Over the past several decades, Coptic Christians in Egypt have experienced violent attacks from extremist groups, structural marginalization based on their religious identity, and everyday forms of discrimination from their Muslim neighbors. During the 2011 revolution, Coptic Christians took to the streets demanding equal citizenship and civil rights. Their method of protest was infused with nationalist imagery—of bleeding ankhs and Egyptian flags—as well as Christian symbolism such as iconography and makeshift crosses. The melding together of flag and cross in such a revolutionary context represented nationalist fervor as it implied unity, but also contained within it demands for Coptic Christian difference.
Since the coup of 2013, current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has led a nation wide crackdown on all forms of protest and political organization. As a result, many Copts have been imprisoned and exiled for critiquing their minority condition within the Egyptian state’s legal system, while others have suffered in silence, collecting themselves in the midst of revolutionary hope’s ruin. Many others have, in increasing number, migrated to the United States and elsewhere in the Euro-Atlantic, wherein the articulations of their Christian faith and nationalist fervor have considerably shifted.
Minority Religious Nationalism in Egypt
Coptic political movements, like the Maspero Youth Union (established in 2011), were formed to demand equal rights for Egypt’s Christians. Their protests were rich in Christian symbolism and sought both to embed Copts into a nationalist framework of protest while still marking their theological specificity. During the union’s protests, it was common for priests to bless protestors, for crosses to proudly adorn their bodies, and for rally speeches to be heightened by the additions of religious hymns and public prayer. Demands for rights from some protestors also paralleled preparation for martyrdom by others. The promise of Coptic citizenship on earth was dually shaped in conversation with a “heavenly homeland”—one that continued to guide the ethos of demands for equality and reparative justice within the Egyptian nation.
The staging of a specifically Coptic nationalist imagery beyond the church’s walls in Egyptian streets, moreover, was a reflection of tensions within the Coptic religious community; the performance of “national unity” by the Coptic Orthodox Church’s authorities, in deference to the state, frustrated protestors who saw the state as complicit in steadily increasing attacks against Copts and their churches. Since the nationalist movements of the mid-twentieth century, the Christian flavor of Coptic Egyptian nationalism was kept securely behind church walls, heavily monitored by both the church and the state. Yet the revolution saw the increasing prominence of religious difference within national protest—not only in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood (who would be ousted by a military coup after winning the popular vote) but also by way of the visibility and participation of avowedly Coptic Christian forms of nationalist politics.
Coptic political movements, I argue, hence came to practice a kind of Christian cultural citizenship that saw the translation of Egyptian nationalism through their distinct religious (and hence minority) idiom.
Egyptian patriotism and Coptic faithfulness were intertwined. Oscillating between a sharp focus on their inequality and discrimination in Egypt and their integral character to the Egyptian national framework, the diverse members of these movements sought to carve their own pathway and showcase different ways of being Christian in a Muslim-majority Egypt. Yet, in so doing these movements displayed a central paradox in the concepts of citizenship and minority within a national liberal-democratic frame: Coptic Christians are both distinguished as a threatened or threatening minority (and thus open to state intervention and securitization) while at the same time lauded as integral to the mosaic communion of the Egyptian nation. Thus, some of my Coptic interlocutors rejected the overt display of Christian imagery in Egypt’s revolutionary public square, arguing that such displays challenge the cohesive character of Egyptian national identity. In 2012, one such interlocutor noted how he saw it better for Copts to be “discovered among the masses” by their Egyptian Muslim counterparts, rather than to overtly display their religious difference and overemphasize their distinction from other (Muslim) Egyptians.
The tension at the heart of the minority condition lies in this oscillation between minority assimilation into majoritarian norms and values, and the threat of minority difference to those very norms and values. Put another way, minority difference (religious, racial, ethnic) becomes a threat to the identity of the nation that is grounded in the religious, linguistic, and cultural norms of the majority.
(Coptic) Christian Nationalism in the United States
In the United States, however, Copts experience a different kind of minority condition. Their assimilation into a (Western) Christian majority in the United States is a process made possible by their racialization as non-white, as well as their Christian difference as a Middle Eastern, Oriental Orthodox Christian migrant community. Within the frame of American solidarity in distinction, the Coptic Christian nationalist tropes fostered by Egypt’s politics are remapped.
For example, around the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Copts took to social media to voice their support and expressed concern over the encroachment of their Christian values from secular political forces. In October 2020, I attended a Coptic youth meeting in New Jersey to discuss the confirmation hearings and the questioning of Coney Barrett’s Catholic faith and her ability to separate it from her legal work. The meeting was entitled, “A Successful PATRIOT: Because of Faith, NOT In-Spite Of,” and those in attendance were weary of what they observed to be the misrepresentation by way of the politicization of Christianity in the United States.
This politicization has led to a renewed feeling of religious marginalization among members of their minority migrant community.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re the minority, and now we’re less than the minority,” a Coptic woman in attendance commented. This remapped feeling of minoritization has shaped American Coptic politics through political discourse and religious representations of the Christian right. The alignment of Coptic politics in the United States with the right also reflects a desire to be “discovered among the masses.” As another attendee at the event framed it: “We have power in numbers!”
The frame of American Christian solidarity, for the interlocutors I spoke with in my research, offered the possibility of preserving (Coptic) Christian values that are seen as radically under threat in Egypt. In assimilating to a narrative of the indigenous persecution of American Christians by secular forces, Coptic difference is recognized even while it is maintained, offering a different perspective of Christian persecution that is infused with a collective memory of martyrdom and structural discrimination in Egypt.
Religion and Nationalism in Migration
Eastern Christian minority migrations to the Euro-Atlantic allow us to see how religious nationalism is translated and modulated transnationally. While Coptic Egyptian nationalism continues to manifest in diaspora, younger generations of Copts see themselves more as Americans than as Egyptians. This diasporic shift does not entail the complete disavowal of the Coptic experience in Egypt.
Rather, the intergenerational memory of persecution and religious violence in Egypt is maintained as it is remapped onto a new national (and geopolitical) terrain.
As Copts continue to migrate to the United States, whether as migrant workers from Egypt’s south or exiles escaping political imprisonment, they will continue to confront the new political context and the differentiating relevance of their Christianity—in the United States, that difference becomes harnessed for domestic politics (advancing political agendas) and for supporting America’s imperial religio political imaginary of global Christian persecution.
As migrants and citizens in the United States, Copts and their Christianity have taken on a new saliency within a frame of majoritarian religious values; many Coptic migrants now understand themselves as U.S. Christian citizens better able to more fully engage in representative democracy. Yet this project of Christian nationalism (or solidarity) constitutively maintains Coptic Christian difference. While many Copts are engaged in political advocacy, that participation paradoxically binds them within particular strategies of religious (as well as racial) differentiation, effacing our view of the decisive antagonisms that have traditionally informed Coptic communal life.
This essay was supported by my participation as senior fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.