Copts in Context

Negotiating Identity, Tradition, and Modernity

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Nelly van Doorn-Harder
Studies in Comparative Religion
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of South Carolina Press
    , September
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, Copts in Egypt and abroad have struggled with their evolving identity. Between civil and religious strife and identity rediscovery, the Coptic identity is rich, diverse, confusing, a source of immense pride, and a victimized position. Copts in Context: Negotiating Identity, Tradition, and Modernity tries to capture this movement through its collection of essays written by noted academics on the Copts today. The religious Coptic community is an indigenous minority group that traces its religious tradition to the 1st century CE and its ethnicity to ancient Egyptians. This book discusses modern Coptic identity at home, abroad, and in relation to the tradition. It is edited by Nelly van Doorn-Harder; a longstanding scholar of the Coptic church heritage and its current political, social, and religious context. 

Part 1 discusses various aspects of the current Coptic identity in Egypt. Sebastian Elsassär discusses this identity evolution pre and post the 2011 Revolution, passing through wary co-existence, hope, participation in civil strife, fear, disappointment, cynicism, resignation, and/or escape. Modern Coptic life and identity are studied in their interaction with the media (Angie Heo), experimentation with charismatic trends (Gaétan du Roy), and attempts to preserve Coptic musical heritage (Séverine Gabry-Thienpont). 

Mariz Tadros discusses the Coptic Zabbalin (garbage collectors)—the scapegoats of both Egyptian and Coptic society. Her study of the tragic 2009 Zabbalin crisis demonstrates that social marginalization, ostracization, persecution, bad governance, and insider-outsider narrative can devastate a minority people’s livelihood. Tadros analyzes the ways in which socioeconomic status is a chief discriminator between minority group members and can become a death sentence for those disadvantaged. Her anguish and indignation are evident in her work. Given the book is produced and distributed outside Egypt, contributors are able to denounce the injustices faced by the Coptic community, something difficult to do from inside the heavily-censored country, which is evident throughout Tadros’s essay. 

Part 2 takes readers into the diaspora community as it forges relationships with its homeland, struggles to define and express its self-identity, and adapts to its new homelands. Carolyn Ramzy maintains that Coptic music helps recreate “an idealized home away from home” (96). Ghada Botros observes that the church becomes a consoler and “helper, providing a point of entrance into society” (108). It rethinks its social, cultural, and spiritual roles. In my contact with the Coptic diaspora community, I have seen this role rigorously performed with an old-country mentality. The church places immense importance on “protecting” members from the “outside world” and thus hinders them from fully interacting with the outside community. Rachel Loewen demonstrates it becomes a cultural center and multiethnic community for new Coptic generations; whether by marriage, conversion, or descent, leading to Nora Stene’s analysis of children’s integration into the Coptic church and community. These essays reveal the Coptic church’s evolving role in the diaspora as a tight-knit second home, refuge, rallying point, and identity marker.

Part 3 analyzes the role of tradition in the Coptic identity today. Mark Swanson studies a narrative framework in History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria (HP), the ecclesial literary compilation of Coptic patriarchs’s lives. Using 7th century Pope Benjamin’s and Governor Amr ibn al-As’s framework, Swanson traces the narrative motif of a persecuted patriarch’s respectful reception by a Muslim ruler in three subsequent narratives of HP. A noteworthy study, it extends beyond HP and Swanson’s essay: the same framework occurs in the narratives of Pope Kyrillos VI and President Abdel-Nasser in the 1960s and 1970s, Pope Shenouda III and Presidents Al-Sadat and Mubarak from the 1980s until the 2011 Revolution, and Pope Tawadros II and President Al-Sisi today. Copts consider themselves honored and recognized by the state when their pope is accommodated this same recognition. Swanson’s paradigm exposes that dynamic, plus the historic view Copts have of themselves as a victimized segregated minority. Interestingly, as Elsassär demonstrates, this is the very narrative young revolutionist Copts rebelled against in 2011.

Hiroko Miyokawa studies Iqladius Labib’s attempted revival of the Coptic language in the 19th and 20th centuries. Maged Mikhail challenges the linearity and historicity of the tradition by challenging the narrative of the development of the Coptic Lent, demonstrating how history, apologetics, and a desire to reference the “past” for church practice canonicity can lead to the continued use of unauthenticated information for centuries. It is an interesting study that challenges traditional knowledge and provides a critical narrative. Caroline Schroeder’s psychological and contextual analysis of three of Shenoute of Atripe’s sermons studies “monastic manhood.” Karel Innemée traces the gradual, mostly forcible, three-century process of integrating the lay monastic movement back into the church hierarchy. Darlene Hedstrom examines monastic space and its significance, positing the importance of archeological research for a more nuanced understanding of monastic life. 

Part 3 is the most fragmented of the book’s three sections. Although 3 of its 6 essays study the monastic tradition, the extensive Coptic tradition is tackled from unrelated angles without presenting a coherent picture of its impact on today’s Copts. 

Copts in Context is a dense and thickly academic book that encompasses various perspectives. It voices the Coptic tragedy, cynicism and disappointment, its indigenous identity and pride, and attempts at heritage preservation. It details the process of adapting to a new homeland, navigating a self-identity, and expresses the complex love-hate relationship with the homeland—including perceptions of Copts and their attempts to subvert/adapt to the dominant narrative of being a tolerated minority in their native land. 

Given the book is a collection of diverse essays, there were undiscussed issues. The essays presented a tightly-woven community, avoided mentioning how stifling such a community could be, and said nothing of dissenters. Interactions with other churches were also conspicuously absent, despite the church’s significant ecumenical activity and the dedication of a full section to the diaspora who interact with other churches.

For Coptic studies scholars, this book provides an honest and profound understanding of the Coptic population and situation. It is also vastly relevant to the entire Egyptian population and has the potential to start a fruitful national debate concerning Copts in their homeland.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Monica Mitri is a graduate student in Theology at Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Nelly van Doorn-Harder is Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She started studying Coptic Orthodox Christians during the 1980s while working in Egypt as the director of a refugee project. Van Doorn-Harder is the author of Contemporary Coptic Nuns, published by the University of South Carolina Press, and co-author of The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy with Magdi Guirguis. Via the website Desert Lights Collective, she continues to post blogs and articles on the Christians of Egypt.


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