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Coptic Christianity Meets the Modern World
Amr Nabil / AP

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 these identities mean? Are they contradictory or not? As I state in my book, I take the view that identities are not really like hats; you can wear many of them at the same time.

The title of your book, "Motherland Lost," suggests that Coptic history has been, at least to some degree, a tragic affair. Is this correct?

You cannot approach Coptic history without a sense of sadness. There is a long story of decline, of weakness and despair. There were waves of persecution under the Romans, Byzantines, and Islamic rulers. The numbers have obviously diminished; Copts are no longer the majority in their homeland. They are now a minority of less than 10 percent of the population. The Coptic language has been lost. But there is also another story, a story of endurance, of how a people survived against such overwhelming odds. Out of all the once flourishing churches of North Africa, only the Copts survived.

Persecution is certainly central to Coptic history, but as these episodes of Coptic resilience demonstrate, you can easily take this way of thinking too far. The narrative of eternal persecution removes any agency from Copts. It diminishes them to the position of helpless victims controlled by surrounding events. I don't want to minimize the amount or impact of persecution, but Copts have not been silent victims even in their darkest moments. They not only survived, but were also able to revive their church and meet the challenge of modernity. There has been a lot of human work, and, as a believer, I would say a lot of God's work with his children.

You claim that both Egypt and the Coptic church have struggled, side by side, to come to grips with and adapt to the modern world. How has this process worked out?

There has been a twin struggle with modernity. For Egypt, when Napoleon invaded in 1798, Egyptians were shocked by the Western military and technological advancement. These were not the same Crusaders they had met and defeated centuries ago. It's a question the scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis framed as "What went wrong?" Why have they advanced and we haven't? Which brought the next question: How can we catch up? How can we become like them and advance? That is the crisis of modernity in Egypt and for the larger Arab and Muslim world. At the center of that crisis is the question of the compatibility of Islam with modernity.

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Coptic Christianity Meets the Modern World