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September 5, 2014

Pieternella Van Doorn-Harder has written a chapter titled ‘Copts: Fully Egyptian, but for a Tattoo?‘ in Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies (Ed. Maya Shatzmiller; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).

The chapter is good but I am writing here to point to one useless conclusion; the sort of thing I often find in some Western writings concerned with the conditions of the Christians in the Middle East. Van Dootn-Harder concludes the chapter by these words:

It is true that Coptic children will never stop singing the words from the popular song ‘I am a Christian,  a Christian … [Look at] the tattoo on my hand!’ but this tattoo will hinder the Copts’ full integration only as long as Egypt does not have a fully democratic system that guarantees freedom of expression and belief for all.

This is as useless statement as saying, for example, that a man in South Africa (under Apartheid) will never shed his black skin, but this will hinder his full integration only as long as South Africa does not have a fully democratic system that guarantees equality regardless of colour.

A more useful statement in respect of the Coptic child with a tattoo of the cross on his hand should be something like this: “… but this tattoo hinders his full integration and will continue to be so for as long as Political Islam and Arabism continue to rule the minds of the Muslims if Egypt.”

That would be stating the unhappy fact and pointing to the pathological causes of that situation at the same time. It’s not only useful but informative and brave.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2014 7:52 pm

    With reservations on the idea of “Arabism”, which I take some nuance with, I give your post a hearty Amen!

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      September 6, 2014 8:57 pm

      Thanks, Mina. I would be grateful if you could expand on the Arabism bit.

      • September 6, 2014 9:40 pm

        Well…I consider myself to be very fond of both Coptic and Arabic cultures, and I identify myself with both. It does not bother me one bit that I would be called an “Arab”. I consider that Arabic, an ancient and beautiful language and culture of ancient Christianity along side Coptic (these Arab Christians were even anti-Chalcedonians with us), was hijacked by Islamism and became extinct as an ancient cultural form of Christianity. I think Arabic seemed to have gotten a bad rap because of Islamism, but I can understand why Arabic was adopted much later in our history than the Syrian Church, since they were quite involved in ordaining bishops in the Arabian peninsula and since Aramaic is a mother language to English (I suppose like English and village Scottish English, which is frankly a very unintelligible language to me lol), whereas Coptic is a world away from the Arabic tongue. My only concern personally is for the full and unadulterated Orthodox Christian faith, whether it be Latin, Greek, Coptic, Aramaic, Arabic, or English.

        That is not to say I discourage learning Coptic. I think Coptic is a necessary part of our identity, and I desire that all may learn it to reveal to us how our direct ancestors believed and expressed their beliefs (I probably would try to tell my kids “avoid Amente” rather than “Hades” or “Gehenem”, just to be more Coptic), but because we also inherited a relatively late Copto-Arabic tradition, I too embrace them, and I hope some day, and this is understandably an impossible dream today, that the Arabian gulf can become more liberal in the future to allow us to excavate and investigate our sister church of ancient Arabian Christianity that sadly was forced into extinction.

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        September 7, 2014 11:52 am

        Thanks, Mina, for elaboration on this point. It all helps to enrich this important debate over the identity of the Copts.

        I have no problem with Arab culture per se; and I, too, am fond of certain aspects of Arab culture as I am fond of some aspects of Chinese culture and all other cultures. But I can’t say with honesty that I identify with both Coptic and Arabic cultures. It could have been possible had history been different, had the Arabs not invaded our country and subdued it, had Arabs not tried to displace and suppress our culture (including language), had Arabs not oppressed our people. We cannot ignore all that. I cannot identify with Arab culture because, in my view, that automatically means that I give up my Coptic/Egyptian culture, since it’s the one which is under constant pressure from Arab culture.

        I am aware of some Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian Christians, who tried to ward off Islamism by joining Arab nationalism and play the Arab. I think the Copts are different: we are proud not only of our religion but of our nationality too – and that nationality is based on our Pharaonic roots and is best represented by our Coptic language. I don’t think it’s good enough to satisfy ourselves with being just Christian Orthodox and regard language, culture and identity as irrelevant. We are neither Christian in a vacuum nor Arab Christians – we are Egyptian (Pharaonic) Christians. It’s the same as saying that we are not just a Church but a Church and Nation – a nation that is unique and different from other nations, including (and particularly, I would say, in view of history) the Arabs.

