AWR researcher Jayson Casper sent me a link to a March 31 article titled “American Copts, Egypt and the Next Pope.” This text is very well written, but sadly the author is not known. The article was published on a blog called “Salamamoussa. Reclaiming Egypt,” named after Salāmah Mūsá (1887-1958), a well-known journalist, writer, and advocate of secularism and Arab socialism who was born into a wealthy, land-owning Coptic family in the town of Al-Zaqāzīq located in the Nile Delta.
The author of this blog post states:
“There are no reliable surveys of the size and reach of American Copts beyond an excellent but limited scope study by Jennifer Brinkerhoff of George Washington University,” the unknown author on this blog states.
He continues: “Copts estimate their numbers in the United States as between 500,000 and one million. As with all Egyptian numbers, reliability is an issue. There are over 200 churches, and even a simple calculation will yield something comparable to 500,000, ranging from first to third generation Copts.”
CH: So often I hear Copts in the countries of emigration as well as in Egypt provide highly exaggerated figures about their numbers abroad that one just wonders where this is coming from. Ordinary Copts appear to be deeply convinced that their numbers are much higher than Western scholars would believe. A number of bishops and political activists promote such inflated figures with great success in their own communities. It is then refreshing to read an estimate that is realistic.
The Coptic Diaspora Survey of Jennifer Brinkerhoff and her co-researcher Liesl Riddle (February 23, 2012) states the following about the numbers of Copts: “Exact numbers of Copts living in diaspora, as well as their destination countries, are difficult to trace as destination countries do not collect data on subnational identity. According to the International Organization for Migration (2010) 71% of the Egyptian diaspora resides in Arab countries. The number of Egyptians living in the countries surveyed for this study—the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom—is estimated to be 533,000. As with most diasporas, the Coptic diasporans estimate their numbers to be much higher than official estimates, even higher than the estimates of all Egyptian national immigrants.”
CH: The estimate seems realistic and estimates of the number of Coptic migrants which are higher than that of the total number of Egyptian migrants seem to be totally of a different world. “Are Copts over-represented in diaspora, perhaps owing to push factors that encourage their leaving?” Brinkerhoff and Riddle ask. The answer to that question is yes despite the lack of hard data. It is often presumed that around 70 percent of Egyptians in the West are of Coptic descent. This is due not only to push factors that encourage leaving but also to pull factors of family and friends who encourage them to leave Egypt for a Western country. I have met with many Coptic emigrants who were visiting family and friends in Egypt who were encouraging them to emigrate as well. The motivations to go are usually mixed. Most often heard are a fear of an Islamist future, economic uncertainties, but also personal experiences with discrimination may play a role as well. Brinkerhoff and Riddle write that there is no data available to provide accurate numbers. They refer to one study that estimates “that in Europe Copts make up 30% of Egyptian nationals residing there.”
The author on the Salāmah Mūsá blog wrote:
Most Copts came to the US in waves that started after the 1967 war. “Scant, but reliable, parish records indicate that as many as 1 in 3 Copts have intermarried with the general American population, mostly Catholic and Protestant Americans. As a result there maybe more than 1 Million Copts and “Copt-tinged” Americans. This is not an inconsiderable number. The vast majority are solidly middle and upper middle class and disbursed across the country.”
US Coptic clergy always tended to be very loyal to the late Pope Shenouda. The attitudes of the American Coptic laity cannot be easily documented, “since the church controls access to much of the community.”
CH: This is not only true for the U.S., but for European countries as well. I would suspect this to be related to the large percentage of first generation migrants who are strongly tied to their church. Would this change with following generations? We don’t know.
“The year since the Egyptian revolution has heightened political awareness among American Copts, as well as increased the general visibility of Coptic issues among the American population in general. There is a nascent pro-Coptic feeling among Americans in general, and stronger support among certain groups, such as Evangelicals, which is surprisingly similar to the broad American support for Israel.”
CH: This is true and at the same time worrisome since support for Israel is often linked to anti-Islamic sentiments and thus this can easily fuel anti-Islamist sentiments among Copts. They see in all troubles the evil hand of Islam instead of trying to discover that the reasons for tensions and conflicts in society may be much more complicated and diverse.
“The American vision of Copts is somewhat more quaint and romantic than the reality, but these feelings tend to be powerful. Copts have been reluctant to cultivate or exploit these feelings. Pope Shenouda was strongly against that. He felt it would endanger the position of Egyptian Copts with the state. The passing of Pope Shenouda could alter this picture considerably.”
CH: Copts may have been reluctant and Pope Shenouda may have opposed this, but I frequently find anti-Islamic Western groups using tensions in Egypt for their own political benefit, almost continuously blaming Islam for all that went wrong in society (and much is wrong!). With this they create tensions and with that continuously blaming Islam for all evil becomes a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy, creating anger among Muslims for what they see as unfair critique on a religion that is dear to them.
Something is brewing:
1- Most American Copts feel that they will have little voice in the selection of the next Pope. There is no mechanism to allow that.
2- Many American Copts have had a long simmering resentment against the Egyptian church for its shoddy handling of social services for poor Copts. A good many have opted to use personal and third parties to channel aid to poor Copts, bypassing the church hierarchy.
3- Calls for stronger Coptic political involvement and activism have fallen on deaf ears during the last 40 years of Sadat and Mubarak. There was too much to risk and too much respect for “el Batrak” [CH: the Patriarch, Pope Shenouda]. This is changing. There is even talk of raising funds to support the nascent “Coptic Brotherhood” [CH: Umma al-Qibtiya] movement in Egypt. But such action is divisive even within families.
