“The Global Copt: A Moment Two Millennia in the Making”

“The Global Copt: A Moment Two Millennia in the Making”

March 7 2019

By William Zakhary & Luke Soliman

When the first wave of Coptic immigrants began emigrating from Egypt in the 1960’s, few could have imagined that only a generation later, millions of Copts would reside outside Egypt across the globe. With hundreds of thousands in the United States alone, the Copts have, for the first time in their history, become a truly global people with an equally global identity. Consider that the liturgy we pray in our home parish is the same one prayed on an altar in FijiBolivia, or Kenya. One wonders if when Pope Kyrillos prayed the liturgy alone in his windmill, he ever could have imagined that the same liturgy would be uttered in bustling Manhattan or in a rural village in Australia. As emigrants continue to leave Egypt, and second and third generation Copts build new lives far removed from their ancestral homeland, the very issue of what it means to be a Copt is called into question. Two thousand years in the making, the moment of the global Copt is now upon us.

New Horizons: the Global Copt

The identity of the Copts has always been a matter of debate. For the last century, a Copt has been defined as an Egyptian Christian baptized in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Now, that characterization seems exclusive or perhaps insufficient: there are tens of thousands of converts in the West, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond. While none can deny that converts to Coptic Orthodoxy fully share and participate in the religious aspects of the Coptic identity, it would be inaccurate to call them “Copts” in the cultural or ethnic sense. Most converts speak little to no Arabic, have never traveled to Egypt, and have no interest in claiming Egyptian heritage—just like many second and third generation ethnic Copts themselves. Bound somewhere at the nexus of culture, faith, and history, the Copts remain an assembled and cohesive people. Yet with the freedoms Copts have found in their new homes in the diaspora, a stark reality faces us: outside of Egypt, who are we?

We are not separate from the Copts of Egypt, but rather we are the manifestation of their hopes and dreams.

Few Copts of the second and third generations speak Arabic, let alone read or write. Unlike for Muslims, for whom the Arabic holds a special religious significance, it is only relevant for Copts for its role as their long-held primary spoken language. The Copts of the diaspora have assimilated and learned the languages of their new homes, rushing to translate the Coptic liturgies, hymns, and books into the local vernacular. These translations have helped preserve the Coptic faith for non-Arabic-speaking youth, while supporting the open evangelization that Copts are now free to conduct. In every major population center for American Copts, there are churches conducting liturgies almost entirely in English. Some new churches are even founded as “American Coptic Orthodox Churches.” But the Coptic people, no longer cornered into an identity of simply being non-Muslim, still struggle with expressing who they are. In these growing pains of a new, free Coptic people, the global Copt has only just begun to raise her voice.

This global Copt is an artist, and an actor, and a chef, and a taxi driver. The global Copt is an FBI agent and a surgeon. She is a theologian and a judge. The fact is Copts outside of Egypt are now living in the eve of a Coptic rejinmisi (a renaissance), where the full expression of their cultural identity is coming to the fore. But for the rejinmisi to take root, the global Copt must define themselves and find a new glue to bind the present and future generations both inside and outside Egypt. Saint Pope Kyrillos VI was the first Pope to broadly support the Copts abroad in the mid-20th century, and presently, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II has taken bold steps to strengthen the diaspora. Pope Tawadros has ordained countless new bishops for the Copts abroad, supported the missions of theological and academic institutes, and even accepted a proposal for the first annual Global Coptic Day this year.

What is the Coptic Rejinmisi?

To define this cultural bloom as a rejinmisi is no mischaracterization—Copts, now exploring wholly new concerns of the modern world are also returning to their traditionally held roles in Egypt. Copts as prominent civil servants and artists is no deviation from a norm, but rather a return from exile. How quickly we have forgotten that Copts composed nearly the entire financial administration for several periods after the Arab invasion of Egypt, or that our liturgical tunics are rooted in a rich tradition of Coptic craftsmanship in textiling. Yet, the rediscovery of our identity is not limited only to professional pursuits. Our language, which is almost as central to our cultural identity as our faith, has long been neglected for elusive reasons. There has never been a better time than now for the Copts to give their language new life with a place both inside and outside the Coptic church.

Efforts to revive Coptic have been underway for years, yet they are largely limited to academic circles and linguistic enthusiasts. Attempts to revive our language, even if only for liturgical literacy, could help provide an additional basis to bind Copts in all generations and in all places. We believe that the language needs to be democratized and reinvigorated by the millions of global Copts who are no longer shackled by the nationalistic imaginations of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Languages like Hebrew, Hawaiian, and Sanskrit have all been reborn from the ashes. With the advent of mobile language-learning applications like Duolingo, developers are now working on a similar application to make learning Coptic language both accessible and exciting.

We are on the brink of a cultural, theological, and linguistic renaissance.

But if the thought of resurrecting an ancient language is as daunting to you as it is to us, be comforted in knowing that there are plenty of other ways to contribute to the rejinmisi. Our call to action is merely to identify as a Copt. You can do this by asking to serve at church or by joining one of the many already-existing Coptic societies:

You can also identify as a Copt by recognizing and accepting the difference between an Arab identity and a Coptic one. It is a widely-held erroneous belief that Copts are Arabs, if not genetically, then at least culturally and linguistically. While it’s true that we share many cultural practices, Copts have a unique history and tradition independent from Arabs. This is not to mention that Coptic populations, contrary to popular belief, are shown to be genotypically distinct from the remainder of the Egyptian population. In no way does this fact distance us from our compatriots, but instead it emphasizes the truth of an eclectic, multiethnic Egypt, where all cultures might be celebrated—be they Arab, Nubian, Berber, or Coptic. As the rejinmisi unfolds, young Copts will have even less familiarity with the Arab world, giving them an opportunity to unearth their long-suppressed Coptic culture.

