From July 13-16, St Athanasius College (SAC) and the University of Divinity (UD) co-hosted an international symposium themed COPTS IN MODERNITY in Melbourne, Australia. The symposium focused on the history of the Coptic Church and community between the 18th and 21st centuries. Below are my thoughts, and some highlights of the discussions we shared day-to-day.

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Copts in Modernity: Day 1
“How does an ‘ancient culture’ develop in the modern world?” was rhetorically asked during the opening night at the St. Athanasius College located in the Eporo Tower. Eporo is a prime site to think about such a question. With a facade of Coptic stained glass iconography positioned on one of the busiest streets of downtown Melbourne, it operates as both part of the multicultural landscape, as well as outside of it. The tower itself helps to center discussions in the upcoming days around what ‘modernity’ means for Copts today, and how methods of ‘modernization’ shape the political, social, and spiritual lives of those that identify or are identified as a Copt. For background click here.

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Copts in Modernity: Day 2
What I found most striking was the focus of most presentations on finding the (Coptic) Tradition among the traditions—a debate of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. How is ‘correctness’ determined and by whom? One of the central debates has been around what is contained within a Coptic Orthodox tradition—what forms a Coptic past? What has modernity done to/for the Copts? And most importantly, was the Coptic Renaissance or Renewal a renaissance, or was/is it something else? (And what is colonialism’s role in all of this anyways?)

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Copts in Modernity: Day 3
Who were the interlocutors of Copts throughout the historical and political regimes of the modern era? With the introduction of the printing press in the 19th century, Copts began publishing apologetic material—much of which was geared towards Muslims (one late 19th century writer speaking of the ‘4 pillars of Christianity’). With British colonialism and Protestant missions, Copts had new interlocutors setting different criteria and measurements of Copticity—what being Coptic should mean. With the Coptic Renewal/Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century, many at the conference have tried to measure the ‘inaccuracies’ in theological education and (Coptic) Orthodox practice. But, it might be important to consider the ways ‘inaccuracies’ in the modern period of Coptic tradition have also become part of the tradition itself. Why have Coptic communities and the Church more generally ‘separated’ from what was the tradition before this period—was it colonialism? Is it something else? And what about migration to Western countries now, and the demands such migrations have on Coptic communities outside and inside of contemporary Egypt?

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Copts in Modernity: Day 4
The final panel dealt with two parallel discussions on the nature of Coptic Studies—these debates I struggle immensely with (as do other anthropologists of religion, I’m sure, who practice the religion they engage in their work, as well as any scholars working on Middle Eastern Christians/ Christianity). One discussion focused on where we fit in—in an academy that has little intellectual space (for geopolitical reasons centered around the importance of keeping the Middle East in particular frameworks) for Christian conversations in/around the Middle East and conversely, Christian conversations in anthropology have only recently focused on Orthodox Christians, especially those in the Middle East. But more importantly the symposium was a site to ask—who is Coptic Studies for? Is it for the Coptic Orthodox Church—to make sure the past is understood for the present to be lived in correct practice and theology? Is it for Copts—to know their heritage and remain connected to it? Or is it a scientific engagement for all kinds of scholars (Coptic, Christian, secular, Muslim, etc.)—which allows for critique and critical thinking about the past and the socio-political present without being sidelined because of the institutional conditions and demands of the contemporary Church, in Egypt and Coptic diasporas? 

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Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley. Her dissertation project is entitled “Transnational Anxieties: Shaping a Minority Community between Egypt and the United States.” She explores the transnational effects of the Arab Spring through the lens of Coptic emigration to the United States.

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