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Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations
ISSN: 0959-6410 (Print) 1469-9311 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cicm20
The Egyptian Coptic Christians: the conflict
between identity and equality
Randall P. Henderson
To cite this article: Randall P. Henderson (2005) The Egyptian Coptic Christians: the conflict
between identity and equality, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 16:2, 155-166, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/09596410500059664
Published online: 12 Apr 2011.
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Islam and Christian– Muslim Relations
Vol. 16, No. 2, 155 –166, April 2005
The Egyptian Coptic Christians: the
Conflict between Identity and Equality
Edgewood College, Madison, WI, USA
ABSTRACT This essay will endeavor to explore the identity and situation of the Coptic Christian
community in Egypt, which constitutes the largest Christian community in the Middle East. I will
start with a brief background of the community’s history and introduction to modern Coptic life
in the form of its liturgy, art, and music in order that those of us in the West might better grasp
the richness and heritage in which Coptic Christianity grounds its worldview. The essay will
proceed to explore the present situation in which Coptic Christians find themselves as a minority
within the borders of a nation that officially designates itself Islamic. In the late 1960s and
1970s the Sunday School Movement brought about an age of reform in the Coptic Church that
continues to this day. A large part of the reform has been to identify their origins as apostolic,
monastic and marked by martyrdom and persecution. Under Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic
Church has undergone some organizational changes that are clearly perceived as a threat to the
Egyptian government under President Mubarak, despite groundbreaking progress towards
ecumenism and cooperation between Muslims and Christians at large. This essay will explore the
tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt and the ways in which the minority status of
the Copts is simultaneously defining and sustaining their tradition and self-image.
Historical Background
The Coptic Christians have two beliefs about their beginnings. They believe that
Christianity was brought to Egypt by the Apostle Mark in 64 CE and that those who
accepted his Christian message were none other than the ancient race of the Pharaohs.
The word ‘Copt’ is derived from the Greek Aiguptos (Egyptian), which in turn is probably
derived from the Ancient Egyptian name for the city of Memphis (Hwt-ka-Ptah). Besides
claiming ties to this extremely ritualistic and spiritual people, they take great pride in the
role that Egypt plays throughout the whole of scripture.
The crowning of the Emperor Diocletian in 284 CE brought about one of the bloodiest
persecutions against early Christian communities. For this reason the early Copts adopted
a ‘calendar of the martyrs’, which began in August 284 and is used up to the present time.
In honor of their pre-Christian history they named each month of the year after
an Egyptian God. One year consists of thirteen months, twelve of which have 30 days
Correspondence Address: Randall P. Henderson, Edgewood College, 1000 Edgewood College Drive, Madison,
WI 53711, USA. Email: rhenderson@edgewood.edu
0959-6410 Print=1469-9311 Online=05=020155–12 # 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd
DOI: 10.1080=09596410500059664
R. P. Henderson
while the thirteenth has five or six days depending whether it is a leap year (Kamil, 2002,
p. 199).
Much can be learned about this community through two literary works, The History of
the Patriarchs and The Acts of the Martyrs, which were handed down and periodically
updated through the ages at the hands of monks. Both contain good historical data
coupled with mythical accounts of the community’s early persecution, martyrdom, and
succession of leadership. The Copts were established in the midst of the great city of
Alexandria, home of the first catechetical school, with notable writers and teachers
such as Origin and Clement. Likewise such characters as St Athanasius, a periodically
exiled Bishop and prominent combatant of the Nestorian heretics, and St Anthony, the
father of monasticism, are counted as Coptic Church fathers and as saints by the Copts
(Kamil, 2002, p. 200).
Until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, the Coptic Christians were understood to be
in accord with those in Rome and Constantinople. It was at this council that a wedge would
be driven between Eastern and Western Christianity over the nature or, more accurately,
natures of Christ. This topic was a dividing line at many points in the maturation of the
Christian tradition. Its debate led to a parting of the ways, either voluntarily or by the
exclusion of one group by another. In the end, the Council came to the conclusion that
Christ’s nature was dual, both divine and human, but ‘unmixed and unconfused’.
The Copts agreed that Christ’s nature contained both humanity and divinity but held
that his two natures were essentially one because his humanity and divinity were inseparable (Hasan, 2003, p. 28).
In the seventh century Islam had begun to spread across the Middle East and Africa and
in the year 641 Egypt was conquered. At the time of the invasion, Coptic Christians constituted roughly 80% of the Egyptian population (Malek, 1993, pp. 299 –300). There
seems to have been considerable solidarity at first between Church and Muslim leaders.
In view of the apparent corruption within the Western Church, many Coptic Church
leaders helped ease Christians into their new position by explaining that the Muslim
protection was of divine origin (Siddiqi, 1969, pp. 57 – 59).