To determine and direct our future as global Copts, we must recognize the traditions, glories, and faults of our collective past. Jonathan Adly, producer of the History of the Copts podcast (which you should absolutely listen to), wrote an excellent piece on the importance of knowing our history. Reuniting with our history should not be understood as a nationalistic endeavor, but rather a corrective one. Instead, we should readily approach our history with a newfound sense of wonder, for in many ways, we have not had the luxury of studying (or writing, for that matter) our own history. In recent decades, a resurgence of studying and documenting our past has begun, focusing particularly on the Byzantine and early-Islamic Egypt periods.

Copts have also spearheaded modest efforts to share their history with the broader public. The Coptic Museum of Canada boasts an impressive collection of early Coptic manuscripts and material culture, including papyri, icons, textiles, and woodwork. Despite hopeful developments in re-discovering our past, certain historical periods have yet to be thoroughly studied, like the late Middle Ages. Febe Armanios, an Associate Professor of History at Middlebury College, expresses optimism in the further study of Coptic anthropology, liturgical life, and archeology under the caliphates. With a newfound voice, unattenuated by the borders of Egypt, Copts are certain to leverage their history in their global rebirth.

When Pope Kyrillos IV took his papal throne in 1854, he saw a dire need to educate his clergy and congregation. Fondly nicknamed Abu Islah, or the “Father of Reform,” he imported the first printing press for the church, established Coptic schools, and disseminated religious curricula across Egypt. With an equally bright vision, the diaspora has diligently prioritized education initiatives some 200 years later; we are quickly finding new Schools of Alexandria on nearly every continent. These institutes train clergy and laymen alike to understand, articulate, and discuss a variety of topics, including Orthodox doctrine, church history, and scriptural apologetics.

Among them, Saint Athanasius and Saint Cyril Theological School (ACTS) is a pioneer. Based in Southern California, ACTS offers both graduate degrees and certificates in theological studies. Just last year, the student body doubled in size to over 300 students, hailing from across the United States, Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. Other programs of note include St. Cyril’s Coptic Orthodox Theological College in Carlton, Australia and St. Athanasius College in Melbourne, Australia. These schools excel not only in coursework, but boast annual conferences, merit scholarships, and study abroad programs as well. Support for these initiatives is generated in concert from both lay people and clergy. The Friends of Coptic Education is dedicated to expanding Coptic education for all age groups. And less than one year ago, a delegation of of bishops met to discuss a desire to establish a central theological school for all North America. This unprecedented push for accessible, formalized theological education, not only for clergy and servants, but for lay people as well, is a linchpin of the rejinmisi.

This emphasis on education is not limited to theological studies. We too find a growing number of Coptic primary schools dedicated to educating our children. After the reforms of Pope Kyrillos IV in the late 19th century, Coptic notables pioneered a new educational movement underpinned by the establishment of Coptic primary schools. During Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist musings in the 1960’s, many of these schools were regrettably overtaken by the Ministry of Education (see St. Arsany Language school, for instance). Fifty years ago, the prospect of establishing Coptic primary schools outside Egypt would have been inconceivable, but today these schools abound to the degree that there are too many to list here. We also find auxiliary organizations dedicated to supporting adolescent Copts seeking college preparation, English literacy assistance, and merit scholarships. These robust commitments to education are not novel developments, but rather transnational revivals of the dreams we once realized.

Two Thousand Years in the Making: A Call to Action

If we carefully consider the trends in the Coptic diaspora today, we will quickly realize that we are on the brink of a cultural, theological, and linguistic renaissance. The blood of the martyrs, the sweat of our ancestors, and the toils of our fathers the patriarchs have made this moment possible. We are not separate from the Copts of Egypt, but rather we are the manifestation of their hopes and dreams. The future of the Copt is a global one, in which a modern people carry on the traditions and beliefs of an ancient faith. In boldly exploring and reviving our long suppressed identity as Copts, we can achieve a zenith in Coptic culture yet unseen in our history. To harness the rejinmisi, give some thought to what being a Copt means to you. Get involved in a local Coptic-affiliated association. Or better yet, start your own. And most importantly, remember the miracles God has done for the Copts. While we have offered several steps to bring the Coptic renaissance to its full potential, this article is by no means exhaustive.

Our unfinished story, long confined to foreign museums and hidden away in our homes, is ready to be picked up from the shelf, dusted off, and continued. Let us take up this call and reclaim our identities, not as Arabs, not as wholly consumed by the cultures we have assimilated into, but as global Copts.

William Zakhary (@williamzakhary) is a first generation Coptic Egyptian-American studying for his J.D. at The University of Texas School of Law. He’s interested in economics, his puppy, and Umm Kalthum. He lives in Austin, Texas. He would love to hear your feedback at william.zakhary@utexas.edu.

Luke Soliman graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently completing his Master’s in Theological Studies from St. Athanasius and St. Cyril Coptic Orthodox Theological School, and will matriculate into medical school in July 2019. Outside his studies he enjoys backpacking, minimal photography, and third wave coffee.

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