Media reports on current events in Egypt have called a little attention to a fact frequently ignored: that there are millions of Christians in that country.
These Christians are usually called “Copts,” a word derived from “Egypt,” and can claim descent from Pharaonic and Ptolemaic ancestors. Their liturgical language, Coptic, derives from Egyptian Demotic. The Coptic Orthodox Church, which embraces over 90 percent of Egypt’s Christians, traces its founding in Alexandria to Saint Mark, the author of Mark’s gospel. Their church calendar dates from 284, the start of the reign of their worst persecutor, the Roman emperor Diocletian. They have produced some of the greatest theologians of the church, including Clement, Origen, Cyril, and, most important, Athanasius, the major shaper of the Nicene Creed.
The churches in the West broke with the Copts because of the latter’s dissent from the rulings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451. They were accused of being “monophysite” — that is, believing that Christ had only one nature — and this led to their ongoing persecution by the Byzantines. After the Coptic and Roman Catholic Churches issued a joint declaration in 1973 on their common views of the nature of Christ, the accusation of monophysitism has largely been dropped, although key theological differences remain. However, the division at Chalcedon has rendered the Egyptian Church largely unknown in the West. Its founding of Christian monasticism, its major contributions to theology and art (especially textiles), and its role in the shaping of Celtic Christianity are forgotten except by specialists.
In the modern age, Egypt’s major Christian presence, like that of the tens of millions of other members of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, continues to be hidden from the West by the use of obscuring terms such as “the Muslim world” or “the Muslim-Arab world,” which elide their existence.
In the first two chapters of his excellent new book, Samuel Tadros gives us a much-needed succinct survey of earlier Coptic history. (Full disclosure: Tadros is a colleague of mine, though I have had no input into his book.) But this survey is only a prolegomenon to his two major interrelated themes. One is Egypt’s struggle with modernity, inaugurated by the traumatic shock of Napoleon’s invasion and shattering of the Mamluk armies in 1798, and developed through Mohammed Ali’s subsequent attempts to modernize Egypt’s state apparatus so that it could resist European militaries. Tadros concludes that “the answers developed by Egyptian intellectuals and by state modernizers to the challenge that modernity posed eventually revolved around the problem of Islam. How to interpret and deal with the apparent contradiction between Islam and modernity has been the key question.” The continuing struggles, often bloody ones, over this question unfold daily on our television screens.
The other major theme is the Copts’ own struggle with modernity: “Copts were faced with a separate crisis. . . . The onslaught of foreign missionaries, the challenge of reforming an ancient institution, the impact of the modernizing state, and the clash between the clergy and the laymen were hallmarks of that modern crisis. The laymen’s rise to prominence in the state’s service and their attempts to answer the overall Egyptian question in turn shaped their approach to the Church.”
Tadros links these often separated histories to show how Egypt’s struggles have shaped and been shaped by the Copts. In so doing, he wants to counter “two dominating narratives that have shaped the understanding of the Coptic predicament.” The first is “eternal persecution,” wherein the plight of modern Copts is read simply as a continuation of their suffering under Roman and Byzantine emperors, Islam, and Western colonialists. This narrative underplays the Coptic elite’s own struggles with modernity, the peculiar challenges precipitated by the arrival of competing Christian denominations, the Church’s consequent internal conflicts, and its amazing renewal in the last half-century.
The second narrative is a “National Unity discourse” that claims that at the heart of Egypt, there has always been, between Copts and Muslims, an unbreakable bond that has withstood the test of time.
Marshall’s critique of this “National Unity discourse” is the most pertinent to current Egyptian politics, especially in his analysis of the foibles of Egyptian liberalism: “The failure of liberalism in Egypt did not result in the Copts’ current predicament. Rather, it was the very approach that liberalism took that brought about this predicament.”
Tadros argues that “the specifically Egyptian crisis of modernity, understood as a question of the compatibility of Islam with modernity . . . [has] shaped the way Copts were viewed and led to their banishment from the public sphere as a community, though not as individuals.” This is because Egyptian liberalism, such as it has been, emerged “not from an independent bourgeoisie but from civil servants, men whose lives were tied to the state and whose conceptions were inherently shaped by that. With no tension between the individual and the state, Egyptian liberals’ ultimate dream would be a repetition of the story of Mohammed Ali, an autocrat imposing reforms from above on a reluctant population.”
Hence, the elites who rejected Islam as the basis for politics and the nation turned instead to the state and to nationalism and embraced the myth of Egypt as a homogeneous nation: “Diversity was neither acknowledged nor tolerated. . . . Either one was an Egyptian or something else, but not both.” This stress on homogeneity was incoherently combined with a portrayal of Egyptian history as the cooperation of Muslim and Copt, and the contradiction between the two claims was never addressed. In this narrative, any complaint by Copts about their treatment needed to be suppressed as a threat to national unity and identity — a pattern that continues to this day.
A further feature of the liberal-nationalist ideology was that, while seeking to borrow from the West, it remained fanatically anti-Western, an attitude it shared with the pan-Arabists, the Islamists, the socialists, the Communists, and the fascists. The fact that, in contemporary debates over the deposition of President Morsi, all sides in Egypt now accuse the U.S. of backing their opponents is due to more than incompetent American diplomacy: It is a deeply rooted, habitual political response.
Tadros’s historically informed description of Egypt’s ongoing failure to come to terms with modernity reveals the shallowness of most contemporary American commentary, rooted as it is in the categories of parochial Western modernity. He shows how Egypt’s “Arab Spring” has continued in the patterns of the country’s history for at least the last century. Similarly, although he finished his book long before Morsi was overthrown on July 3, his analysis shows why the Muslim Brotherhood’s, the opposition’s, and the army’s actions repeat the same dynamics. His depiction is not despairing, but it is acutely sobering.
He describes the growth of the Coptic Church worldwide, but his conclusions concerning Christians in Egypt do seem to be despairing: “A Church that has withstood diverse and tremendous challenges is now threatened in its very existence.” Political changes have altered the manner, but not the fact, of persecution. Recent years have seen the massacres carried out by Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad in the 1990s, Mubarak’s ongoing failure to defend Copts from attack or to punish their attackers, and the increased number of assaults since Mubarak was overthrown, both under the military and under the Brotherhood.
Even with the Muslim Brotherhood out of power since July 3, the situation has worsened yet again. Brotherhood spokesmen and media have singled out the Copts as instigators of their downfall, and Christians are now subject to daily violent attack. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has waded in with videotaped accusations that Copts are working to establish their own state in Upper Egypt — recycling a hackneyed accusation that has been repeated for centuries, even by Anwar Sadat in 1980 before he confined the Coptic pope, Shenouda III, to a monastery for three years and arrested many bishops and priests.
Tadros fears that many Copts now believe that their only hope for a livable future is through emigration, and many are fleeing to America, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. It is the wealthier and more educated who find it easier to leave, thus weakening those left behind. This will affect not only Christians: “When Copts leave Egypt, it is a loss not only to them and their Church. A country and region will lose a portion of its identity and history.” As Egyptian-American commentator Maged Atiya has said: “More painful than contemplating how Copts might fare when shorn of Egypt is the thought of how Egypt might fare when shorn of the Copts.”
But, as Tadros notes: “Coptic history . . . has also been a story of survival, endurance in the face of persecution, and the courage and blood of martyrs becoming the seeds of the Church.” This is a Church that, despite the vicissitudes of nearly two millennia, remains the largest non-Muslim minority between India and the Atlantic. It may survive much more.
– Mr. Marshall is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. His latest book, with Nina Shea and Lela Gilbert, is Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.