A cross is held by a supporter of Egypt's Coptic Christian community during a protest near the United Nations in December 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Analysis

The Contested Politics of Coptic Diasporic Activism

On November 6, 1972, assailants set fire to the headquarters of the Holy Bible Society in Al-Khanka, Qalyubia, because Coptic villagers had been using part of the building as an unlicensed church. A few days later in response, Pope Shenouda III ordered an entourage of priests and bishops to visit the village. Following a Coptic procession on November 12, local Muslim villagers staged demonstrations, fired into the crowd, and set half a dozen Coptic homes ablaze. President Anwar al-Sadat initiated a parliamentary investigation into the incident, resulting in a final report that recommended clarifying government procedures for licensing church construction and issuing permits—recommendations that were never followed through. 

The violence that erupted that November galvanized a number of immigrant Copts across Canada and the United States to organize politically and lobby the international community for support. Shawky Karas and his wife Laila created the American Coptic Association (ACA) to raise awareness among U.S. policy makers about discrimination against Copts. Through their contacts in New Jersey, they secured an office and gathered a group of professionals, including engineers, entrepreneurs, and teachers. At the same time, Alfonse Kelada, Selim Naguib, and Nadia Naguib redirected the activities of the Canadian Coptic Association (CCA), founded in 1963 for religious and cultural celebration, toward political activism. Leaders of the two associations worked in concert and were motivated by their bitter experiences in Egypt with verbal abuse, job discrimination, and targeting by the secret police for choosing to emigrate. 

Responding to developments in the Egyptian context, academics and professionals took on the challenge of defending Coptic rights beyond Egypt’s borders. The Copts: Christians of Egypt began in 1974 as the chief news outlet of the American and Canadian Coptic Associations. The featured articles, case reports, and analyses on the Coptic situation in Egypt by immigrants and correspondents documented the date, location, and circumstances surrounding sectarian incidents, often with a retelling of events. Appealing to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the magazine provided detailed analyses on specific human rights violations by the Egyptian government, including unlawful detainment, forced conversion, and attacks on places of worship. Coverage was equally divided between English and Arabic, designed for both Western audiences and Coptic immigrants who could advocate on behalf of their co-religionists. 

In the following years, tensions mounted between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda over legal and constitutional questions and successive acts of sectarian violence. In 1977, the government introduced draft legislation in the People’s Assembly for the application of Islamic law to cases of libel, theft, and apostasy. Diasporic associations responded to activism in the homeland, where the clergy and General Congregation Council met in 1976 at a conference demanding fair treatment and equal rights for Copts. In February 1977, the Holy Synod presented a joint statement denouncing the implementation of Shari’a in civil law, and in August the Bishopric of Assiut presented a memorandum documenting various attacks on Coptic churches, criticizing police inaction, and contesting forced conversions of Christians. The ACA and CCA condemned sectarian violence in Egypt at conferences in New Jersey in May 1978 and Montreal in December 1978 and October 1979.

Members of the American and Canadian Coptic Associations lobbied state authorities in their respective countries and staged protests in Ottawa, Washington D.C., and New York at the United Nations headquarters. All this drew the ire of President Sadat, who started to acknowledge the growing voice of diasporic activists and their threat to his international image. The Egyptian government used strategies to monitor, defame, and intimidate diasporic activists into silence, some of which they continue to employ today. Egyptian officials often photographed protesters during rallies, and their pictures were circulated by officials and on display at Egyptian embassies in Washington and Ottawa. Sadat’s government relied on state-controlled Egyptian media to defame Aqbāt al-mahjar (émigré Copts), claiming immigrants were inherently less loyal to Egypt for choosing to leave. Akhbar Al-Youm, one of the largest state newspapers, characterized Aqbāt al-mahjar as “fanatics,” “extremists,” and un-patriotic zealots.

Following a sectarian attack in Cairo’s Zawyat al-Hamra neighborhood in June 1981, where approximately 17 people died and 54 were injured, The Copts highlighted state complicity in hate crimes against Coptic Christians. Mounting violent incidents in Egypt and the arrival of new immigrants inspired more Copts in North America to join activists’ calls for the Egyptian state to defend all its citizens equally. Fearing reprisals against Copts in Egypt, the patriarch wrote letters urging immigrant protesters to set aside sectarian demands and join the national cause, sending bishops on repeated visits to parishes in New York, Toronto, and Montreal. Sadat was not appeased. Vocal opposition abroad heightened tensions between immigrants, the Coptic Church, and the Egyptian state.

In an unprecedented move in September 1981, Sadat revoked the presidential decree approving Shenouda as pope and supported the creation of a council of five bishops to lead the Church in his absence, tasking them with resolving the unrest that he accused the pope of fomenting domestically and abroad. Pope Shenouda was forced into hermitage to St. Bishoy monastery, Wadi Natrun Valley as part of a country-wide crackdown that included the imprisonment of approximately 1,500 religious leaders, politicians, and journalists. The following month, Sadat and Bishop Samuel (who had been appointed head of the council) were assassinated in Cairo by officers belonging to Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya. Following his investiture, President Hosni Mubarak did not release Pope Shenouda, and Bishop Gregorius succeeded Samuel as the head of the council. 

Pope Shenouda was released and reinstated in 1985, now far more measured in his responses to sectarian violence. In April 1992, 14 Coptic Christians were shot in Upper Egypt, and armed groups launched a series of attacks against the Egyptian government that peaked in February and March of 1994 with almost 600 deaths. Following three assassination attempts on top government officials and one on President Mubarak, the government initiated a mass crackdown, arresting and killing suspected fundamentalists, fostering better relations between Mubarak’s government and the Church.

