Last week, I reviewed a new book by the Hudson Institute’s Samuel Tadros, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. The book, a compelling read, explores the profound challenges that face the Coptic Church today. This week, Tadros (left) kindly answers some questions. He discusses the history of the Coptic Church, its important contributions to Christian thought and life, and its conduct during the Arab Conquest and under Muslim rule. He describes how the liberalism of the twentieth century actually injured the church and why Anwar Sadat, whom the West lionized, was a problem for Egypt’s Christians. Moving to the present day, he explains why the Arab Spring has been such a disaster for Copts, and talks about the church’s prospects in Egypt and abroad.
CLR Forum: Sam, let’s begin with some background. Although the Coptic Church has millions of faithful in Egypt—10% of the population, according to most estimates–and an increasing worldwide presence, most people in the West know very little about it. Who are the Copts? What are the salient features of Coptic Christianity?
Tadros: The lack of knowledge about the Coptic Church is regrettable yet quite understandable. The Coptic Church has been isolated from the rest of Christendom since 451 A.D. The word “Copt” is derived from the Greek word for “Egypt,” itself derived from the Pharaohnic word for it, so in a sense the word “Copt” means Egypt. The word, however, is specifically used to refer to Egyptians who refused to embrace Islam throughout the centuries and remained Christian, maintaining their ancient faith and rituals. Theologically, the Coptic Church belongs to a group of churches called Oriental Orthodox, which includes the Armenian, Ethiopian, Indian Orthodox and Syrian churches. Those churches rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon regarding the nature of Christ.
CLR Forum: You discuss the important role the Coptic Church played in Christian history, especially in the early centuries. What do you think qualifies as the church’s most important contribution, historically? Would it be its defense of Trinitarian theology? Monasticism?
Tadros: The three most important contributions of the Coptic Church can be summed up in the names of three men: Origen, Athanasius and Anthony. Origen, more than anyone else, attempted to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology. The Catechetical School of Alexandria was instrumental in giving Christianity a ground to stand on intellectually against pagan attacks. Athanasius, as he himself declared, stood against the world. The contributions of other Church fathers, such as the Cappadocian Fathers, are important in the defense of Nicene Creed, but Athanasius carried the greatest burden. Cyril the Great follows in the same path with his anathema against Nestorius. Finally, Anthony the Great, as the founder of monasticism, made an invaluable contribution to Christianity. Many of the early Western fathers such as Jerome traveled to Egypt to drink from the wisdom fountain of the desert fathers.
CLR Forum: Describe the Coptic Church in the world today—its relations with other Christians, for example.
Tadros: 1954 is the year when the Coptic Church came out from its historical isolation by attending the World Council of Churches in Illinois. The late Bishop Samuel championed ecumenical relations and his efforts eventually led to the Coptic Church opening up to the rest of Christendom. The Joint Theological Declarations with Rome in 1973, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in 1989-1990, have opened the doors to the dream of a true unity in Christ.
CLR Forum: You discuss the debate among historians about whether Copts initially welcomed the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the seventh century. The Copts would have had reasons, of course, as they were being persecuted by Byzantine Christians and might have seen the Arabs as deliverers. Could you describe this debate? Do you have a view?
Tadros: More than just among historians. The question is being contested in the public sphere, as a tool in shaping a current identity and narrative. For Egyptian nationalists, this claim would form the foundation of the national unity discourse–the eternal harmony of the two elements of the Egyptian nation, Muslims and Copts. Islamists would portray the story as one of rescue. Had it not been for the Muslims, the Coptic Church would have been destroyed at the hands of the Byzantines, they argue. Copts of course have increasingly rejected this narrative, stressing the atrocities their ancestors faced at the hands of the invaders–this is part of building the Copts’ modern uniqueness.
CLR Forum: You state a few times in the book that Copts constituted the “bureaucratic class” under Islamic rule. Could you please explain this? How can we reconcile the fact that Copts were so important to Muslim government with their subservient status as dhimmis?
Tadros: Coptic civil servants became indispensable to Muslim rulers. Under the Fatimid Caliphate, Coptic civil servants rose to great prominence. The power that they exercised became a source of envy for the mob under the Mamluks. It was precisely the prominence that Copts achieved in contradiction to their supposed humiliation and subjugation as dhimmis that created the catalyst for the brutality of the onslaught on Copts during Mamluk rule. Of course, many rulers attempted to humiliate the Coptic civil servants and get rid of them, replacing them with Muslims, but those attempts largely failed. They were simply too good at what they did for the ruler to get rid of them. But the pressure on them led many to convert in order to keep their privileges.
