champion racial cohesion over religious differences. The author demonstrates how during the “Carolingian solution” the West accepted the essentially Eastern nature of their Christian faith as demonstrated by the great effort and expense that went into promoting pilgrimages and visits to the East. The notion of Christianity as a “Western religion”, was not a cause of the Crusades but a result of them. The Crusades were raised by a French Pope, and represented the “Frankish solution” of the Eastern question. Although in territorial terms they failed to secure any foothold for the West in the Levant, they were to launch the rise of the warlike West, fatally injure Eastern Christianity, and initiate a long term decline of Arab and Muslim culture.

On every September 11 since 2001, the themes of that book come to mind. For a moment after the attack President George Bush slipped and described the response as a “crusade” before quickly walking back his comment. The terrorists had no compunction about describing their crimes in religious terms. The question that comes to mind, 17 years after that event, is whether we must continue to relive the “Eastern Question”, or whether a fundamentally different outlook must prevail, for the sake of every newborn on all sides of the divide.

— Maged Atiya

 


The Resurrection and Death of Salama Moussa

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“Lo, the desert claims the land.Towns are ravaged, Upper Egypt became a wasteland Lo, everyone’s hair has fallen out Lo, great and small say, ‘I wish I were dead’ Lo, children of nobles are dashed against walls Infants are put on high ground Food is lacking Wearers of fine linen are beaten with sticks Ladies suffer like maidservants Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds Men stir up strife unopposed Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with laments See now the land deprived of kingship What the pyramid hid is empty The People are diminished.”

Lamentations of Ipuwer 2200 BCE

“The temples of the gods and goddesses from Elephantine down to the marshes of the Delta had gone to pieces. Their shrines had become desolate, had become mounds overgrown with weeds. Their sanctuaries were as if they had never been. Their halls were a footpath. The land was topsy-turvy and the gods turned their backs upon this land. If an army was sent to Syria to extend the frontiers of Egypt, no success of theirs came at all. If one prayed to a god to seek counsel from him, he would never come at all. If one made supplication  to a goddess similarly, she would never come at all.”

Tutankhamun’s Restoration Stela 1334 BCE

In his reign, for what cause I know not, a blast of God smote us; and unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of the gods, and treated all the natives with a cruel hostility, massacring some and leading into slavery the wives and children of others.

Manetho 300 BCE

The country feels trapped, cheated, and shortchanged in the battle between an inept, authoritarian state and a theocratic fringe.

Fouad Ajami 1995

Travel across the Arabic-speaking world and a common theme emerges. It is encountered in the pitiful eye of strangers and in the questioning eye of the academic: what has happened to Egypt and the Egyptians?

Samuel Tadros 2018

On August 4 1958 the Egyptian writer Salama Moussa took his last breath. Half a century earlier, as a young man in Europe, he discovered how little he knows about the history of his land, or the culture of the West that he observed with fascination and admiration. The shy and introverted young man was not short on self-confidence or anger. Like his namesake he resolved to come back to his people with commandments on how to live their lives. Over the course of five decades he wrote books at the rate of one a year and published articles at the rate of one a week. He became known, indeed notorious, for the trouble he kicked up, and for his ability, in the words of Wadi’ Filistin, to make enemies and admirers. His hectoring on freedom of thought, sexual freedom, the rights of women, evolution, psychoanalysis, language and secularism came in jumbled but pointed streams. His people listened (when they did) and ignored most of his recommendations. They chose the certainty of what is known to fail over the uncertainty of what might succeed. He did not help matters by his own conduct. He urged strict birth control, but fathered eight children. He advocated sexual freedom and open marriage, but lived a conventional middle class life. He simultaneously urged people to build businesses and the government to control the economy. He railed against religious superstition, but found himself embroiled in matters of church governance. He insisted that Arabic was retarding the growth of his country but wrote exclusively in it. He insisted that freedom of thought was paramount in any cultural project, yet supported the 1952 coup and participated in the Third Arab writers conference a few months before his death, an event that Albert Hourani defined as the moment of death for the liberal age that Moussa had championed for most of his life. Yet all his contradictions did not stop his contemporaries from admiring him or hating him, and on occasions both. The list of those who called him a mentor is long, so is the list of those who found him insufferable. ‘Abbas Al ‘Aqqad, once a friend, became a bitter enemy and they continued to battle to old age, when a year or so before Moussa’s death ‘Aqqad swore never to argue again with this “despicable communist”. Taha Hussein admired his passion in defense of shared opinions, but was stung by his attacks on Arabic, and his wholesale condemnation of all Egyptian ‘Udaba’ (intellectual) as mere servants of the rulers. His death came roughly half way between two events that symbolized the demise of his project; the conference mentioned above and the January 1 1959 wholesale arrest of many of Egypt’s leftist intellectuals as “communists”. He thundered that the Egyptians deserve a “literature of the people” rather than the fare imposed on them by their intellectuals. But when the people chose, it was not fine literature but religious hectoring and political conspiracies that carried the day. He dreamt of the day when hundreds of outlets would cater to the people without elite intervention. The day has arrived and he would be aghast at what the people choose to consume. Egypt, two generations after his passing, stands in reprimand of all that he dreamt for it. Yet, were he alive today, he would likely insist that all is not lost.

