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.

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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.

At the same time, Copts were facing a similar crisis in the form of the onslaught of Western missionaries. How to modernize their ancient church? What role should the laity have in church affairs compared to the clergy? And what does it mean to be a Copt? These two stories are happening simultaneously. Sometimes the modernization pace has been faster in Egypt than in the church, sometimes the reverse, but the basic crisis is the same.

How has Egypt's quest to join the modern world created tension with the Coptic way of life?

Sa'id and Isma'il, pashas who ruled over Egypt during the mid-19th century, were more concerned with reproducing the West's military and technological advancements than its underlying political and religious ideals. Isma'il believed that by copying the outer layers of Western civilization Egypt could actually become like the West. This belief reached its foolish culmination with his proclamation "my country is no longer in Africa, it is in Europe." This sort of attitude marked a break with geography, a break with history, a lack of understanding of the challenges.

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Egypt's liberal thinkers, who began to emerge during this time from their positions within the government's administrative ranks, came to develop strong anti-Coptic sentiments. As civil servants obsessed with modernization, they were never eager to limit the power of the state or protect personal freedoms. Their ultimate dream became a modernizing autocrat who would force a reluctant population to change. These views cultivated within them a suspicion of the Coptic identity, because they saw it as a threat to their formulations of a new, more modern Egyptian identity.

But meanwhile the Coptic church, in the person of Pope Kyrillos IV, was mapping out a very different strategy for adapting to modern life.

Kyrillos, who was pope from 1854-1861 is truly a remarkable man. His modernization efforts started even before he became pope. As Abbot of St. Anthony Monastery he founded a school and a library in the monastery's headquarters. Nothing of the sort is recorded about his contemporaries.

Once elevated to the papacy, his modernization project began in earnest. We have to keep in mind that he was pope for just seven years, two of which he spent in Ethiopia, so all of this was achieved in five years. He established five modern schools that offered free education, even to Muslims—indeed, to all Egyptians. And so the first instance of modern female education in Egypt comes about not by the efforts of a secular ruler, but by the efforts of a Coptic pope. Kyrillos established a library, imported a printing press (the second in Egypt), organized the church endowments, provided better training to priests, and organize their salaries. He changed the marriage age so that girls would not be forced into marriages at a very young age.

You tell the story of Coptic Pope Peter VII receiving an emissary from Russia who says the Tsar has proclaimed protection of the Copts. And he asks, "Does the Tsar die?" The emissary responds that of course he does. And Peter VII responds, "Why should I seek protection from one who dies when we are under the protection of the Living that never dies?"

The story is a reflection of the different path Copts took compared to other religious minorities in the region. Copts of course had long memories of how the Byzantines and later on the Crusaders had treated them. They also recognized that Western powers come and go, but God's church remains. Today the attitudes have changed a bit, given that foreign countries are no longer alien to them. They are places where their brothers, sisters, and cousins now live.

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How is the increasing emigration of Copts around the world influencing the church and its identity?

It is indeed a remarkable development. To cite one example, when Pope Shenouda became pope in 1971, he inherited two churches in the United States: one in Los Angeles and one in New Jersey. When he died in 2012, he left behind 202 Coptic churches in the U.S. The Coptic church today has more than 550 churches outside of Egypt.

But this tremendous growth puts a huge burden on the church. The challenge is one that the church has never faced before. It requires a redefinition of what the very word Copt means. The word Copt comes from the Greek word, itself an adoption of the word the ancient pharaohs used for Egypt. What does it mean to be a Copt in Philadelphia or in Minnesota? What does it mean for the church if, at a certain moment in the future, a majority of its adherents live outside of Egypt's borders?

The challenges are immense. In the West there is an open market competition among religious denominations and secular worldviews, whereas atheism is a problem hardly faced inside Egypt. Divorce rates are different. Every aspect of life in the West is different.

It's a challenge, of course, for other ancient Christian communities, like the Armenians for example. And throughout their history, the Jews have had to deal with being a community in exile. But this is completely new to the Copts. It might require changes in the church's conception of Coptic identity and a greater emphasis on the more general Christian message and the church will need to distinguish itself less as a specifically Egyptian church than as one of the founding churches of Christianity, and thus as part of a heritage that all Christians share.