Who are you? Oftentimes, we identify ourselves in ways we prefer to celebrate. We change our answer depending upon our surroundings, social groups, or who’s asking the question. When taking friends to Egyptian tourist spots, or negotiating with shop-owners, I’m at my most Egyptian. Ana masrya (“I’m Egyptian”), I say, bas ‘aysha fe America (“but I live in America”). In America, using hybrid identities like Egyptian-American or an American born in Egypt allows me to join two worlds commonly represented as opposite in today’s media.

My story is not unique. Identities are complex, constantly changing, morphing to our circumstances. They can anchor us to a glorified past or romanticized national experiences we have no tangible connections to. They are built up, torn down and put together in varied ways, by diverse people. They are formed, reformed and deconstructed. Perhaps the only constant is that identities are never constant.

Coptic identity is similarly complex. Yet, narrow definitions of what it is to be a Copt have influenced studying Copts as a collective group, without much needed nuance. Many tend to anchor Coptic identity in ancient historic moments, such as pre-Arab histories. After the 2011 protests, however, popular debates expanded definitions of what Egyptian identity involves, which also influenced Coptic identity. Groups outside the Orthodox Church claim Coptic identity, like Protestant Egyptian Christians and liberal Muslims. Claiming a Coptic, rather than an Arab identity, supposedly makes one more indigenous. Like claiming Pharaonic lineage, such an ancient identity marker supports modern identity claims. This especially resonates with marginalized Egyptian groups who claim roots in Egypt’s glorified past to support their national belonging. Yet, by limiting Coptic identity to ancient moments, are we doing a disservice to modern forms of Coptic identity? What does it mean to be Coptic in the twenty-first century?

Nile view from Al-Minya
Nile view from Al-Minya, part of Upper Egypt region where many Egyptian Christians reside. Photo credit: Mirna Wasef

Why it Matters

These questions are not just abstract thoughts, they effect Coptic populations today. How can we write histories or advocate for Coptic rights without identifying what it means to be Coptic? If we mainly discuss Copts in ancient and medieval contexts, when will we discuss what it means to be a Copt in the modern era? The effects are most obvious in contemporary scholarship, which focus on Copts’ ancient or medieval histories and neglect modern histories of Coptic populations. Yet, modern situations uncover the blurred lines of Coptic identity. Many Copts no longer live in Egypt and multiple non-Orthodox groups continue to claim a Coptic identity. Perhaps it is time for us to recognize plurality in Coptic identity, and thereby empower multiple Coptic communities. With transnational, interdenominational, cross-cultural, and politicized Coptic claims, maybe we have yet to fully answer our most basic question: who are the Copts?

Since the birth of Christianity, the Coptic Orthodox Church has had a dominant presence in Egypt. Centuries of tradition, art, and liturgical practices support the Church’s Coptic identity claims—particularly claims declaring that Copts in Egypt have withstood invasion and persecution since the 7th century to the modern era. This identity claim serves a modern purpose; representing Coptic experience in a way that legitimizes the Church’s role in Egypt’s social, religious, and political spheres, while also providing Christians a means to reconcile the discrimination they face in modern Egypt.

Mass at St. Mark's Cathedral
Coptic Orthodox priest performs mass, St. Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo. Photo credit: Xinhua/ZUMA

Who speaks for Egypt’s Copts?

The Egyptian State reinforces the Orthodox Church’s Coptic identity claims, especially by recognizing the Church and its Pope as leaders of Egypt’s Christians. In this way, the State empowers the Pope to make claims on behalf of Egypt’s Christians, such as requesting more churches to be built.[1] The strength of the Pope’s political standing, however, depends largely on his relationship with the President. In 1957, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Presidential Decree marked the beginnings of the contemporary Egyptian State-Patriarch relationship, requiring the Egyptian President to formally recognize the Pope’s ecclesiastical election. Egyptian media celebrated Nasser and Pope Kyrillos VI’s relationship as positive, which eased Coptic concerns about their status in Egypt.[2] However, by the 1970s, tension between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda III outraged Christians in Egypt and the diaspora.[3] These contrasting experiences show how unstable the relationship between the Egyptian State and Church leadership is; they depend on each other, but are in tension.

Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo
Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, founded by American missionaries in 1863. Photo credit: Mirna Wasef

While the Orthodox Church remains the primary Christian institution in Egypt, the 19th century intervention of missionaries (mainly Catholic and Protestant) introduced denominational diversity to Egypt’s Christian communities. Missionaries did not gain many converts from Islam. Rather, most Egyptian Protestant communities formed from Orthodox Christian converts. Missionaries built schools, hospitals, orphanages and churches with American funds. This attracted some Egyptians, particularly when missionary services filled gaps left by inadequate Egyptian State services. It was only in 1878, that the Protestant communities gained enough influence to be formally recognized by Khedive Isma’il as a distinct Christian sect, legally legitimizing its presence, and endowing it with personal status and marriage laws.[4] Though never reaching the same level of influence as the Orthodox Church, the Protestant Egyptian communities developed competing Egyptian Christian religious institutions.[5]

Orthodox Church leadership staunchly opposed the presence of missionaries in Egypt, fearing the dividing of the Church community. Tension between Orthodox Church leadership and the growing Protestant communities had many effects, including prohibiting marriage to non-Orthodox Christians.[6] Despite these tensions and American influence, Egyptian Protestant communities did not drop their Coptic identity claims. Historically formed by mainly ex-Orthodox Christians, modern Egyptian Protestant communities claim a complex Coptic identity—a hybrid of American Protestantism and Egyptian influences. For example, westernized hymns are translated and sung in Arabic: “What a Friend we have in Jesus” known as “Ya Tora ay sadek.” By opening Coptic identity to their own status, they assert that being Coptic is not restricted to the Orthodox Church. Yet, this begs the question: if being Coptic is not restricted to Orthodox Christians, does it remain only Christian, more broadly?

Though not a majority, some liberal Muslims like journalist Ibrahim Eissa argue that Coptic identity is ethnic and not religious. Claiming an ethnic, non-Christian Coptic identity has political value. Though formally the Arab Republic of Egypt, and member of the Arab league, many Egyptians reject being labeled Arab because it conflicts with claims of being native Egyptians. Instead, they reason that Arabs were one of many groups that entered Egypt and claim a Pharaonic lineage similar to what the Orthodox Church claims. Essentially, this equates being Coptic to being authentically Egyptian; to having a legitimate historic claim to an Egyptian identity. Being Coptic, then, conceivably grants membership in this unique group that has persisted despite a long history of foreign interventions. Compounding Coptic and Egyptian identity discourse makes Coptic identity more universal, and less religious. However, how does opening up Coptic identity boundaries to ethnic claims affect those in the Coptic diaspora?

Coptic diaspora groups are quite diverse. Mainly emigrating from Egypt to North America, Europe and Australia, diaspora Egyptians claim Coptic identity in varied ways. It is in the diaspora that we can mostly see a range of ethnic, religious and cultural Coptic identity claims. Some generations cannot speak Arabic, have never visited Egypt, and yet may feel intensely connected to an Egyptian identity that they experience only when among family or within a church setting. Often, however, if one does not feel culturally or religiously connected to Coptic identity, ethnic Coptic identity claims allow for that connection. And yet, is there a Coptic ethnicity?

If Coptic identity surpasses singular Christian or ethnic claims, is it cultural? Cultural Coptic identity is more easily explored in diaspora contexts, particularly when analyzing marriage and conversion. Theoretically speaking, individuals often convert across religious lines for marriage.[7] In the Coptic case, intermarriage exposes the fissures in singular claims to Coptic identity. Intermarriage incites a multiplicity of reactions within Coptic communities and gives us a prism to explore what conceivably makes someone Coptic. For example, if spouses convert to Christianity through the Orthodox Church, are they Coptic? Are children of intermarriage partially Coptic? Is Coptic a meaningful identity marker outside of religious circles?

Such commonplace issues reveal the importance of answering bigger identity questions regarding where cultural, ethnic, and religious Coptic identity claims overlap, if at all? Without narrowing the meaning of Coptic identity, let us embrace the flexibility of Coptic identities and the different motivations that influence diverse Coptic group claims. Let us enhance Coptic studies and empower Coptic histories by recognizing the potential for complexity when answering, “Who are the Copts?”

Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact team@egyptmigrations.com if you would like to join or support the organization.

Mirna Wasef is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, San Diego. She investigates the relationship between American missionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood, and girls’ education in Upper Egypt by broadly exploring the development of sectarianism in 20th century Egypt, with particular attention to the Copts.

[1] Building churches in Egypt has been a longstanding point of tension for Egyptian Christians. Historically, the Egyptian government debates regarding the legal basis for building churches has surrounded interpretations of the 1856 Ottoman decree, mainly asserting that churches must gain presidential approval for building. Current laws have changed and in many ways are more restrictive.

[2] Mariz Tadros, “Vicissitudes in the Entente Between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the State in Egypt (1952-2007),” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41.2 (2009) 272.

[3] The zenith of this tension is evident in President Sadat’s 1981 decree which forcibly interned Pope Shenouda III in the Wadi al-Natroun desert monastery.

[4] Beth Baron, The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

[5] Under the millet system in Egypt, religious sects were given distinct legal status, recognition and protections. Being outside of a legal religious sect meant being outside of this protected class. Orthodox Christians have always been a majority of the Christian population in Egypt, despite the competition from non-Orthodox communities.

[6] H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Experiences in Life (Cairo: Dar El Tebaa El Kawmia, 1990), 82.

[7] For further reading on motives and consequences of conversions in Middle East contexts see Selim Deringil, Conversion and Apostasy in the Late Ottoman Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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