The eulogies came quickly after his passing and continued for decades, with all of them predicting, in one way or another, that he will consigned to obscurity. Immediately after his death, Hussein Fawzy gloomily noted that “When Salama Moussa realizes his rightful place in the country’s history, and when his country prizes him, then I will feel that my country acknowledges the rightful place of free thought, intellectual courage and scientific inquiry”. In a set of reflections on intellectual history of Egypt, Naguib Mahfouz noted that “Salama Moussa was a man of the future, always committed to social justice, industrialization, scientific knowledge and democracy. He stood against all superstitions. I am his student and affected by all his thoughts, except his dedication to the West”. The Lebanese academic Khalil Bitar noted in 2007, with his country’s civil war in the rearview mirror, that Moussa was unlike intellectuals of his generation in “refusing to blame others for the failures of their society, and largely forgotten for insisting that sectarianism is the ruin of all societies, Eastern or Western”. Even Mohamed Hassanein Heikal lamented that “he was an important intellectual but never given his due”. It is hardly surprising that Moussa would be forgotten, given how Egypt has drifted away from his vision in the past six decades. Religion has not become a private pursuit, but a matter of contentious, even lethal, public policy. Women experience the patriarchal oppression with more not less force. Freedom of thought and expression are mythical, less for the heavy hand of the state than the oppressive nature of the society. Almost everything the man has wished for his countrymen has been rejected by them. Yet he is not totally forgotten; every few years one thinker or another brings up his memory, attempts a resurrection before consigning him to forgetfulness again. A retrospective of the man, published by Fikry Andrawous and available only in Arabic, continues to fly off the shelves in Cairo. Young men continue to discover this writings and be profoundly, and largely privately, affected by them. Andrawous dedicates nearly 70 pages to such testimony. A typical one comes from Maged Moustapha Ibrahim. As a young college student in the early 1980s he was stricken with a serious case of boredom by the decrepit intellectual atmosphere around him. One day he came upon the “The Education of Salama Moussa”, and within days he was traveling with a book bag full of Moussa’s writings and reading nothing else. The implicit question in such tales is “what happened to us? what happened to our brain?”. This is the cry of the Egyptians at an “intermediate period”; what historians label centuries of chaos sandwiched between bursts of glory and brilliance.

Living in the intermediate age while empowered by easy communication tools has generated a peculiar sort of non-verbal laments. Dozens of social media and other accounts are dedicated to evidence of how Egypt once looked. The women went about in fetching sun dresses. Men kept their hands off them. The beaches were free and the people frolicked in flimsy swimsuits. The streets were orderly and clean. People from all around the region flocked to Egypt as a beacon and a destination. People fear “state failure”, but Egypt in the current intermediate period is a not a failure. It is a joke. The remedy, all insist, is to reject the current false idols and go back to the true gods. This has always been the recipe for any intermediate age. Psalm 115, pinched by the Jews from an ancient Egyptian hymn, makes the point.

Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God?
But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased.
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

For all his errors and peculiarities, Moussa understood one important insight about Egypt, and hammered the point home with his signature inelegance. It is a point made in a very different manner by Freud about the mythical founder of his people in “Moses and Monotheism”. The root of Egypt is the root of Western civilization. If the Egyptians were to take the current salafism to its logical end they would find themselves deeply attached to the West they admire, hate, attack and court its favor. It is perhaps why the peculiar and difficult man experiences a cycle of resurrection and burial, an ancient habit of his kin, the people who ushered in the Axial age and then proceeded to smash it to bits.

— Maged Atiya


Can We Survive Toleration?

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

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

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

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

— Maged Atiya

Additional Links

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Part I

Immigration And The Reinvention of Identity. Notes From The Id

The Copt’s Patrimony

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

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

The Last of Their Kind?

The Empty Mausoleum


The Immigration Debate and Dangers for Eastern Christians

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The recent short shutdown of the US Federal government was attributed to irreconcilable differences about “Dreamers”, or children of undocumented immigrants. But that was really the smoke behind which lies a great and dangerous fire. A significant portion of the American Republican party now feels emboldened to overturn the Hart-Celler act of 1965 and in effect return to the immigration policies promulgated by the emergency quota act of 1921. It serves no purpose to be coy about the reasons behind this desire. One part is fear of the “browning” of America, another part is fear of Muslim immigrants who seem to carry different, and perhaps hostile, attitudes toward diversity in America. But there is another unintended consequence which will result from any change in the landmark act of 1965. Given the rigor of American constitutional law and the manner in which it is interpreted by almost all legal authorities, the return to the 1921 act will have devastating effect on the prospects of Christian immigrants from the volatile Middle East. No religious test on immigration will pass muster. Any attempt to limit it based on threat to people will also not work in a meaningful way. In short, the GOP desire to overturn the Hart-Celler act will be the most damaging blow to the prospects of Eastern Christians in the last decades. Whatever the reasons behind the desire of GOP members to overturn the act, the practical result will be profoundly anti-Christian.