Islamic jurisprudence is a process in which worldly matters are explored through the
lens of the Qur’an. This process takes place in most traditions as new situations present
themselves and provoke the faithful to express their understanding of revelation.
The jurisprudence of the eighth and ninth centuries answered some of the questions
raised regarding non-Muslims. The formal system and designation for non-Muslims
became known as dhimma. With this formalization came a tax imposed upon the
Coptic community known as jizya. This tax was to be collected according to the words
and deeds, i.e. the hadith, of the Prophet Muhammad as an alternative to the zākat (tax
collected for the poor) that it was the duty of every Muslim to pay. There were two
motives for imposing jizya. First, the money collected could be used to fund the
nation’s army and promote Islam abroad. Second, non-Muslims might convert or join
the army, either of which exempted him/her from payment of the tax. In ‘The Copts:
from an ethnic majority to a religious minority’, Nabil Malek proposes: ‘it became
known by Muslims at the time [eighth century] that conversion to Islam “saves the soul
and the money”’ (Malek, 1993, p. 301). Noteworthy is the prevalence of Copts in positions of administration, which Nelly Hanna indicates predates Ottoman rule over Egypt
(Hanna, 1995, p. 3). Mohsen Shuman’s ‘The beginnings of urban iltizām in Egypt’ indicates that many Copts were multizims (tax collectors) at least ten years into Ottoman
The Egyptian Coptic Christians
rule (Shuman, 1995, p. 27). Hence, while the jizya was imposed upon non-Muslims, it is
important to acknowledge that history reveals the prominent roles that Copts had in the
administrative process of tax collection in Egypt.
Nationalism, Independence, and the Sunday School Movement
From the fourteenth century on, Coptic Christians have experienced secularization,
nationalism, Pan-Arabism, and Pan-Islamism in Egyptian society. These changes have
dictated the way they were treated by their Muslim neighbors. Some of their early
demands upon the government involved a day of rest on Sunday and an amount of
Christian education in schools that matched the government mandated allotment to
Islamic studies. In 1911 the government’s response was to deny these demands.
While there were certainly differences in religious beliefs between Muslims and Coptic
Christians, an attempt to establish which had the most access to power and personal rights
assumes the non-existence of a middle class. Nelly Hanna explores such realities in her
book, In Praise of Books. She suggests that the ‘establishment of Islam’ has been taken
for granted. As far as social mobility was concerned, at least in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both Muslims and Copts had access to very high levels of education as
well as wealth, as evidenced by some Coptic notables who may be responsible for the
modern structure of the Coptic Church due to their relationship to the Mamluks. There
were certainly trends with regard to rights of the citizen, but these cannot be generalized.
The evidence, according to Hanna, points towards local generalizations not a universal
Islamic reality (Hanna, 2003, pp. 107 –108). The middle class that she investigates may
evidence a new way of viewing present relationships that advises caution in assuming
that religious authority necessarily produces a more religious people, that secular
implies non-religious, and that lines are drawn between Christians and Muslims as
much as some histories suggest.
Likewise, it is of paramount importance to note that Coptic Christians share an Arab
identity with their Muslim neighbors. This is evidenced in Christian involvement in the
formation of the League of Nations, which Egypt joined in 1936 (Afifi, 1964, p. 7).
Mohamed El-Hadi Afifi comments that the Muslims and Coptic Christians experienced
‘shocks’ to this unity, such as ‘the Crusaders, the Ottomans, the French, and the
British’ (ibid., p. 14). Both communities witnessed an apparent degradation of morals
associated with post-war brothels and Western innovations. The two communities
began protesting together and brandished banners with the Islamic crescent and the
Christian cross inter-twined. Likewise, Muslim shaykhs and Coptic priests were not
afraid to share pulpits, both proclaiming to their congregations that they held a common
link both spiritual and essentially Egyptian (Hasan, 2003, p. 36). A political party was
born of this movement, known as the Wafd party. It ‘stressed the unity and equality of
all Egyptians, Muslims, or Christians, and several Copts played important roles in the
party, alongside Muslims, in trying to obtain independence for Egypt after the war’
(van Doorn-Harder, 1995, p. 21).
