In his important new book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity, the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros explores the crisis facing the Coptic Orthodox Church today. The Copts are the indigenous Christians of Egypt and one of the oldest Christian communions, dating back millennia. St. Anthony, the founder of monasticism, was a Copt, as was St. Athanasius, the great champion of Nicene Christianity. Coptic history is marked, in Tadros’s words, by a dual legacy of “decline and survival.” Persecuted by Byzantine Christians and Arab Muslims, Copts have endured tremendous hardship down the centuries. Periodically, their very existence has seemed in doubt. That, Tadros maintains, is the case today.
Tadros shows how the liberal nationalist movement in twentieth-century Egypt betrayed Coptic hopes. By encouraging Copts to seek legal equality and government attention to their grievances, the movement actually exposed Copts to a vicious backlash. (Much the same pattern occurred with respect to Armenian Christians in Ottoman Turkey, a matter I have discussed elsewhere). Demands for equality were interpreted as a threat to Muslim superiority and an attempt to embarrass the country abroad. In the name of national unity, Coptic demands for justice were ignored and the Coptic Church suppressed. The situation improved a bit under Nasser, but deteriorated under Sadat, who attempted to placate Islamist opposition by making life difficult for Copts–it didn’t work. Nonetheless, Tadros shows that the Church experienced a spiritual rebirth during the twentieth century, largely as a result of the lay-inspired Sunday School Movement. Monasteries were revived and Christian education improved. The Church has expanded abroad in recent decades–there is an increasing presence in the US–and has had missionary success in Africa, where, unlike other Christian communions, it is not weighed down by the legacy of colonialism.
The Arab Spring has been a disaster for Copts. Under the Muslim Brotherhood, violence against Copts increased dramatically. Tadros’s book predates the July 2013 revolution, but a reader can readily understand why the Church has taken a strong position in favor of the generals. History, Tadros writes, has taught Copts “the eternal lesson of survival.” A “persecuting dictator” is “always preferable to the mob,” since the dictator can “be bought off or persuaded to back off, or constrained by foreign powers.” With the mob, by contrast, one has “no chance.”
Tadros ends his book on a sad note. The prospects for Copts in Egypt, he says, are bleak: domination by a Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to return them to the status of dhimmis or a military dictatorship that could sacrifice them at any moment. The only option, for many, is escape to the West–an option that may end a Christian presence that has endured in Egypt since St. Mark the Evangelist arrived 2000 years ago. “The feeling of sadness and distress is impossible to overcome as I watch the faces of the new immigrants,” Tadros writes, describing his Coptic parish in Virginia. “A church that has withstood diverse and tremendous challenges is now threatened in its very existence.”