The 1965 law increased quotas from many non-White countries. One of the primary beneficiaries of that change have been Christians of the Middle East, foremost amongst them are the Copts of Egypt. It has been said that Copts have traditionally been averse to immigration. In fact, as soon as the possibility of immigration opened up they undertook it with considerable zeal. They had been living for centuries as second class citizens in their own land, but equality in a strange land beckoned and became attractive indeed. It also true that the Christians of Iraq, forced to face the disastrous effects of Saddam’s adventures and the subsequent American invasion of the country, found escape and survival in immigration. But beyond the 1965 act there were two additional changes; the “diversity” lottery act of 1990 and the relaxed administrative rules toward reuniting of families, what many GOP politicians derisively call “chain immigration”. This enabled many poorer Christians who would not qualify on the merits of their educational and economical power to immigrate, and subsequently bring in additional family members. This provides a significant avenue for many. The policies that some GOP politicians have attacked have benefited the beleaguered Christians of the East. The new immigrants provide a vital link to those at home and their efforts, both personal and organizational, also lend much needed help to their brethren suffering persecution. These efforts exceed any other governmental or NGO help to them. A significant change to the current US laws on immigration will dry these sources of assistance and may prove quietly devastating to those still in the old homelands.

Recently Vice President Mike Pence ambled to the Middle East to embrace Israel and declare to the Christians there that “help is on the way”. He could lend further and perhaps greater assistance at home by becoming a voice of reason in the current debate on immigration. As politicians and legislators debate changes they need to heed Deuteronomy 10:19 “Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the Land of Egypt”.

— Maged Atiya

 


Will Brownback Have Their Back?

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Vice President Mike Pence rushed back from the Middle East to cast the deciding vote in the US Senate for confirming former Governor and Senator Sam Brownback as “Ambassador at large for religious freedom”. The reason for the close vote was that Mr. Brownback has acquired many opponents in his native Kansas and outside it by seeking to curtail the rights of homosexual Americans, and by pursuit of economic policies that favored ideology over evidence and thus nearly bankrupting that otherwise industrious and striving state. Still, many hailed his appointment to the post as a man with deep convictions and support for religious freedom and commitment to protect the Christians of the East. Mr. Brownback identifies as an “Evangelical”, a large and uncertain grouping that should not be viewed as a homogeneous block, suffering deep divisions as evidenced by the warring camps of the Moores. The division pits those who seek secular power at any cost vs. those who are ambivalent about these same costs; the Roy and Johnnie Moores against the Russell Moores. Without casting any doubt on the integrity and sincerity of Mr. Brownback we must ask whether in fact his appointment will help the cause of these Christians, or other minorities such as Yazidis, Baha’is or Rohynigas . Will Brownback have their back?

First we should reject the argument that such overt support should be avoided for fear of arousing the anger of the majorities. Those who seek to disadvantage Christians or eradicate Christianity, or example, do not condition their feelings or actions on the displays of outside help.  That said, it is natural to be wary of white men rushing east  proclaiming, as Mike Pence did, that “help is on the way”. Often less is delivered than promised, and when delivered it is frequently inconstant. The record of the West in assisting Eastern Christians or religious minorities in general is less than stellar. Exactly a hundred years ago the English scholar S. H. Leeder published a volume called “Modern Sons of the Pharaohs” in which he detailed the condescending and hateful attitudes of the British imperial authorities towards the Copts of Egypt even while advocating loudly for minority privileges and rights. The Copts managed to thrive in spite of these attitudes, or perhaps because of them. Further east the Assyrian Christians cast their lot with the British only to be abandoned to the cruelties of the Arab and Kurdish irregulars. Even the linguistically irrepressible Churchill was silent on the matter. Armenians suffered the first modern genocide under Western eyes and in close proximity to Western power. But there is clearly a desire to change this historical reality. For example, more recently various Evangelical groups, and also Vice President Pence, drew close to the government of Egypt and voiced their concerns about the fate of Christians. This is commendable, and some minor practical improvements followed. Time will tell how long lasting the effects will be. In any case, there are more pressing reasons why the entire idea of support for religious freedom needs to be recast and reworked in different terms.

