This essay is co-published with Public Orthodoxy.
On December 11, 2019, Metropolitan Serapion and the clergy of the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii wrote a statement pronouncing that Christmas celebrations will be held in the diocese on both December 25 and January 7 (29 Kiakh) to better serve the pastoral needs of local congregants. Yet the pronouncement caused a stir among Copts globally. Such debates are not new. Immigrant parishes in North America at one point in their early history routinely celebrated Christmas on December 25 to retain congregants and serve the needs of early Copts scattered across Central Canada and the North Eastern United States. At the heart of such debates, past and present, is the tremendous influence of Pope Shenouda and the many meanings of belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. In order to chart this history and offer insights on its contemporary significance, we begin with the challenges faced by early Copts in North America and then outline the changing nature of Coptic diasporic communities as a consequence of rising immigration from Upper Egypt, following the 2011 revolution.
In 1962, Pope Kyrillos VI consecrated two new general bishops. Bishop Shenouda (later Pope Shenouda III) was charged with overseeing Religious Education, while Bishop Samuel was charged with Public, Ecumenical and Social Services, and overseeing the entirety of the immigrant Coptic population across North America, Europe and Australia. A committed ecumenist, Bishop Samuel’s warm relations with diverse Christian bodies were instrumental in facilitating the establishment of new parishes, garnering support from international Christian charities, and bridging historical divides between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches and Protestant and Catholic co-religionists.
Bishop Samuel and the Coptic Association of America (est. 1963) selected Father Marcos A. Marcos (formerly an exchange student in the US) to be the first priest ordained for the whole of North America. Where some parishes celebrated the mass under his leadership on Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays, others attended Greek, Syrian, or Russian Orthodox churches. Even when more priests followed to minister across Central Canada and the North Eastern United States, an entire continent was just too much landmass to cover. In addition to this religious and geographical dispersion, cross-cultural tensions emerged. Professional and mobile migrant, Copts entered urban centres where churches were closing, faith was increasingly losing traction as a definitive marker of identity, and a youth counterculture was challenging notions of normative sexuality and family life. Consequently, many external pressures and internal tensions affected the way the Church leadership chose to respond to Coptic immigrants’ spiritual duties.
Clergy in both Egypt and North America particularly worried over the loss of adherents not only to the Greek, Syrian and Russian Orthodox churches they were attending, but also to Anglican, Baptist and Catholic clergymen officiating marriages and baptisms of new intercultural couples as single male migrants married and settled down in the cities. In the eyes of Pope Kyrillos and Bishop Samuel, it was better to have immigrant Copts celebrate the Coptic Orthodox rite regardless of the circumstances than risk losing them to other parishes or the ills of a secularizing society. Between 1966 and 1972, Christmas services were held on a rotating schedule. Communal bonds were maintained through material culture—the ethnic press, books, audio recordings, and liturgical tools—arriving from Egypt and tying together a dispersed faith community. It was not a matter of dates, calendars, and definitions as much as of serving immigrant Copts to retain adherents and maintain institutional authority amidst global migrations.
Pope Kyrillos and Bishop Samuel acted at a time of tremendous global ecumenical fervour, in an Egypt where Nasser’s authoritarian regime silenced oppositional voices and emigrants could not retain dual citizenship nor return to visit family without harassment. Bishop Shenouda on the other hand valued the sanctity of the Coptic Orthodox Church and feared mingling with the missionary efforts of ‘foreign’ Protestant and Catholic Christians that threatened what, in his eyes, it means to be Coptic and Egyptian. As bishop of Religious Education, his views were quite opposed to Bishop Samuel’s efforts to embrace interdenominational dialogue and unity in social services. Nevertheless, Bishop Samuel’s stance carried significant weight among his followers in Egypt and church activists in North America.
However, following his consecration as patriarch, Shenouda quickly prepared to strip Bishop Samuel of all authority over immigrant parishes. The pope summoned Father Marcos to Cairo and in no uncertain terms ordered him to end with all haste the practice of celebrating Christmas on any day other than January 7. Maintaining a uniquely Coptic practice regardless of the material needs of immigrants meant preserving the sanctity of an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. Yet debates about securing a distinct Coptic practice in the diaspora in light of immigrants’ needs continued, and only grew with the coming to age of a second generation increasingly acculturated within the “lands of immigration.”
