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.
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).
The Eucharist or communion is one of
seven sacraments at the heart of the Coptic Orthodox faith. The sacrament takes
place during the Liturgy of the Faithful—the “Anaphora,” which concludes with
receiving communion. Copts consider communion as a “mystery.” They favor the
older verbiage of “change,” meaning that the elements of communion literally turn
into the body and blood of Christ, and avoid terms more commonly used in
Western traditions such as “transubstantiation” (Catholicism) and
“consubstantiation” (Lutheranism). But like many other Christians, Copts believe
in the doctrine of the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.”
Communion wine in the Coptic Church today, as in most Orthodox churches, is distributed by a long-handled spoon which scoops the wine from the chalice into the mouth. Not too long ago, a Coptic parishioner expressed concern about this shared spoon that might be placed inside the mouths of dozens, if not hundreds, of parishioners during a single liturgy. In response, the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Southern United States stated that “[t]he holy body and holy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is a burning fire that purges and cleanses us from all sin. There is no documented evidence of any communicable diseases anywhere in the world stemming from partaking of the Holy Eucharist in this manner.” The Coptic Church is certainly not alone in this position: on the common spoon, the Orthodox Research Institute has also indicated that “from a purely microbiological perspective, the sweet red wine used in communion is typically high in alcoholic content” and therefore “invisible microbes that may enter our mouths from the previous communicant are harmless.”
On December 11, 2019, Metropolitan Serapion and the clergy of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii wrote a statement pronouncing that Christmas celebrations will be held in the diocese on both December 25 and January 7 (29 Kiakh) to better serve the pastoral needs of local congregants. Yet the pronouncement caused a stir among Copts globally. Such debates are not new. Immigrant parishes in North America at one point in their early history routinely celebrated Christmas on December 25 to retain congregants and serve the needs of early Copts scattered across Central Canada and the North Eastern United States. At the heart of such debates, past and present, is the tremendous influence of Pope Shenouda and the many meanings of belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. In order to chart this history and offer insights on its contemporary significance, we begin with the challenges faced by early Copts in North America and then outline the changing nature of Coptic diasporic communities as a consequence of rising immigration from Upper Egypt, following the 2011 revolution.