4- American Copts, like most immigrants, have a nostalgic vision of Egypt. They refuse to accept the Egypt of today, yearn for a gentler place with less visible religion and more liberal attitudes. As a result, they vehemently oppose any Islamist politics. Some have begun an outreach to American politicians, mostly in the House, to highlight the Coptic issues. We will see during this summer of American Presidential conventions whether there has been any traction.
To summarize, the picture from the US is still murky. There is indeed a likelihood that Coptic movements outside the church, such as “Coptic Brothers”, might receive strong moral and financial support from American Copts. The shape of this support and its effects will depend on whether Egypt takes a strong Islamist turn in all institutions, or remains a balance between Islamist and non-Islamist forces. It will also depend on the personality and policies of the next Pope. What could emerge is something akin to the Islamist picture in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is a politicized body rival to the traditional Al-Azhar clerical establishment.
Egypt is unlike any other country in the Near East experiencing political upheaval. And it is partly because no other country has as large or as native a Christian minority. Islamist politics in Egypt will always be affected by this simple fact, and by the Copts’ fierce attachment to the Egyptian national character, including those 2 or 3 generations away from having lived in Egypt. In that respect American Copts are similar to the American Irish, who have affected both American and Irish policies for over a century. Whether Copts will do so remains to be seen.”
CH: These are good observations, matching well with what I have seen myself among Coptic migrants in the West. The support for a “Coptic Brotherhood” [Umma al-Qibtiya] could be very worrisome since this group, who in 1954 kidnapped a presumably weak Pope Yousab, is strongly anti-Islamic and polemic and thus could contribute to deepening the wedge between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. They are now small and insignificant and I sincerely hope they will remain so.
Coptic Diaspora Survey
The Coptic Diaspora Survey is a very interesting study that gives a good insight in the Coptic emigrant community in the US. The survey was carried out by the GW Diaspora Research Program, the Elliot School for International Affairs, George Washington University. The purpose of the study was described as identifying “the factors that keep Coptic diasporans interested in engaging in Egypt and in what particular ways.” Diasporas, the authors write, “potentially contribute to the social, economic, and political development of their country of origin.”
In the 1980s Pope Shenouda explained to me that he strongly disliked the use of the name of “diaspora” for Coptic emigrants living outside Egypt. He explained the word “diaspora” was linked to the Jewish diaspora and forced migration, which he believed was not the case. He thus preferred speaking about Coptic “migrants,” and I agree. Yet the authors were probably forced to use the term “diaspora” because their research was part of the GW Diaspora Research Program.
Jennifer Brinkerhoff and Liesl Riddle state that “the exact number of Copts residing in Egypt is contested, with estimates ranging anywhere from eight to twelve percent of the total population.”
With all the good work carried out in this study this claim is certainly incorrect. The exact number of Copts in Egypt is indeed contested, but by whom? Primarily Coptic clergy and political activists. Of course, inflated numbers are useful to underline claims about discrimination and persecution and to support claims for building more churches and lobbying for more Copts in higher political and government functions. The range given by Brinkerhoff and Riddle is also not correct. Claims range between six percent and twenty percent of population. Why would they provide a more limited range? Because they do not want to take figures below eight percent and over twelve percent seriously? If you provide a range, then provide the full range, not only a segment.
Just as many Copts link larger percentages to discrimination in Egypt so do Brinkerhoff and Riddle, but in a more sophisticated way.
“For over a decade, the Copts have been singled out as victims of discrimination and human rights violations in reports on religious freedom in Egypt.” These reports exist, but do they provide an accurate depiction of what is taking place in Egypt? Do they provide facts in the wider context of societal problems and a weak state?
Regretfully, Brinkerhoff and Riddle have not consulted the work of Philippe Fargues and other Western researchers about Coptic statistics. Why? Was this not known to them? Or was it not convenient? Fargues makes a strong argument for the proportion of Copts to be closer to six percent.
The Salāmah Mūsá blog provides a good observation “The numbers are simple. Twice in one year it was shown clearly that the Muslim Brother/Salafi grouping has 75% of the popular vote, while 25% belongs to a combination of liberal Muslims and Copts. We simply need to accept that as a fact.” It is highly unlikely that the Copts would outnumber liberal Muslims and thus his observation matches well with the work of Fargues.
The way Coptic statistics have been presented by Brinkerhoff and Riddle may have been biased, but their presentation of the results from their sample is excellent.
“The high education rates within the Coptic diaspora are not representative of the Coptic population remaining in Egypt, suggesting that many of those who could emigrate chose to do so.” That fits with my own observations from my many years spent living in Egypt. Many young, better-educated Christians indeed seek opportunities to emigrate, which is understandable from their personal perspective, but not good for the community at large.
“Ninety-five percent [of Coptic migrants in the survey] indicated the future of Egypt is important to them. Respondents are most interested in making contributions to social development (80%), relative to economic (69%) and political development (67%). Only 9.76% (of 850 respondents) report they plan to live in Egypt in the future.” Interesting is this observation, “Contrary to the norm among American donors generally, 54% of respondents reported they either do not want or do not need to know the results of their contributions.”
This, too, fits with my own observations in Egypt. I see bishops, priests, and Coptic NGOs in Egypt making great efforts to tap into this interest, and with success because, as the survey shows and as can be seen in projects in Egypt, Copts living in Western countries indeed are generous donors. The way they provide donations gives Copts in Egypt great liberty in how it is spent. Though it is often spent well, I have also seen spending whereby I would seriously question the wisdom involved in spending this money.
All in all the study of Brinkerhoff and Riddle provides valuable information about the way Copts primarily in the U.S. are engaged in supporting Copts in Egypt.