Any support for religious freedom that casts persecuted religious minorities as actors in the West’s battle of identities is unlikely to be helpful in the long term. An ambassador for religious freedom with solid support across all camps in his or her homeland is preferable to one with grudging support. If none can be found, then perhaps none should be offered for that support is neither deep nor sincere. Mr. Brownback was pressed into service with a poke in the eye of those who opposed him, and with little attempt to find a more conciliatory figure, or understand why many reasonable people expressed serious concerns. There was no attempt to see if Mr. Brownback is agreeable to those whom he seeks to advocate for. The last point is not a trivial one given his public record. Will Mr Brownback advocate for a gay Coptic woman in Egypt that opposes military government? (Such people do exist). It is almost as if America’s long struggle for civil rights left no mark on many who seek to export it. These concerns point to deficiencies of form. There are also deficiencies of substance.

Any time help is offered to others it is often a delicate balance between what they expressly desire and what we believe is good for them and possible for us. Yet the genuine voices of the persecuted are often absent in the Western discourse about how to help them. They are considered, by and large, our persecuted minorities. The problem is that the needs are different for different groups, both varied and complex, and in many cases offer unappealing or difficult choices for Americans; choices that may incur huge costs in treasure or lives, or at the very least in immigration visas. As a result the help offered is often thin on substance. The offers are also cast under anxious shadows; reflections of uncertainties about Western identities or memories of previous errors, and rarely with understanding that the persecuted have different powers of their own and agency over their fate. If the form of help must be made solid through expressed support across various divisions, then the substance of help must be made more lasting by allowing it to achieve long term objectives. This is why endowments exist. The entire purpose of such constructions is to turn one-time support into long lasting, flexible and responsive long-term help. America doesn’t lack for endowments. If freedom of faith is worth supporting then it is worth endowing with significant financial and managerial support and setting up structures to manage and deliver such help. This is not a simple task, but the very difficulty of it provides an expression of seriousness of purpose. If the purpose is to get to the moon then one creates NASA rather than nominate a lunar ambassador. Religious freedom deserves no less.

— Maged Atiya

 

 


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

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In the late summer of 1967 a white-haired academic read the final drafts of a book about to be published in England and soon after that in America. The book evolved from a set of lectures he had given at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City a decade earlier. It is easy to imagine him working in a study on the second floor of his Victorian house on Perry Avenue  nestled in the hills east of Salt Lake City by the university campus. He was a year shy of 70, and soon to approach a second retirement, but life was to offer him two more decades which he used to great purpose. The news from the land where he was born, grew up and spent a good part of his adult life was difficult. He was to become an American citizen within a few years, but his connection to Egypt rarely wavered, however the circumstances, and whatever neglect and bias the country threw his way. He also remained involved in the affairs of his church, although he was neither outwardly religious nor a frequent church goer. He expressed this attachment in the preface of the book by offering it as “the fulfilment of a lifelong vow”. “Vow” may seem a paradoxically religious description for an act of scholarship by a man who was largely secular in tastes. But terms such a “secular” and “religious” could not easily be applied to one whose elliptical confession of faith reads “it must be stated that I, a historian by vocation, am also a member of the Coptic Church by birth and upbringing”. “Vocation” along with “Vow” color his life and work with a certain Christian religious brush, even if the bulk of his scholarship was devoted to the study of Islamic history and the late Crusades. Of the book he completed he writes “As a matter of fact, I allowed myself to be persuaded into shouldering this arduous task, partly as a modest work of scholarship, and partly as an act of faith”. These statements and many others throughout the book leave no doubt that his purpose was more than producing a simple scholarly and dry exposition of what the author calls the “primitive churches”, those of the “the Coptic and Ethiopic, the Jacobite, Nestorian, Armenian, Indian, Maronite, and the vanished churches of Nubia and North Africa”. And it is to the “more” that we must pay attention on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Aziz Atiya’s “History of Eastern Christianity”. Although the book does an excellent job of summarizing the history of these churches, it is the Copts that occupy the leading and largest chapter in the book, as befits the confession of the author. There is much to mine in the book, coming at the halfway mark of the last eventful century in the life of the Copts. A close reading of the book leaves the impression of a paradox of an author who both transcended and was limited by the circumstances of his time. The underlying worldview of the book is anti-colonial but not post-colonial. The mood of the author is one of pride in his heritage but unease about what has befallen it in over the centuries. The words that emerge have an uneasy balance between a desire for speaking truth and a reticence born of the author’s position and the consignment he received as a born Copt.

