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.
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.
On Sunday February 24, Rami Malek won the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. In his acceptance speech, Malek spoke of his Egyptian heritage and its representative power: “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this. I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I’m a first generation American. My story is being written right now and I could not be more grateful to each and every one of you who believed in me, for this moment is something I will treasure for the rest of my life.” Social media was alight in comments of praise for Rami, with many news outlets noting that he was the first Arab-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor. The New York Times ran a headline, “An Oscar for the Arabs.” Despite excitement from members of the Arab-American community in the United States, Egyptians, and others throughout the Middle East, many Coptic Christians, particularly in the United States, took issue with labeling Rami “Arab” or “Arab-American.” Rami Malek’s family is Coptic Orthodox and, in interviews, he has described attending the Coptic Orthodox Church growing up.
Social media comments from Copts addressed their disagreement with misidentifying Rami as Arab. “Rami Malek is NOT an Arab or Arab-American. He’s a Copt, and Copts have zero Arab blood.” “1400 years ago Arabs stole Coptic land, 1400 years later Arabs steal Coptic accomplishments. When will the thievery ever end?” Continue reading →
On July 29, 2018, one of the most beloved bishops and scholars in the Coptic world, Bishop Epiphanius, was found murdered outside of his cell at the St. Macarius monastery. He was on his way to Midnight Prayer when he was assaulted and struck in the back of the head. While the Egyptian state has now officially charged an ex-monk and an accomplice at the monastery with the murder, Coptic social media prior to this was abuzz with speculation, not only for the murder’s brutality but also because of the way it brought to a head a century-long internal debate about Coptic identity.
For most Western Christians, Coptic Christianity offers a powerful testimony to modern martyrdom. Several American Christian leaders point to violence against the Copts in order to garner attention for the persecution of Christians in the modern world and to shape US policy. In this regard, US activists and scholars tend to portray Coptic Christians as passive, premodern victims of modern religious violence. Such characterizations fail to recognize the extent to which the community has undergone a series of transformations and divisions of late. Continue Reading…