CLR Forum: You trace the current crisis for Copts to the liberal nationalism of the twentieth century. By encouraging Copts (and other Egyptians) to think in terms of legal equality, liberalism exposed Copts to a serious backlash. Could you explain this?
Tadros: I wouldn’t put it that way. The Coptic predicament was that, according to the national unity discourse proclaimed by the liberal nationalists, all Egyptians were united–but that discourse was contradictory, for it identified two distinct groups, Muslims and Copts, who were then united. As such, Copts were viewed as a collective body. One could not escape his “Coptism” even if he wanted to. On the other hand, liberal nationalists rejected the Coptic claim to exclusivity. Coptic identity was a threat to the Egyptian identity the liberal nationalists formulated, as it claimed the Pharaohnic past exclusively for itself. The liberal nationalists thus became anti-Coptic. Not anti-Christian. Coptic identity had to be crushed. Copts had to be banished from the public sphere as a community. Any Copt entering the public sphere had to shed his Coptic identity.
CLR Forum: One of the most surprising parts of your book is its evaluation of Anwar Sadat. In the West, Sadat is seen as sort of a progressive hero, the man who made peace with Israel and sought to suppress Islamism. But you say he strongly opposed Coptic rights and in fact used the Copts as a kind of scapegoat to mollify Islamist sentiment. What is your view of Sadat?
Tadros: It would be a mistake to attribute his actions to idealism or principles. At heart, he was a pragmatist. He recognized that the Nasserite model had failed and could not be maintained. He understood that Israel was not going to disappear and that peace was the only route to regaining Egypt’s land. He had no stomach for Nasser’s delusional ideas about the country and its capabilities. He never aimed for creating a democracy in Egypt. His views on society were much more corporatist, stressing “village ethics” and styling himself as not head of state but village elder. His endorsement of the rise of the Islamization of the country put him at odds with a Coptic Pope insistent on defending his people. Sadat’s greatest crime is that he, more than any other ruler of Egypt, threatened to destroy the country’s sectarian social fabric with his attacks and accusations against the Coptic Church.
CLR Forum: You argue that the Arab Spring has been a disaster for Copts. Why? And why has the Coptic Church taken such a public position in support of the military’s ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Tadros: The Arab Spring emboldened Islamist movements on the national and local levels. The removal of the state’s constraints allowed Islamists to dominate national politics and, more importantly, to enforce their vision on society on a local level, with Copts paying the heaviest price. The collapse of the state’s repressive arm, the police, gave the mob free reign. As a result, we have seen the continuation of previous patterns of discrimination as well as the emergence of newer ones.
The Coptic Church’s choice to support the military coup was of course to be expected. President Morsi was hardly inclusive in his rule. He clearly indicated that he cared less what befell Copts. Their concerns in the constitution were ignored, he never made any reassuring gesture towards them, and under his rule, the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the very center of Christianity in Egypt was attacked for hours by thugs and the police. Copts recognized that under the Muslim Brotherhood they would become second class citizens.
CLR Forum: You state that, as Copts spread around the world, largely because of persecution in Egypt, they are learning how to be diaspora communities. Could you describe this process?
Tadros: Coptic immigration began in the 50’s. When Pope Shenouda became Pope in 1971, there were two Coptic churches in the United States, for example, but when he died in 2012, there were 202. In total, the Coptic Church today has more than 450 churches in the West. This presence is being reinforced by a humongous new wave of immigration after the Arab Spring.
As a result, the challenges facing the Church are colossal. First, the Church needs to balance its attention and services between old and new immigrants. New immigrants are not only expecting spiritual services but also material ones. They expect homes, jobs, lawyers to help with asylum. The very culture of the new immigrants is different from that of Copts who have lived most if not all their lives in the West.
But above all that, the Church is faced with a challenge like no other in its history, pertaining to its identity. What does being Coptic actually mean when you are living in Missouri or North Carolina? How can the Church not only maintain the new immigrants’ Christian faith, but also their Coptic identity?
CLR Forum: One of the great themes in Coptic history, you write, is “the dual dynamic of decline and survival.” I think it’s fair to say that your book ends on a sad note, with an emphasis on decline rather than survival. What do you think are the prospects for Copts in Egypt and abroad?
Tadros: I think the dual dynamic continues except this time with a geographical separation. Inside Egypt, the Church is facing immense pressure. The attacks on churches on the 14th of August were the largest in the country’s history since the 14th century. But outside of Egypt’s boarders, the Coptic Church is blossoming. The Church now has half a million followers in Sub Saharan Africa, where the fact that the Coptic Church is an African one and not tainted with colonialism is a huge plus. The Coptic Church today is becoming a universal church with followers in all corners of the world. Who would have thought 50 years ago that we would be talking about Coptic churches from the Caribbean to Japan and from Sweden to Fiji?