        There is nothing wrong with such a position and statement since we respect all nationalities, including Arabs. As I said in a different location, we are not anti-Arab, but anti-Arab domination and oppression; we are not even anti-Islam, but anti-Islamism (Political Islam), which seeks to destroy us.

        In short, I think it’s essential to resist not just Islamism but Arabism too – the two historical processes that have contributed to the weakening of our Church and Nation together: Islamization (and Islamic culturalisation) and Arabisation. I say this with all due respect to Arabs and Muslims. After all, they don’t want their religion or culture to be replaced by our religion and culture. Let Arabs be Arabs and let Copts be Copts – and let us respect each other.

      • September 9, 2014 12:23 am

        I don’t think it weakened our Church. It weakened our unique identity as Coptic, but not the Church and the faith itself. That is still standing strong, in my opinion.

        Nevertheless, if I was to support a “re-Coptization” (for a lack of a better word) of Egyptians, it would be all Egyptians, Christian and Muslim. It would be solely a political motive for me to say to the Egyptian Muslim, “You’re Coptic too! Learn the language of your ancestors.” I would support a governmental reform that would enforce Coptic to be learned alongside Arabic as equal languages for our children, so that people can understand that Egypt is Coptic. And if the Quran is the main textbook for Arabic literature, main Sahidic and Bohairic texts of the Coptic Bible should be used for Coptic literature (to be fair 😉 ).

        At the same time though, as a Church, as an Orthodox Church, I follow the philosophy laid out by an anonymous Christian writer in the late first century/early second century, dubbed “Mathetes” (disciple of the Apostles), who some scholars believe actually to be St. Quadratus, one of the 70, who wrote these two beautiful chapters (V-VI of the epistle to Diognetus) I think is worth quoting:

        For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

        To sum up all in one word-what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.

        The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.

        May God be true and all men liars, says St. Paul. May the gospel also be true, and transcend all cultures!

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        September 9, 2014 9:35 pm

        Thanks, Mina, for an excellent reply.

        I don’t agree with you that the Arabisation of the Copts, or, for that purpose, the fall of Egypt in Arab and Muslim hands in the 7th century, has not damaged and weakened our nation and Church. Just think of what has happened to our people throughout the centuries; the loss of millions of Christians to Islam (many of them converted not out of cowardice or greed but simply because of extreme poverty and absence of support); the tainting of many of our customs by the dominant culture, such as divorce, polygamy (at certain periods), circumcision, etc.; the loss of the lingual nexus we had with our Christian heritage, written in Coptic, of the olden days.
        I am not sure why you support “re-Coptization” only if it involves both Copts and Muslims. Certainly, if its implementation is desirable, it must not be held ransom to Muslim wishes. If the Muslims will resist re-Coptization, as they surely will, why give them a veto on that matter in respect of us? They certainly can re-Coptize if they want, but they don’t, as they are proud of being Arab, whether that is credible allegiance or not. As Muhamed Hassanein Heikal has revealed in his interview with the American journalist Hans Koning (1921 – 2007), the loyalty of many Muslims in Egypt is to Islam and Arabism. Heikal’s gaffe came unexpected. For several years he had pretended that he had no religious underpinnings. In the interview, he contended that “Islam is the one civilisation that wasn’t based on exploitation of the lower classes”, implying that Egypt, since it had come under the sway of Islam in 640 AD, had never been a country where the lower classes have been exploited (until presumably it was occupied by European and Christian power in the 19th Century). This prompted Koning to ask:
        – “But Egypt? Hasn’t Egypt been exploited for a thousand years?”
        – “The wooden swords in the mosques of Cairo… The Imam used to hold a wooden sword at the service. Symbol that this was a conquered country. We found the peasants here, they were the legacy of the Byzantine past,” answered Heikal.
        – “We?” enquired Koning.
        – “Wherever there is Islam, we can use ‘we’,” answered Haikal.

