Of the great African churches that flourished in the earliest period of Christianity, only Egypt's Coptic church has persevered down to the present day, despite waves of persecution and a decisive loss of majority status within its home country. How does an ancient faith make its way in the modern world, amid swirls of cultural and political change? Samuel Tadros, research fellow with the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, takes up this question in Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity. Robert Joustra, assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College, spoke with Tadros about the nature of Coptic identity, its entanglement with Egyptian nationhood, and the modernizing reforms pursued by both church and state.
Much of your book places Coptic history, rather than language or doctrine, at the center of Coptic identity. Why tell the story of the Coptic church in this way?
Church history is indeed at the center of Coptic identity. Very little, if anything, is known about the life of a Coptic civil servant in the year 600, and there are hardly any Coptic military heroes to celebrate. But the Copts can look back to the lives of the saints, the theologians, the desert hermits, and the popes. These are their heroes.
(On a personal note, as a Coptic Christian myself, Coptic history has always fascinated me, though as I explain in the book's acknowledgments, it is something that I had tried to escape throughout my intellectual journey. The book is in a sense my attempt to come to terms with it.)
I think for every Copt the question of identity is central to Egypt's quest or crisis of modernity. Who are we? Are we Copts, Egyptians, Muslims, Arabs, Christians? What does each of ...