The Americanization of an Ancient Faith

Shira Telushkin, The Atlantic, Mar 31, 2018

2,000-year-old Coptic Church is trying something new: spreading its message
across the United States—and the rest of the world
One day
in the fall of 2010, Father Anthony Messeh, then a priest at the St. Mark
Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax, Virginia, sat down with a list of names.
There were 30 individuals—all American converts with no Egyptian heritage—who
had been baptized at the church since his arrival in 2001. Of the group, only
eight were still active members.
just broke my heart,” Messeh told me one afternoon last summer. “If one or two
people had left, then maybe I could say it was something wrong with them. But
if 22 out of 30 had left, that meant it’s something wrong with me.”
American couple who’d left the congregation told him that while the church felt
like a family, it didn’t feel like their family. St. Mark’s, like many of the
over 250 Coptic churches in the United States, is overwhelmingly comprised of
Copts raised in Egypt or born to Egyptian parents. Of the nearly 6,000 members
of the church, most still converse comfortably in Arabic, and the services
retain Egyptian cultural norms: Men and women tend to sit separately, people
move around freely during prayers, and Egyptian food is often served.
even those baptized into the faith, could feel like outsiders—not only at St.
Mark’s, but at churches across the country. Recent waves of immigration from
Egypt had intensified the influence of Egyptian culture across American
would soon become an early advocate for a new kind of Coptic church—one that
could appeal to American converts but maintain the core tenets of the nearly
2,000-year-old faith. By 2012, he decided to establish his own congregation.
His services, with their chanted prayers, elaborate robes, and cymbal-playing,
look traditionally Coptic Orthodox. But the English-language liturgy, crowded
rows of ethnically diverse worshippers, and evangelical style of preaching feel
rooted in the United States.
church, now 300 members strong, isn’t the only one of its kind: In the past
decade, dozens of Americanized Coptic churches have opened across the United
States, concentrated in Texas, California, and along the East Coast. In 2015,
Bishop Youssef, one of 10 Coptic bishops in the country, founded the American
Orthodox Coptic Church of Alexandria, which currently comprises five
congregations from Arizona to Florida, and caters specifically to a U.S.-born
audience. Church leadership has embraced the governing philosophy these changes
represent: If the church wants to grow, it needs to part with some aspects of
Egyptian culture and formally embrace its American identity.
But these
moves have provoked some anxiety among the laity, who worry that dropping
Egyptian culture will undermine the faith. A new conversation has emerged among
the faithful: Can an Americanized church truly count as Coptic?

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While the
Coptic Church doesn’t keep any formal tally on its global presence, many
scholars estimate that there are over 500,000 Copts living in the United
States, with many tens of thousands of others living in other English-speaking
countries. There are no formal estimates on converts either. But their growing
presence in established churches, as well as their membership in the new
“mission churches” in the United States, is a widely acknowledged phenomenon.
“There are now more and more non-Egyptian people in church, and I am getting to
be less and less unique, which is great,” said Rachel Smallwood, a native Texan
who was raised a devout Baptist and was baptized into the Coptic Church in
Houston in 2012.

converts often first encounter Coptic Orthodoxy through a friend, colleague, or
romantic partner. Marriage is a common motivation for conversion, as both
partners have to be baptized in the faith in order to be married in the Church.
Many American converts are also drawn to the Church’s claims that it’s the
oldest in the world, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist in the first century.
“The Protestant circles I was in would say, ‘We are trying to be more like
Jesus Christ,’” said Toni Svonavec, an elementary-school teacher in Maryland
who was baptized in 2014. “But for me, that is exactly what the Coptic Church
already has.”
most ethnic Orthodox churches cling to linguistic fidelity and cultural
continuity abroad, the Coptic Church has not resisted acculturation. Its first
English liturgy, the prayers and rituals that govern different church services,
was introduced in 1980, just a decade after the first Coptic churches were
established in North America. By the 1990s, almost all of the 50-plus churches
in the United States prayed mostly in English, a development blessed by the
Coptic Pope Shenouda III. Some Egyptian customs—like standing throughout the
entire service, or kissing the priest’s hand as a greeting—also began to fade
away, and more converts joined.
If this
Americanization in the late 20th century had continued organically, Messeh and
others may never have felt the need to establish a new brand of church. But
over the past decade, a rise in Coptic immigration from Egypt, spurred by
increased persecution by radical Islamist groups and the 2011 Egyptian
revolution, has drastically changed Church demographics abroad. Sam Tadros, a
fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., who writes widely on modern
Coptic identity, estimates that over 18 percent of ethnic Copts now live
outside of Egypt.
immigration wave has been a boon to the Church’s population: There are now more
Coptic churches in the United States than ever before. But it’s also created a
cultural split. Church leaders have found themselves caught between the needs
of their longtime members and those of the newcomers. Many English-speaking
churches have switched back to Arabic liturgies and reincorporated Egyptian