        Many Muslim Arabs do not see themselves as part of the peasant Fellaheen of Egypt who were “legacy of the Byzantine past” – those peasants who were conquered by Islam, as symbolised by “the wooden swords in the mosques of Cairo… [that] the Imam[s] used to hold … at the service.” You can be sure of where the majority of the Muslims of Egypt loyalty and cultural identification lie. And you can be sure that they will never re-Coptize, as you yourself have indicated by the emoticon in your reply!
        You have quoted the sweet two chapters (V and VI) of the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, from the 2nd century. No one can fault the epistle; however, we can explore the following passage more:

        “They [the Christians] dwell in their own countries [those of Greeks and barbarians], but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.”

        It is difficult to imagine a Christian as a ‘citizen’ without thinking of him as participating in politics. I don’t mean by politics here the nasty tricks and plots that mar much politics, but the politics of the best way to run a polity. Mathetes himself was believed to be a tutor and advisor of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (161 – 169 AD). This will inevitably involve the Christian in some hard and difficult questions and choices, including jurisdiction and even wars. No Christian, in my opinion can be absolutely a “simple sojourner” unless of course he lives in a vacuum or as isolated ascetic in the remotest of deserts. Even St. Anthony the Great got involved at some point in politics by giving advice to soldiers and kings.

        In my humble opinion, some Christians can chose to be ascetics of that kind, but some will be proper citizens, and get involved in politics, and even become princes, and that will not exclude them from being Christians, though they may be less holy than the ascetic. Christianity acknowledges these two layers of people: there are those who practise chastity and those who get married; there are those who abstain from meat and drink and those who don’t. And both are acceptable. Likewise, there are those who are ascetics and those whom I call princes (or with princely functions). One can call the latter full citizens of the polity. Christianity even sanctions a just war; and many saints, like St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Augustine, have written on this topic. In short, a Christian can be a citizen, and even get involved in defensive nationalistic policy, such as ours, without him being an unbeliever!

      • September 11, 2014 5:42 pm

        I am not against the work of any Christian in politics. I think it is quite important. I follow Fr. Matta al Maskeen’s philosophy of how we work with politicians, and encourage the Christian’s work in politics, but that the Church itself has no role in politics, but to be a spiritual guide to the politicians, whether they be Christians, or even Muslims.

        And that’s why I try to endorse the use of Coptic in a political atmosphere. Yes, it sounds crazy and impossible, and yes, the mindset of many Egyptian Muslims do not see themselves as “Coptic”, but as “Arab”. However, I find that the Church, ever since it started using Arabic, it started to get back on its feet again.

        The enforcement of Arabic in history was sad, and that enforcement while we tried to keep the Coptic, I believe was what weakened our Church. But only very recently, when the Copts were considered politically as “Arabs” in an Egyptian society since Sa’ad Zaghloul, I noticed that our voices seem to have gotten somewhat stronger and bolder. Yes, there are some issues still, and yes, we are still second class citizens, but I have also seen a resurgence in underground conversions into the Coptic Church. There is an ever-growing worry about the decrease of Islam in the Arab world (which is probably why the statistics will deliberately misrepresent the exact number of Christians in Egypt), particularly because of the recent events and the media’s popularization of idiotic Islamist clerics, especially when you put that side-by-side with more reasonable values of humanistic concerns, particularly those with Christian messages.

        So, I think if anything, ironically, because we started to use Arabic, we seem to be slowly going on the path of strength spiritually as a Church. The Coptic Church only gets weakened when we do not do what is necessary to provide the needs of evangelization. We are flourishing more than ever in the lands of immigration, as well as in Africa, and I have an optimism that we will likewise slowly start to have an effect on Egypt, our homeland, as well. We are slowly becoming recognized as “natives”, and we also politically should continue to encourage that thought into Muslim minds, that they too are “Coptic natives” and they too should “rediscover their past”. And after the recent disastrous Morsi regime, there is also an increase in atheism, and a spiritual void among the Egyptian youth. This is a renewed opportunity for us, to politically fight, not just for the rights of our religion, but also for the rights of all Egyptians to learn and to relive their own ancestry. If I was against our own Copts to be involved in politics, I wouldn’t advocate a political re-Coptization. ONLY THEN would I see the need for the Church to move in that same direction. Until then, the Church, in my humble opinion, sets her priorities on the spiritual (and, for evangelical purposes, material) needs for people.