Following the 2011 revolution, Copts increasingly emigrated to escape the political upheaval. The number of Green Card Lottery recipients from Upper Egypt and asylum seekers transformed the generational dynamics of local parish communities in North America. Several new churches have been established throughout the United States and Canada to accommodate second-generation youth who express distress at the class and cultural differences between themselves and the “newcomers.” As a result, Metropolitan Serapion’s current auxiliary bishops—Bishop Abraham of social services (Diakonia), and Bishop Kyrillos of Christian education—were consecrated in 2016 to deal with the demographic shifts in the diocese and the resultant generational tensions. Their duties are divided between the needs of “newcomers”—from housing, work, and transportation—to the growing needs of the second-generation who have grown frustrated at a lack of theological education in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Among many of the issues voiced in discussions around pastoral need and generational conflict is the lack of separation between Christian faith and Egyptian culture inside of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In the letter released by the Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii explaining their decision to have an additional celebration of the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, the bishops note: “If this pastoral need is not met, we are deeply concerned that a generation will come which will celebrate the Feast on December 25 merely as a social festivity, without comprehending its profound, spiritual meaning.” The underlying anxieties of the date of Christmas lay in a clash between understanding Coptic identity as sutured to an Egyptian national structure and Coptic identity as a bricolage, forged within the interactions, experiences, and frustrations of a transnational community. There is continued anxiety over the separation of Coptic Church practices in places like the US from the mother church in Egypt, and the calendar debate is yet another cause of existential unease. For many Copts concerned with the preservation of Coptic identity in the face of discrimination in contemporary Egypt, and within a historical context of persecution under successive empires and the failings of a post-colonial state, ‘giving in to’ Western calendars and time schedules are perceived to be yet another form of moral injury.
Copts who express this viewpoint, in Egypt and around the world, took to social media to voice their opposition to Bishop Serapion’s decision. A number of comments shared a screen shot of a half empty church on December 25, noting that the explanation for the decision—pastoral need [ra’aiya]—did not match the numbers that came to that service. The public Facebook page, “Shabab Christian,” emphatically celebrated the absence of congregants in writing: “[We] would like to sincerely thank all the Coptic people of Los Angeles on their great ardor for our Orthodox Church, her identity, her dogma, and our unwavering faith. Thank you for rejecting such heresies [rafdh al-bida’a].”
Pope Tawadros noted during his weekly Wednesday sermon that reactive statements to Metropolitan Serapion’s decision lacked historical and theological knowledge. Yet, historical fact on changes to dates and rituals miss the underlying concerns of this current debate. The reign of Pope Shenouda followed a time in Egypt where the post-colonial movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser ostensibly failed due to war and the rise of American imperial influence throughout the region. In the era of Pope Shenouda, Copts in Egypt experienced a rise in discriminatory practices and violence. One of the major ways he secured the role of the Coptic Orthodox Church as a national church and ecumenical institution was to stand firm in the ‘rightness’ of Coptic Orthodoxy. The divergent worldviews of Pope Shenouda and Bishop Samuel are illustrative of broader tensions within the Coptic Orthodox Church globally regarding the retention and maintenance of Copticity on the one hand and flexible acculturation to meet pastoral need on the other. Other figures like Bishop Rafael and Bishop Aghathon have also objected to changes on the date of Christmas and allowances within ecumenical dialogue, arguing instead for the accuracy of the Coptic calendar and against unity with others that do not accept the ‘correct path’ of Orthodoxy. The calendar debate is one among many between bishops championing preservation and those working toward accommodation in the Church for over a century.
The central debate around the date of Christmas is that it is not accurate to a Coptic tradition and it forces the Copts, once again, to accommodate to ‘foreign’ influences. Not only does this sting of historical trauma, but increasingly, a vibrant Western diaspora means that Copts in Egypt also have to contend with accusations of their ‘foreignness.’ The tension between maintaining an Egyptian national identity and contending with the increasingly global character of Copticity has dually impacted the liturgical life of the transnational Coptic Orthodox Church. The Church has to balance the pastoral needs of its many diasporas and maintain its institutional power and social cohesion in contemporary Egypt. In dissecting the Christmas debate, it is important to understand both the ever-shifting position of the Copts in Egypt and in the so-called “lands of immigration.”
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Michael Akladios is a doctoral candidate and course director in the Department of History at York University, Toronto. Founder and manager of the Coptic Canadian History Project, Michael’s research follows Coptic Christian migrants from post-colonial Egypt to Cold War Canada and the United States.
Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at UC Berkeley and the inaugural research fellow in Coptic Orthodox Studies at Fordham University. Her research sits at the intersection of migration, religion, and politics, with special focus on Middle Eastern Christians.