WASHINGTON — Coptic Christians fleeing upheaval in Egypt must turn to their centuries-long history of overcoming obstacles as they strive to maintain their identity, scholars said.
“Yes itʼs a story of decline, but also of survival; yes, it’s a story of decay, but it’s one of endurance as well,” said Samuel Tadros, author of the recent book, Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. [See the National Catholic Register's interview with Tadros here.]
Tadros, a native of Egypt, is a research fellow at the Hudson Instituteʼs Center for Religious Freedom. He spoke on the history of Copts in Egypt at an Aug. 22 event in Washington.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom, also spoke, explaining that contemporary political events have brought this subject into even clearer focus.
“Last weekend there were attacks in Egypt — persecution the likes of which we have not seen since at least the 14th century against the Coptic-Christian minority,” she said.
“Scores of Churches were burned, looted, otherwise damaged. Other institutions, Bible institutions, a monastery that dates back to the fourth or fifth century was destroyed,” she said. “Franciscan nuns were paraded as prisoners of war in the streets and jeered by supporters of President Morsi.”
The Muslim Brotherhood website, Shea said, “has incited such attacks, blaming the Copts” for events around the country, including military action and the downfall of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
Modern liberalizing movements within the country, Tadros said, have come to use the state to grant liberties and freedoms in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. He said this has enabled powerful groups to disenfranchise those who do not have power, such as the Copts in Egypt.
This dependence upon power and catering to the powerful results in “a separation from the country you live in,” he explained, adding that this distancing and animosity creates “a tendency to despise the people you live amongst.”
This political situation has led to an exodus of Coptic Christians from Egypt, which has in turn created questions of Coptic identity and where the future of the Coptic Church lies.
“The Arab Spring might lead in the end to something better in Egypt,” Tadros said, “but some things are hard to change.”
Once people leave Egypt and choose to build new lives elsewhere in the world, he said, “there’s no going back there.”
Less than a century ago, Tadros pointed out, there were only a handful of Coptic churches outside of Egypt. Now, however, “one-fifth of the Coptic churches are outside of the country where it has built its identity.”
“What does it mean to be a Copt when Egypt is the place you no longer call home?” he asked, suggesting that it is unclear what effects the migration of the Coptic people away from Egypt may have in terms of politics and identity.
Although acknowledging that “we are seeing a humongous demographic change in the Middle East,” he doubted that current trends will reverse themselves. He warned of increasing polarization between minorities, who feel they can only be protected with military force, and majorities, who use force to keep the status quo.
Although Copts and Muslims “can and have lived in harmony in the past,” he said, “there are very few voices, if any, that reject this … choice between Islamism and the military.”
However, despite the various struggles facing the Copts, Tadros said they have an ability to help shape their own future.
He said, “Yes, Copts have been persecuted in Egypt, but they’ve not been hopeless victims.”