Aziz Suryal Atiya (1898-1988) would have been 120 years old next July 5. He had mused that he wished for a biblical lifespan of 10 dozen years. His tenure on earth was shorter, amounting to seven and half dozen years, and in a broad sense was marked by 12 year cycles of challenges and achievements. At 12, as an aspiring young student in Cairo away from his provincial family, he witnessed the events surrounding the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali and remembered them well into his late years. At 24 he was a poor but ambitious young man who left medical school due to lack of funds (his official biography notes that he was kicked out in 1919 due to his nationalist agitation). He experienced Dickensian poverty in the intervening years, made bearable only by the support of a stern father, a loving mother, and an adoring brood of siblings.  He walked the streets of Cairo in shoes stuffed with newspapers, unable or unwilling to spend the streetcar fare, but with dreams of studying medieval history abroad. The poverty neither dimmed his ambition nor weakened his spirit. At 36 he had acquired several degrees from England and was headed to a respected professorship in Germany. He completed a study, now a classic, of the 14th century crusade of Nicopolis, one of the last crusades and an event pregnant with future meaning for Christian-Muslim relations. But Germany in the late 1930s was no place for a brown man and he headed back to Egypt. By 48 he was a resident of cosmopolitan Alexandria, a founding member of its university, married to an intelligent and spirited daughter of the Coptic aristocracy and raising two young children. He would soon start on a project that ultimately led him to America; the microfilming of the library of St Catherine monastery in the Sinai. His collaborators were mostly American and European refugees to America. In 1951 he was invited to summarize his findings to the Library of Congress and his speech was introduced by the then Egyptian ambassador Kamel Bey Abdul Rahim. Those years also brought ominous clouds. His neighbor and friend, the physician and intellectual Ahmed Zaki Abu Shady would immigrate to America one step ahead of the government provocateurs and murderous Islamists. The move, unique at the time, would presage a later flood, as well as Aziz’s own life. The nativist wave that started in the late 1940s and culminated in the educational “reforms” of 1954 occasioned his demotion and finally his departure from Alexandria. Unhappy with the lack of recognition for his work and general badgering by the new regime he resigned one step ahead of the purge. As the so-called liberal age was ending he became increasingly occupied with Coptic studies and affairs of the Church and community. His turn to Coptology bore echoes of earlier involvements with such scholars as Ragheb Muftah and Mirrit Ghali, but was clearly a new occupation for him. During the years immediately following the 1952 coup, when his career in Egyptian universities was nearly at an end, he made three critical contributions to the Coptic community. He established the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies with Sami Gabra, he mentored many students who joined the clergy in senior capacities, and persuaded the Coptic clerical hierarchy to ease its historic suspicion of Protestant churches and initiate ecumenical relations with many other Churches. After leading a delegation to the World Council of Churches conference in 1954, his trips to America became more frequent and at 60 he finally settled in Salt Lake City to head a new institute at the University of Utah. The next dozen years were exceptionally productive. Aside from his academic work, he finished several books, including the “History of Eastern Christianity” and was even involved in such esoteric pursuits as locating the hieroglyphic rolls at the foundation of the Church of Latter Day Saints. At 72 he did not settle into retirement. Instead he was assisting the Egyptian Church with selecting suitable pastors for new immigrants by working with his former student Bishop Samuel in that capacity, and planning his next project. That project was a compendium of scholarly articles on all aspects of the Copts. He succeeded in his ambition to make it an international work of scholarship, with as many non-Copts as Copts involved in it. It was a dozen more years before the project was firmly established and at age 84 he felt certain that a final product might come out in his lifetime. He missed the deadline by only a handful of years, having passed away in 1988 after falling ill while working at his desk, writing the introduction to the eight volume work.

The “History of Eastern Christianity” summarizes the history of these churches with quick brushes and substantial number of references. But beyond the impeccable scholarship there is also a polemic that looks critically at how the West perceived Eastern Christians. Of Catholic writers he notes “[are] usually men of great learning and erudition who viewed the East from the narrow angle of their own profession with sectarian vehemence and considerable lack of understanding”. On the other hand, Protestant writers “failed to come to grips with the essence of Eastern Christian primitivism”. What is needed, he argues, is a narrative by “native historians”. In its purpose the book anticipates later works, such as “Orientalism” by Edward Said, published a decade later. However, in method and conclusion, it is entirely different. It reflects the author’s belief that it is pointless to try to call out bias or demand that it ends; rather it is best to elevate the “native” so that such biases are made silly in the light of new accomplishments. His awareness of the condescension of the West toward Eastern Christians exists side by side with respect and fascination with Western culture and its methods and advances.He grew up among the Coptic clergy who harbored undisguised dislike for the West and Western Christian methods. Yet in 1954 he persuaded an anti-Protestant Pope Yus’ab to bless a mission of a bright young monk and a priest to the World Council of Churches by telling him that “we must strive to educate the Protestants, who are our younger brothers”. More than a dozen years later he looked on the fruits of his argument with some satisfaction. “The Coptic Church, which had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitism since the black days of Chalcedon in 451, is now steadily recapturing its faith in old friends and foes overseas and in distant climes. The aloofness and traditional suspicion of the patriarchs towards other Christians of different sects is gradually being replaced by a sense of mutual regard and a measure of cooperation ..”. He does not absolve Eastern Christians, and specifically his tribe, the Copts, of a measure of complicity in the Western gaze. Of his people he writes “The place of Copts in the general history of Christianity has long been minimized, sometimes even forgotten, because the Coptic people themselves had voluntarily chosen to live in oblivion. After having led the way for centuries, they decided to segregate themselves from the growing ecclesiastical authority of the West in order to guard their way of worship and retain their national pride”. Rather than air grievances and demand equality, he seeks a position of strength by the jujitsu of proudly adopting the description “primitive”, once hurled by Western missionaries as a rebuke to the East, as a definition for a Christianity uncontaminated by worldly power and its accretions. The epilogue makes clear his agenda of returning the East into a central place in Christian history. He approvingly notes Milton Obote’s demand that “we should have more African clergymen, after all churches are international .. White missionaries have done good work but their era is finished”. From that quote he pivots to making his own demand: “The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions”. Yet he notes that “the Eastern churches are at best too limited in their means to cope with those vast responsibilities”. This leads him to the conclusion that Western Christianity can best assure the survival of its Eastern brethren by aid to the native churches rather than direct intervention. Although this has become the official positions of many of the Oriental churches, it has yet to be accepted by all Western churches, especially the right-wing evangelicals. In a calm and deliberate manner he announces his ambition that the “general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten to incorporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the Copts”, and by implication other Eastern Christians. The insertion of the word “turbulent” hints at his view that the primitives are not entirely blameless in the schisms of the Fifth century. He notes that he possesses the “inevitable passion of one who writes from within the Coptic world and yet who must view events dispassionately with the mind of a historian from outside”. This necessary distancing was to bring him into conflict with many of the Church leaders, including patriarchs, and accounts for the many misguided attacks some Copts still level against his scholarship to this day.

