Earlier this year, I published a short piece with Anthropology News on Coptic Christian persecution in Egypt, American power, and racism in the United States. I then received a barrage of social media criticism claiming that I overemphasized racism against Copts in the US, and in so doing eschewed focus on persecution of Copts in Egypt. Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute wrote: “While some have experienced prejudice in America, [Copts] reject the attempt to create a moral equivalence between the persecution they faced in Egypt and whatever experiences they have in America…the Coptic experience in the United States has been extraordinarily successful, with Copts reaching heights they wouldn’t have dreamt of in Egypt.” Rather than noting the racialization of Copts alongside Muslims in America, by his account, I should draw attention to the relative success of American Copts and compare it to Muslim oppression of Copts in Egypt. In this modest response, I briefly elaborate on why American Coptic life must be taken on its own terms, and how the politicization of Coptic oppression in Egypt by American religio-political actors leads to real methodological issues.
As a minority Christian community in a majority Christian nation, American Copts are enmeshed in current debates on whiteness and American Christianity—whereby evangelical responses to racism have been theologically mired in individualism and consumed in culture wars, rather than the ways that broader social forces, institutions, and culture can constrain and shape social responses to societal ills. Earlier this summer, former attorney general Jeff Sessions, described to the New York Times how he considered his support of Trump from the standpoint of his faith as an evangelical Christian, and evoked the Copts as persecuted kin who turned to a strongman (Egyptian President al-Sisi) for protection: “And that’s basically what the Christians in the United States did [when they elected Trump]. They felt they were under attack, and the strong guy [like Sisi] promised to defend them. And he has.” Likewise, an older American Coptic man recently noted to me: “Trump is a Christian, and he’s trying to keep America a Christian nation. Under Obama, it was Happy Holidays! Now, we can say Merry Christmas again. We came to the US to escape discrimination in Egypt. We don’t want to be stripped of our rights as Christians here.” Although the diaspora offers opportunities to form new solidarities, the happy convergence of otherwise divergent persecution narratives has placed American Copts into vectors of political belonging with the Christian Right seeking to preserve a white, conservative Christian America. Sometimes at the expense of those very Copts.
Note: Because of the urgency of the current situation in Armenia and Azerbaijan and the importance of providing reliable background information, the following essay is an exception toour typical length and op-ed format and includes an extensive excerpt from an academic journal article.
Since Sunday, September 27, Azerbaijan, with support from its Turkic big brother Turkey—two autocratic totalitarian states—has launched attacks on its neighboring countries, the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh—two fledgling democracies in the Caucasus. Neither Azerbaijan nor Turkey has shown regard for human life, let alone such niceties as historical truth, or, for that matter, international law. Artsakh (what Armenians call Nagorno Karabakh) is part of the remaining territory of the Armenian highlands, after the Armenian people’s vast territorial losses following the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The current conflict is not only a fight for the survival of the Armenian people—75% of whom Ottoman Turkey eliminated in the 1915 Genocide—but an information war. It should not be that way.
In 2016, I received a call from our local FBI office. The agent notified me that my name and my home address were circulating on jihadi websites, along with those of certain U.S. military personnel, calling upon homegrown terrorists and ISIS supporters to harm us. It was unclear to the FBI agent why my name was circulating on these websites, as they appeared to be related to the crisis in Syria. I have not served in the U.S. military. I had zero involvement in the Syrian crisis, other than calling my U.S. representatives years earlier to warn them that Turkey was funding Syrian “rebels” who were aligned with al-Qaeda. What I was “guilty” of—I surmise—was writing articles about Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and the destruction of Armenian cultural heritage by Turkey and later Azerbaijan, fundraising for humanitarian efforts in Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh), and my most recent trip to Artsakh as part of a fact-finding mission regarding several medieval Armenian monasteries that Azerbaijan (a majority Muslim population) was claiming as their own cultural heritage.
Few Copts today remember Bishop Samuel, the first General Bishop of Ecumenical and Social Services. They do not hang his picture in their homes or keep it in their wallets as they do with his contemporaries like Pope Kyrillos VI or Pope Shenouda III. Those who have heard of him are likely to know little beyond the shocking manner of his death: he was killed in the crossfire during the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981—39 years ago today.
But long before that day and the bitter controversies surrounding it, Bishop Samuel had served as the public face of the Coptic Church under three successive patriarchs; he had been, in the words of John Watson, “in effect, the Coptic Orthodox Minister of Foreign Affairs,” and “the most famous Copt inside and outside Egypt.” In fact, he was very nearly the 117th Pope of Alexandria himself; his name was one of the three in the altar ballot which selected Pope Shenouda III in 1971. Westerners who worked with him at conferences and ecumenical gatherings were consistently struck by his keen intellect and his open heart. When he met him in the early 1960s, Edward Wakin (late Fordham professor of communications) wrote: “He is the only member of the monastic elite who is addressing himself to the contemporary problems facing the Copts.” After his death, he was remembered in TheTimes of London as “a small bustling man, with a big heart [who] will be missed by Christians in many parts of the world” (Obituary: Bishop Samuel, The Times, October 12, 1981).
In the fall of 2015, a small and unassuming publication was introduced in London, England with the title The Buffalo Statement: In the Image and likeness of God – A Hope-Filled Anthropology. It was a text that was agreed in Buffalo, NY earlier that year by a group of official representatives of the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion who make up the International Commission for Anglican–Orthodox Theological Dialogue (ICAOTD). This was the fourth such document by the ICAOTD.
Anglicans held in the past a unique place in the eyes of Orthodox Christians. They stood between Roman Catholics and Protestants as a more sympathetic counterpart. For the Orthodox, Anglicans did not carry with them the bitter memories of the Crusades, the Great Schism, the Papacy, and the rest. On the other hand, they also had not rejected the entire Tradition of the first millennium like the rest of the Protestants. Many Orthodox in the United States still remember the advice of their bishops earlier on the 20th century allowing them to attend an Episcopalian Church when there was not an Orthodox Church nearby.