One afternoon last week, a wave of profound sadness came over me, prompted by a video I had viewed. A fairly new documentary on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), was released to me and fellow scholars as part of a webinar panel discussion on this holiest of Christian sites and the strong claims made to it by the six major Christian denominations.
While much of the footage I have seen before in other documentaries and many of the problems and challenges I was already familiar with, the film did its utmost to reinforce them, and did so even more intensely when placed against the backdrop of the current Coronavirus pandemic. I will explain.
The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.
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).