It is now common to see the rise of Islamists and the violent variants of their ideology as the largest threat to the primitive churches. Atiya was not blind to persecution and its ill effects, but he saw in Western evangelism a different and potent threat. He had studied Islam for decades and came to know it well and see much good in it. His lectures on Islamic history attracted many Muslim students at the University of Utah, and more than a few confessed that he taught them as much about their heritage as their religious leaders, if not more. His views on the threats to primitive christianity were subtle and uncolored by personal biases. This subtlety, and even a certain ambiguity, are demonstrated in his discussion of the  turbulent times between Chalcedon and the arrival of Islam. He gives a full account of the theological differences at Chalcedon only to insist that the “political background can not be minimized”. After Chalcedon “The Copts were humiliated as never before, and the Coptic Church suffered the tortures of the damned at the hands of the Melkite colonialist. The wonder is that their communities were able to bear the brunt of such travesties and survive. But the bulk of the Coptic nation remained faithful unto the last, and harboured a deep-seated hatred of the Byzantine oppressors and all things Byzantine, which found natural expression not only in the so-called Monophysite doctrine but also in the Coptic language, Coptic literature, and above all in the Coptic art”. The Byzantine is a stand-in for all those, before and after him, who oppressed the common folk and ground them to a fate of ignorance and poverty, and survival is a testament to faith but also to sheer stubbornness. The book delivers an unambiguous conclusion about Chalcedon, seeing it as an expression of nascent Egyptian nationalism. While most political scientist would disagree with such an assessment, noting that nationalism is a product of modernity, Atiya is unapologetically romantic in believing in the existence of an essential Egyptian “folk”. This may have the product of the intellectual ferment of his youth in Egypt, or of the European scholars he studied with (most notably Paul Ernst Kahle, the notable orientalist who barely escaped with his life from Nazi Germany). This belief colored his view of Egypt’s conversion to Islam. The arrival of Islam would ultimately decimate the percentage of christians in Egypt from the entire nation to 10%, but he does not subject the Arabs to severe criticism. They, and subsequent rulers, “preserved the Copt as a fine source of revenue” , and their arrival may have been paradoxically providential. The Coptic Church was nearing extermination as a heresy and the arrival of the Arabs allowed it to cleverly outmaneuver the Melkites to “become the sole representative of Christianity in Egypt”. Such an interpretation may seem alien to the Western mind, but to a primitive Christian the survival of an undiluted faith trumps any assumption of secular power or the safety of the majority. He amply documents the horrors of pogroms and other persecutions of Copts during the times of the Mamluks, but refuses to lay the blame on Islam as a religion. He gives a full accounting of the horrors of the Armenian genocide, but blames it on the narrow Turkish ethno-nationalism. He attributes the massacre of christians in the mountains of Lebanon in the 1860s to tribal loyalties, cynical ploys by the Ottoman rulers and the general crookedness of humanity. He tries to find a general theory for the survival of the primitive churches in the final pages of the book. The epilogue begins with a question “At this journey’s end, it is fitting to ponder over the causes of the survival of most ancient Christianity of the East in the midst of the surging sea of Islam”, especially given that Islam was a “good religion” and conversion did not “throw a long shadow of shame on an apostate”. He provides two reasons. First that Islam never wanted to eradicate Christianity noting that “there was no humiliation in being a Christian in the eyes of a Muslim”, a statement of opinion that stands in direct conflict to some of the historical facts the book puts forth. Second was the “eastern Christian was able to preserve the purity of his race from pollution through the intermarriage with the ceaseless waves of conquerors from outside …Initially a way of worship, faith in the end became a comprehensive way of life and a symbol of an old culture”. Specifically with Egypt he notes that “the racial characteristics of the Copts themselves, their unwavering loyalty to their Church, their historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, and the cohesive elements in their social structure combined to render their community an enduring monument across the ages”. This is as close as he can come to a theory given the breadth of his experience with the local religions. In a hand-written account he notes his excitement upon first visiting St Catherine and locating rolls long thought extinct. The entire trove proves disorienting to anyone wishing a clean delineation between Islam and Christianity. There were bibles written in Kufic script. There were accounts of saints that are clearly “Islamic” in style, and so on.

