Modernity, Murder, and Coptic Identity

by Candace Lukasik

Bishop Epiphanius

On July 29, 2018, one of the most beloved bishops and scholars in the Coptic world, Bishop Epiphanius, was found murdered outside of his cell at the St. Macarius monastery. He was on his way to Midnight Prayer when he was assaulted and struck in the back of the head. While the Egyptian state has now officially charged an ex-monk and an accomplice at the monastery with the murder, Coptic social media prior to this was abuzz with speculation, not only for the murder’s brutality but also because of the way it brought to a head a century-long internal debate about Coptic identity.

For most Western Christians, Coptic Christianity offers a powerful testimony to modern martyrdom. Several American Christian leaders point to violence against the Copts in order to garner attention for the persecution of Christians in the modern world and to shape US policy. In this regard, US activists and scholars tend to portray Coptic Christians as passive, premodern victims of modern religious violence. Such characterizations fail to recognize the extent to which the community has undergone a series of transformations and divisions of late.

During the 19th century, Protestant missionaries exploited colonial rule to proselytize in Egypt. Their efforts to convert Muslims were largely unsuccessful, but among the Copts they found fertile ground. As one Egyptian Protestant told me during an interview in 2017: “They brought Enlightenment to Christians in Egypt. Before the hard work of the missionaries, the Copts only cared about the tradition, not the Bible. It was not the basis of the Church. You had priests even who could not read. The missionaries saved the Copts from extinction. Yes, they preserved Christianity in Egypt, especially through the preservation of the Coptic language and the translations of scriptures into dialects, but by the 19th century, the Church was dying. It was completely superstitious. Priests kissing hands, but not knowing the Bible. The work of the missionaries changed everything—they opened schools, spread the Bible, and taught people its importance.”

More than simply poach members, the Protestant missionaries had a profound effect on the Coptic Orthodox Church. Following a short-lived revival movement during the late 19th century under Pope Kyrillos IV (also known as Abu Islah, or the Father of Reform), the next and largest movement for reform in the Church occurred through the work of (now Saint) Habib Girgis who founded the Sunday school movement. Among other things, Girgis introduced modern academic learning and patristic studies to the Coptic Orthodox Church. To do so, Girgis appropriated many of the tools of the Protestant missionaries, including Arabic Bibles, to develop a template for Coptic theological education. Because Arabic translations of the Early Church Fathers were not well known, Girgis used Protestant and Catholic apologetics to round out his educational program. This has had a profound and divisive effect on the Coptic Church.

The Sunday school movement gathered a large following throughout Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, the movement produced two schools of thought—one focused on spiritual revival and the other on ecumenism, mission, and social reform. It is in this context that Father Matthew the Poor, an advocate of patristic and monastic revival, emerged as a pivotal figure and it is the question of his legacy that has brought the murder of Bishop Epiphanius into such sharp relief precisely because he was a disciple of Fr. Matthew. Fr. Matthew became a monk at St. Macarius Monastery in 1969, attracting several critics, who believed that his educational program was an “innovation” and not consistent with Coptic tradition.

From the 1970s onwards, as Egypt itself was going through political turmoil and a slew of violent attacks by Islamists and everyday Muslims against the Coptic minority, the Church underwent an internal debate about the nature of theological education and the place of patristic studies. The followers of Father Matthew the Poor emphasized internal piety, patristic education in the Coptic Church, and also engagement with Orthodox fathers outside of the purview of the modern Coptic context, both other non-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian authors. Father Matthew’s critics, which included the late Pope Shenouda III, preferred to emphasize the authenticity and uniqueness of the Coptic Church. Moreover, whereas Fr. Matthew preferred to maintain a church/state division, Pope Shenouda III sought to restructure the Church in such a way as to bring all aspects of Coptic society under its umbrella—hospitals, education, etc.

There are many historical details to this division, but at its heart is a clash between those Copts who seek to protect the Church from external contamination (including, of course ecumenism) and those Copts who are more receptive to engaging the non-Coptic world. With more and more Copts leaving Egypt for Western countries, these questions have taken on an existential quality for Coptic identity. Copts in the diaspora have sought theological education to understand their faith in their current contexts. Several members of the diaspora clergy and laity have degrees from Western seminaries—including Eastern Orthodox (especially St. Vladimir’s), Catholic, and (some from) Protestant schools. Copts have also established their own schools. Those run by the Church include St. Athanasius College in Melbourne, the St. Athanasius and St. Cyril Theological School in Los Angeles, and Pope Shenouda III Theological Seminary in Cedar Grove, New Jersey (among others). Agora University, based in Washington DC, and the Alexandria School, based in Cairo, Egypt, were founded and are run by a mixture of lay Copts and clergy. The late Bishop Epiphanius was the President of the Advisory Board at Agora and taught extensively at the Alexandria School.

“Was the murder of Bishop Epiphanius yet another example of Islamist violence against Copts or is there something more internally nefarious at work?”

For many Copts, this was the initial question on many of their minds. In Egypt, Coptic lay commentators on Facebook argued that this horrendous act must have been done by a “terrorist,” a Muslim worker at the monastery looking to rob the beloved Abbot, or some even eluded to the state having a role (a false flag scenario). But many Copts have begun to accept the fact that the murderer was another monk. One Copt wrote on Facebook: “From all my heart I wish it was an act of terrorism, because other possibilities are a lot worse.”

The precarious position for Copts in Egyptian society, of course, only raises the stakes. At a time when the Coptic Church is trying to face modern challenges to its body with a unified voice, discussions around the murder of Bishop Epiphanius suggest that a crisis of Coptic identity that has been a century in the making is now spilling over.

Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation project, “Transnational Anxieties: Shaping a Minority Community between Egypt and the United States,” explores the transnational circulation of political subjectivities and religious practices through the lens of Coptic Orthodox Christian emigration from Egypt to the United States since 2011.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.