changes risk alienating American converts, and the leaders worry they’re losing
American-born Copts, too. “The last go-around, when my church flipped from
English to Arabic, we lost a lot of people who had been raised American,” said
Laura Michael of Jacksonville, Florida, who runs a blog called Coptic Mom and Dad,
referring to the church her Egyptian-born parents help start in Virginia in the
1980s. While the all-Arabic service worked for her, she said, the change was
much harder on younger relatives.

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addition to their popularity among converts, the Americanized churches have
been welcomed by second- and third-generation Copts, according to several
American-raised Copts I spoke with.  

But their
purpose isn’t solely keeping Church membership intact—they are also the basis
for a new evangelization effort.
religious minorities in Muslim-ruled Egypt, Copts have historically been
prohibited from evangelizing. Gaining converts in countries like the United
States, the United Kingdom, and Australia has thus proven particularly
exciting. Multiple priests and members emphasized to me that rather than worry
about losing their culture in foreign lands, they’re eager to finally start
spreading it.
effort could be eased by the Church’s embrace of English-language liturgies;
typically, a mix of Arabic and Coptic is used during services. Among advocates
for the Americanized churches, the change wasn’t seen as a huge leap, as it
would be in other Orthodox faiths. (The Armenian Orthodox church forbids
English-language services, for example.) The Coptic Church is unique among
Orthodox churches in its emphasis on vernacular prayer. It also lacks an
emotional connection to Arabic, the most common language of prayer among
Egyptian Copts. It’s seen primarily as the language of Islam, and therefore
There is
some concern over losing the Coptic language in the liturgy—perhaps the most
controversial move the new churches have made. But many Copts argue the
language isn’t as central to the faith as others say it is. “It’s nostalgia,
these people who pray in Coptic. It has nothing to do with the church or
spirituality,” said Father Athanasius Iskander, whose exacting translations of
Coptic liturgies and hymns are used throughout the English-speaking world. “The
Bible tells us that worshippers should understand what they say. If the
language dies in this land of immigration, then that’s only a natural
agrees. “This is about the Americans finding this faith for the first time, and
there being a home for them. That’s all. We need all kinds of churches,” he
said. “But you can have a Coptic Church without the Coptic, and I’ll go to my
grave saying that.”
With the
fresh need to look beyond language or ethnicity as the binding agents of Coptic
identity, advocates for Americanized churches often emphasize a connection to
historical Coptic persecution.
“When I
bring visitors to church, I emphasize the bloodshed and the martyrs,” said
Sandra Mathoslah, an advocate for Americanized churches who lives in the
Washington, D.C., area. “That is the bread and butter of the Coptic Church—this
perseverance,” she said. “It’s a church with a lot of suffering.”
“You are
a Copt if you relate to that history,” Tadros, from the Hudson Institute, told
me. In his view, there are enough people around the world who can relate that
there’s potential for a global Church community. He recalled meeting the first
ethnic Japanese priest at a church in Cairo a few years ago, and his surprise
at hearing Coptic chants recited with a Japanese accent. “For 2,000 years, we
were the official Church of Egypt,” Tadros said. “Today, we are in Pakistan,
Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand, Sweden, Fiji, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mexico,
Brazil, Ghana—we have invaded the world.”