Yet for all his deep understanding of the complexity of religious interactions, and his seemingly broad and secular views, the cosmopolitan scholar remained a “primitive Copt” according to a handwritten note to one of his relatives. He spent the last two decades of his life immersed in the Coptic Encyclopedia, sparing no effort to locate experts and cultural artifacts to fill its volumes. In a November 23 1977 note to his friend Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton, he inquires about his health and that of his wife, only to pivot quickly to a request to find him some Coptologists “behind the Iron Curtain”. But this immersion ultimately lessened his immediate involvement in the communal affairs of the Church. He reached out to the most prominent Coptic theologian, Matthew the Poor, and excitedly asked him and the monks around him to be involved in the effort. They turned him down. After the October 6 1981 assassination of Bishop Samuel he seemed to lose interest in meeting and conversing with church prelates, favoring the solitude of scholarship and his own Coptness.  His personal travails with the men in black who lead the Church do not prevent him from offering an accurate assessment of the central role of the Church in the life of the Copts noting that “Copts regarded their prelates with the highest deference. To them they looked for spiritual leadership and personal guidance, especially in the days of great trials, which were not infrequent in Coptic annals. Neither massacre, nor persecution, nor dismissal from office, nor confiscation of property could exterminate the Copts as a community, and the hierarchy stood in the midst of all movements to fortify the faithful through times of storm. Faith and fortitude were their means of survival, and their rallying point was the patriarch, whom they feared and revered, not on account of the legal powers accorded to his office, but because of piety and godliness.” It is notable that the quality of great learning does not appear in that assessment.

The publication of the book predates the onset of a historic development for Copts, but also more generally for other Christians; the increased immigration to the West. Immigration blurs the neat distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity, and the reduction of faith into a national or racial identification.The realities of immigration, and rapid acculturation, seem to dawn on the author with occasional surprises. In a 1975 note to Weitzmann he apologizes for not stopping by to visit him in Princeton, noting that he spent nearly two weeks driving down the East Coast visiting members of his immediate family, and those of his wife, who now dotted that landscape. In 1982, while dining in a French Vietnamese restaurant in the Soho neighborhood of New York City, he remarked that Pope Shenouda introduced him to some bishops as “Ustaz Amerikani”, or an American Professor. He chuckled at the thought and concluded, in English, “perhaps he is right”. On July 4 1988 he celebrated his 90th and final birthday in a magnificent setting on top of the Rocky mountains, attended by a large number of his immediate family, close friends and many scholars who flew in from several continents. It was an entirely American affair. Of the younger generations in his immediate and extended family, which had grown polyglot by intermarriage with non-Copts, he expressed the hope that “they may not share our blood but perhaps they will remember our culture”. The book from two decades earlier remained the last moment of certainty about his people and their essential nature. After that moment it was increasingly difficult to separate the notion of religion as culture from culture as religion. Just at the moment when he expressed a certainty about what is a Copt (or an Eastern Christian), circumstances of historical proportions threw a large measure of doubt at his answer. It is possible to read the “History of Eastern Christianity” as a relic of a time before the region descended into cultural decay and savagery. It is also possible to read it as a celebration of renewal after centuries of decay. It is probably best to read it as both in accordance with the author’s subtle ambiguity about human effort and the uncertainty of providence. The book remains deserving of a first and many subsequent readings. As for the author, his life should be celebrated as a success clawed from fierce adversity. His wish to be buried in a mausoleum he built with his cousin a short distance from ancient Coptic Cairo, in part with proceeds from the book, remains unfulfilled. He rests in the American Rockies, a primitive Christian among the Protestants.

— Maged Atiya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Of Copts and Christian Zionists

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The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions” Aziz Atiya, History of Eastern Christianity, 1967

The US recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel came exactly one century after the Balfour declaration and serves as a historic book end to it. Many applauded the decision, seeing it as a fulfillment of a decades-long Israeli wish and perhaps nothing more than a recognition of the reality of the situation, although reality is remade every day by the powerful. Others were puzzled by the timing of it and the lack of concrete gains from what is purely a symbolic move. There is one way to view the decision that renders it perfectly comprehensible. Its timing and language are designed to make the upcoming tour of the region by Vice President Mike Pence a victory lap. Mr Pence is the highest elected official representing the wing of Christian Evangelism called “Christian Zionism”.  Many Eastern Christians view Christian Zionism as a heterodox sect of Protestant Christianity that places its faith in the fulfillment of prophecies and revelations through the material and historic realization of specific signs and events. Chief among these are the return of the Jews to their ancestral home and their complete control over Jerusalem and the lands around it.