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        September 11, 2014 8:31 pm

        Thanks, again, Mina. I find it difficult to agree that since the Coptic Church started using Arabic it got back on track. What is the point in history you talk about here at which the Church started using Arabic? And in what way it got back on track?

      • September 11, 2014 8:55 pm

        Sorry for my vagueness. I would say that the liturgical Arabic being prayed throughout Egypt I think did not start until the late 19th, early 20th century, and particularly when Sa’ad Zaghloul had some political influence into this movement. Theological writings and sermons in Arabic occurred during the middle ages, that I can concede to. But to actually use liturgical prayers in Arabic I think was very recent, if I’m not mistaken.

        This use of Arabic, I think, truly helped open a door for people to seriously consider the Coptic Church as a spiritual option for many Muslims, even though conversions are not popular yet. The media has even popularized the suffering of Copts. There are apparently a huge number of underground converts, and Christianity is back on the rise according to some sources. Couple that with political presence and the push to continue recognizing the Coptic Church as a “national Church”, and you have the setting of seeds for an optimistic future ahead of us (which is not without serious obstacles, but this to me is a proof of strength).

        The point is realizing that the Church is evangelical in nature, which transcends language, culture, ethnicity, morality, etc. It enriches all those aspects of the lives of anyone we touch. Once the Church realizes it’s a light to the world, not just to its own people, it becomes strong, and we are seeing the results of that happening now. 🙂

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        September 12, 2014 12:39 pm

        Dear Mina, I think the fundamental difference in your outlook and mine is based on the fact that you see the Copts as a Church only while I see them as a nation with religion being just one, though perhaps the most important, of several objective criteria that define their nationhood.

      • September 12, 2014 3:18 pm

        Perhaps, you’re right. I tend to separate nation and church and just think of the church’s goals in one end and the nation’s goals in another. That is why usually my political aspirations are directed towards what the present nation of Egypt can do, and not necessarily Copts alone.

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        September 12, 2014 7:24 pm

        Yours and mine are two positions that crystallise the positions taken by most Copts: one believes that the Copts ought to think of themselves as Christians only, an ‘ekklesia’ only – they are Christian sojourners in the world with no real association with anything connected to this world such as state or nation, and as long as they are allowed to worship Christ in peace, that is all they want; the other believes the Copts are a cultural nation and would like to secure their religious freedom which is dear to them too, but they also want to enjoy their other civil rights and cultural rights, such as in relation to their language, literature, arts, music, and so on.

        I always find a contradiction in the position of the ‘ekklesiastists’ (I have a Coptic name for them, ‘Ishlolists [those whose interest is only on prayer and worship]‘ and ‘Ishilists [those whose interest is religion but also other cultural aspects of the nation]‘ !); and here is the paradox: the Ishlolists do not want to be associated with the Ishlilists in a national project and construct and in defending their own nation but they will do that readily with others who lord over their ‘co-religionists’ and even supporting their policies and wars that often prove to be unjust and even detrimental to the interests and welfare of their own nation! You can think of the many clergy who supported, for example, the Nasserist’s policies of Arab nationalism and state-socialism and also his unnecessary wars.

        It doesn’t make sense at all to me to boycott the Coptic nationalist movement based solely on the claim that the Copts should see themselves only as Christians, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven only, and not get interested and involved in national politics in its wider scope and yet accept to be supportive citizens of a state dominated by others who do not share them in religion!

        I may understand if the argument is put forward based on a pragmatic or utilitarian principle such as that Coptic nationalism may cause more problems to the Copts rather than improve their lot or protect their culture, including religion.
        I am putting this argument to continue the debate and hope you will not see in it any intention to criticise you personally.

      • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
        September 12, 2014 9:05 pm

        Dear Mina,

        I have just published an article on the Ishlolists and Ishlilists, which I hope you will find it interesting. It’s written with you in mind but only with the utmost respect.


      • September 12, 2014 9:39 pm

        Thank you :)…I will take a look at it.

        You have my utmost respect as well. I immensely enjoy your blog and always refer many of my friends to it. Even if I may disagree with some of what you write, I think what you write is still worth reading.

        God bless you and keep me in your prayers.

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