Meanwhile, the CCA and the ACA had lost their monopoly on political activism in North America to the authority of the Church and new immigrant associations. At the same time, clerical influence grew in immigrant communities and the legitimacy of lay initiatives increasingly relied on the clergy’s oversight and approval. Despite the unified voice that Karas and Naguib had once envisioned for diasporic activism, the proliferation of Coptic associations with divergent visions dispelled hopes of collaboration and material support across the board. In lieu of criticizing state response to sectarianism, many new associations emerged that instead supported Mubarak’s security policies against Islamist groups, arguing that education and economic development could stem sectarian violence. Coptic Orphans in the U.S., Canada’s Coptic Aid Foundation, and the Canadian Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (CEOHR) in Montreal created charitable links with businesses and NGOs in Egypt. Social clubs and professional associations acted as liaisons between Egyptian embassies and immigrants, lobbying to provide consular services and organize cultural celebrations. 

As newly-established diasporic organizations shifted their criticism away from the Egyptian state in the 1990s, the International Religious Freedom Movement was building momentum in Washington D.C. Coptic activists joined in efforts by Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and Tibetan Buddhists to pass the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which would prioritize religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Michael Mounir, founder of the U.S. Copts Association, penned letters with Episcopal priest Keith Roderick in The Washington Times in 1998 detailing the persecution of Copts and stating support of this new legislation. Under this framework of religious freedom, Copts built alliances with conservative organizations, such as Middle East Forum and Christian Solidarity International, to defend the “persecuted Church” from Islam, framing Copts as the quintessential persecuted minority. As the largest Christian minority group in the Middle East, advocates argued that violations against Copts in Egypt pose existential concerns for Christianity in the region as a whole.

By this point, there was a proliferation of diasporic Coptic organizations that held competing strategies and goals. Seeking to overcome fragmentation and unify diasporic Coptic activism, several activists gathered in Paris in 2000, leading to the creation of the Coptic Charter document calling for full citizenship rights for Copts. In 2004, Adly Youssef convened the First International Coptic Symposium in Zurich, bringing together key Coptic activists both from Egypt and its diasporas, such as Adel Guindy, Magdi Khalil, Selim Naguib, and Youssef Sidhom, alongside prominent conservative American thinkers such as Paul Marshall from the Freedom House and Daniel Pipes from the Middle East Forum. The symposium culminated in a signed resolution that called on the Egyptian government to protect the rights of Copts by implementing affirmative action, reforming school curriculum, and removing religious identification on ID cards, amongst other recommendations.

Coptic Solidarity emerged in the wake of the Zurich Conference in 2009. It sought complete independence from the Church and the Egyptian government, in favor of the ability to hold both accountable. The Maspero Massacre of 2011, where 28 protestors—mostly Copts—were killed by security forces, marked a resurgence of Coptic activism that was more critical toward the Egyptian government. The Maspero Massacre became emblematic of state-sponsored attacks on Copts, prompting Coptic Solidarity to start Modern Coptic Martyrs Remembrance Day by convening an annual conference on the anniversary of the Massacre. Coptic Solidarity have since worked closely with French Hill’s (R-AR) office to introduce a house resolution in support of Coptic Christians in Egypt, detailing Coptic discrimination in the realms of employment, athletics, justice, and activism. Although the bipartisan resolution has not yet passed in Congress, it has become a key political tool for raising awareness and building momentum around the Coptic cause in the U.S.

The challenge facing the future of Coptic diasporic activism lies in the disconnect between North American Copts and religious and political realities in Egypt. More generally, many Copts in the diaspora learn about the history of discrimination and violence through the lens of the Church’s politics and narrative of persecution and martyrdom. While this rhetoric might offer solace on a spiritual level, it does not resonate in the political sphere of international advocacy. Coptic Voice, through their Identity and Leadership Summit, seeks to tackle this gap in knowledge by educating a new generation of engaged, young Copts in the U.S. on the systemic issues facing Christians in Egypt. By employing rhetoric of citizenship rights, activists are attempting to shed light on the institutionalized and state-driven mechanisms that have entrenched Coptic marginalization in Egypt.

While the Coptic Church has historically dissuaded activism, even outright condemning these so-called Aqbāt al-mahjar, Archbishop Angaelos of London’s recent activity in international religious freedom advocacy allows the Coptic Church to have a voice on the international stage. In 2019, Archbishop Angaelos founded Refcemi (Coptic for “advocate”), the official Coptic Orthodox Office for Advocacy and Public Policy. With the support of the Church, he has become a spokesperson on the plight of Copts, traveling to advocate for the freedom of religion and belief for all religious communities. Looking to the recent history of Coptic martyrdom, Archbishop Angaelos offers a theology of advocacy that urges Copts to advocate for the elimination of religious persecution for everyone, and not just Christian kin. Despite taking strong stances on government violators of religious freedom elsewhere, Refcemi tows a fine line when it comes to Egypt, framing the Coptic plight as a matter that transcends the ruling government.

Ideological divides and a lack of collaboration have characterized diasporic Coptic activism over the last five decades. Fragmentation among Coptic organizations with competing narratives and strategies has hindered alliance-building, grassroots mobilization, fundraising, and policy impact. Despite these challenges, the so-called Aqbāt al-mahjar remain attuned to and invested in Egyptian concerns, offering a compelling counter-narrative to dominant representations inside Egypt that paint them as traitors to the national cause and party to foreign intervention. As the capacity for political mobilization within Egypt diminishes, immigrant communities across North America and elsewhere offer fertile ground for Copts and other Egyptians to mobilize and advance citizenship rights in Egypt. Yet the challenge remains: how may diasporic Coptic activists abjure past contestation to build momentum and unify future mobilization?