The reaction to the decision among Eastern Christians has been largely negative. The Christians of Palestine, a fraction of their size a century ago, disapproved of the move. Others in the Levant voiced similar disapproval in the midst of an existential crisis arising from the advent of Islamic supremacist movements. In Egypt, home of the largest group of Eastern Christians, the reaction was muted but also negative. Egypt sports a sizable Evangelical community, but the vast majority of Christians are Coptic Orthodox. The patriarch of the Copts, Pope Tawadros II, canceled a meeting with Mr. Pence who had proclaimed that he will advocate on behalf of the Copts during his stopover in Cairo. As always during times of trouble (and these are troubled times) the Copts place their faith in the inscrutable hand of God over the proclaimed power of men. Many Copts and non-Copts criticized the Pope’s decision. The criticism fell into two broad categories; that the Pope was catering to the Egyptian state and the popular passions, or that he was intellectually captured by the “nationalist discourse” common in Egypt. In short, that the refusal to meet Pence reflected either fear or foolishness. Both arguments fail on closer examination.

We should be careful to attribute fear to those who kept the faith for centuries against great odds. But more importantly the argument is internally inconsistent. When Copts face death rather than give up their faith, and when their kin forgive the attackers, they are judged as paragons of Christian virtue and courage. When they refuse to accept a hasty decision by a bumbling American administration, they are accused of cowardice. You can’t have it both ways.

The argument against “foolishness” requires more subtlety. Many Christian Zionists insist that support for Israel is part and parcel of support for Eastern Christians, since those who come for the Jews will eventually come for the Christians. This is true; the Islamic supremacists have a habit of mentioning “Saturday” and “Sunday” people in sequence. But this argument conflates and confuses different things. It conflates secular Zionism (a laudable idea) with religious Zionism (a potentially dangerous one). It conflates the affairs of state (capitals and embassies) with the culture of the people (attachment to land and religion). The intellectual roots of Christian Zionism hark back to the Protestant rediscovery of the Old Testament and the Jewish roots of Christianity. It is perhaps why many Christian Zionists have found an affinity for “the Copts” as a generalization. The Coptic Church, along with its Ethiopian sibling, is the most Jewish of churches, as it had never abandoned many ideas that Protestants rediscovered centuries later. There is an apocryphal tale popular among Copts. One version of it runs as follows. An American Evangelist arrives in 1850s Egypt to tell a humble Coptic priest that he brings news of Jesus Christ. The priest responds with “when did you make his acquaintance? We first met him more than 1800 years ago when he visited as a new born in his mother’s arms”. The sly tale warns against the dangers of Western “Christian-splaining”.

Another variance of the “foolishness” argument insists that Copts are in no shape to refuse assistance from any quarter, and that Pence’s remonstrations to the Egyptian state should have been honored with an audience with the patriarch. This argument stems from a Western habit of wishing that the Eastern Christian should fulfill the rule of a vassal rather than a brother. The largest Christian denominations, such as the Catholic and main Protestants, have long abandoned this notion, but it persists in the American bible belt. In any case, any principled argument for freedom of conscience should include the freedom to disagree with political decisions. This is especially true for those with a track record of impulsive actions that proved harmful to many Eastern Christians (cue the Iraq sanctions and invasion).

The entire episode highlights a growing concern that the persecution of Eastern Christians is often a useful cudgel in political arguments. Recent events, especially with the Copts, have provided unforgettable and searing images. There is the image of 21 men kneeling at a beach and silently praying moments before their execution. There is the image of a small altar boy smiling happily in his vestments moments before a suicide bomber doomed him. It would dishonor the victims’ memories if these images are turned into fodder for political agitprop by those eager for conflict that would leave many more victims behind battle lines. Atiya’s description of the church, of which he proclaimed himself a member, “ Coptic Church … had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitismremains remarkably accurate today, even as its seemingly modern sons and daughters spread out throughout the world, including the West. They would proudly appropriate the moniker he gave them, as “primitive Christians”, meaning that their faith is rooted in the people who kept a historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, while never aligning with worldly power and often existing in opposition to it. Many Protestant Evangelicals have not grasped that essential part of it. In their fervor to achieve secular power, legislative, judicial and executive, American Evangelicals, for example, are the antithesis of the Copts. Earlier this year a delegation of Evangelicals, including representative of Christian Zionism, met with President Sisi of Egypt, who enjoys the support of Pope Tawadros, and praised him widely. For its part, the Coptic Church avoided the meeting. These are some of the historic reasons why we should not rush to judge the Pope’s refusal to meet with Mr. Pence as a political or cultural capitulation to the popular rage or fear of the Egyptian state.

— Maged Atiya