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some Copts, the Americanized churches are seen as less authentic. There’s a
fear “that if we lose the culture, we lose the faith,” Messeh explained. There
have also been charges of elitism, with the Americanized churches attracting
wealthier and more highly educated Copts, who are sometimes perceived as
looking down on their newly arrived counterparts.
these concerns, or perhaps because of them, some worry the mission churches
could break off from Egypt. “They took it very, very hard, out of their love
and commitment to the Coptic Orthodox Church,” Bishop Youssef told me,
referring to some congregants’ reactions to his 2015 announcement of an
American branch of the Church. (Coptic bishops are known by their title and
first name.) Nonetheless, he assured them that while “communication with the
mother church is very important, our connection with the holy tradition is not
with a geographical place.”
Messeh, such concerns both misunderstand what is essential about the Church’s
faith and ignore the benefits of embracing American culture. “In Egypt there is
a lot of emphasis on emotions, on faith by any means, and on miracle stories,”
he said. “But this emotional pull is less intriguing to Americans than the rich
intellectual history of the Church, stretching back to Origen and St.
Athanasius. As American Orthodox Copts, we have a chance to restore the balance
and understand our historical roots. We can take the best of both cultures.”
By many
cultural standards, it’s a demanding faith. While priests at Americanized
churches might preach in English, post on Twitter, and reference American pop
culture, they still oversee a flock with strict obligations: one that prays a
three-hour Sunday-morning liturgy, goes to regular confession, fasts completely
nine hours before Sunday communion, and keeps to a strict religious calendar
that demands a vegan diet for nearly two-thirds of the year.
For many
converts, these demands are part of the appeal—offering more concrete ways to
express faith—even if they don’t guarantee acceptance within the broader Coptic
community. Several converts at Messeh’s church in Washington told me they
worried that they wouldn’t be welcomed into a local Coptic church in a new
city, as immigrant-dense congregations can appear to view non-Egyptians with
suspicion. One student told me that, when traveling, he attends Russian or
Greek Orthodox services, as those churches have a longer tradition of
interaction with outsiders.  
Bishop Youssef, converts’ acceptance of the Orthodox faith and its tenets more
than binds them to the Church. “I don’t like the phrase ‘mission churches,’” he
said, “because I think every church should be a mission church.”
even those Copts who embrace Americanization harbor some reservations. Baher
Iskander, who moved to the United States from Egypt when he was 12, admits that
his primary concern with a developing American Coptic tradition is that the
values of the Church in Egypt—a binding sense of obligation to attend services
and serve the Church—don’t give way to American notions of personal choice and
individualism, leading to more lax attitudes. As someone raised in both the
Egyptian Protestant and Coptic Orthodox churches, he is less moved by the need
to spread the Orthodox faith.
understand that on a big vision and a macro scale, this is the right thing to
do,” he said, referencing the rise of Americanized churches. “But the Coptic
Church is also part of my ethnicity. I love going to my home church in Houston,
eating Egyptian food after the service, and have all the aunts kiss me.”
all of the almost 30 Copts I spoke with—priests, deacons, servants, immigrants,
converts—were optimistic that the Church will work out its growing pains, and
even flourish as an American tradition, much like global Catholicism remains
culturally specific but united under the Pope. While the See of Alexandria will
remain the final word in matters of faith, the American Coptic church could
become its own force in the Coptic tradition.
Tadros, the most relevant comparison to what’s happening in America might be
the Church’s presence in Africa and Latin America, where its history as a
pre-colonial church that is indigenously African has made it particularly
popular. In those parishes, the acceptance of local customs came quickly, and
with little fanfare: “If we can accept the dancing in Kenyan services and the
drums in Bolivia, then why not the mission churches in D.C.?” Tadros asked.
has—somewhat controversially—predicted that Copts, facing mounting persecution,
eventually leave Egypt
. But this prospect does not overwhelm him.
“What is
Egypt? A piece of land. The places of Nicea and Chalcedon have no Christians.
Are they less blessed?” Tadros asked. “Maybe God kept the Church alive so that
now it can spread across the world.”