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 Continue reading