With the Protestant and Roman Catholic infiltration and mission work in Egypt in the
1950s, many converted and the Coptic Church’s leadership began to realize that it did
not seem to have progressive elements within it that would keep young people interested.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Coptic graduates of Egyptian universities came to the conclusion that the way to revitalize and change the Coptic Church could only be from
R. P. Henderson
within (Hasan, 2003, p. 61). A group which took the name ‘the Coptic Nation’ arose in res˛
ponse to the Islamic group Jamā at Shabāb Muhammad (Sonbol, 1990, pp. 273 –274),
whose motto was ‘God is the king of the Copts, Egypt their country, the Gospels their
law, and the Cross their insignia’. This group advocated force, but the majority did not
agree and their plan was rather to finish graduate/seminary school and establish what is
known today as the Sunday School Movement (Hasan, 2003, pp. 60– 61). This movement
can be defined as an ongoing attempt to reform the Coptic Church. It not only deals with
the tribulations brought on by Muslim extremists or the challenges of keeping the young
‘in the fold’ and away from the Western Roman Catholics and Protestants, but most importantly calls into question the extent to which Coptic Christians traditionally associate their
identity with suffering.
In the early days of the movement, in response to Catholic and Protestant missionaries,
the Sunday School Movement started organizing children on Sundays to teach them a
more dynamic approach to their faith. Children are the vanguard of societal and spiritual
reform. Two camps were born from which their training began. The St Anthony group
believed that fasting, prayer, and meditation would prepare the individual for pastoral
care. They helped to establish the khilwa, or retreat, in which schoolchildren are given
the opportunity to live the life of a monastic for a few days and discuss their life options
with a monk (ibid., p. 81). The Giza group, on the other hand, believed that participating
in politics and working for social reform was the mission of the Church (ibid., p. 74).
Both the St Anthony and Giza groups noticed that current priests were stretched to their
limits, had little education, and usually had little contact with the community except at
church services. The Giza group responded by keeping a record of how many times a
person prayed, read the Bible, and carried out what the Copts today call iftiqād (defined
as ‘follow-up visits to members of the congregation’) (ibid., p. 79).
The motivations of the Sunday School Movement were to update the Church and to
compete with Protestants and Catholics who were winning many a convert. It also
served to re-establish a Coptic identity that placed value on suffering and martyrdom
within a reality that was becoming permeated with anti-Christian propaganda. During
the 1970s and 1980s, Coptic Christians would have to deal with serious religious-based
crime and bloodshed.
Sadat and Islamic Fundamentalists
Anwar Sadat (1970 –81) loosened the government’s hold on groups that seemed on the
fence in terms of fanaticism. This was a gamble that in the end would cost him his life.
A resurgence of Islamic ideals gave the majority of Muslims commonality, but many of
the groups that were given far-ranging power and liberties would soon be the frontliners
of international terrorism. New preachers began to advocate that the Coptic community
was often responsible for keeping Egypt from becoming a strong Islamic state. They
‘advocated the destruction of all institutions that stood between the citizen and Islam’
(ibid., pp. 105 – 106).
In ‘Society, politics, and sectarian strife’, Amira Sonbol points out that the role of the
government has often perpetuated religious conflict. She indicates that Sadat had long used
‘Muslim extremists’ to combat socialistic elements found throughout Egypt. The new
atmosphere under Sadat allowed for anti-Copt groups to flourish and the government
was slow to react. The Coptic response was an anti-Islam campaign in the form of
The Egyptian Coptic Christians
books and pamphlets published by anonymous writers. The United States congress held a
hearing regarding the treatment of the Copts and Copts in the United States staged a
demonstration against Sadat while he was visiting the President (Sonbol, 1990, p. 276).
The relationship that Sadat had fostered with Islamic fundamentalists soon ran out of
control and after he attended peace talks in Israel the friendship ended. He had become
an international player and saw Islamic radicals as arrogant in condemning his involvement in the peace process. He soon disbanded some of the groups, took away printing
presses, and began arresting many. On the international front, an estimated 500,000
Copts left Egypt to live abroad during Sadat’s presidency and the total number of Copts
in diaspora is said to be about 1.2 million (www.copticnet/encyclopediacoptica). Ironically, it is the same Muslim extremists whom Sadat empowered who took his life in
1981 for having chosen Western allies (Hasan, 2003, p. 110).
The Coptic Christians of the Twentieth Century
When attempting to piece together a coherent narrative of the contemporary Coptic experience, it is tempting to gather one’s sources and then espouse the resulting conclusion as
facts. Given the nature of the Coptic community as a minority, the complicated Christian
and Muslim interactions throughout their thirteen centuries together, and the current
political and social strife ever present in the Middle East, this is subject matter in which
finding an objective and/or purely factual opinion is difficult. Sonbol writes that
because religious political parties are not legal, even Muslims have had to stand as
independents. To those on the outside (the majority of Copts and Muslims alike), the political structure seems to be set up in a way that perpetuates the authority of the current
government. In other words, one could not effectively enter the political arena as an outsider. Though elections are run on a geographical rather than a religious basis, the constitution maintains that Egypt is an Islamic state, which confuses the matter and adds to the
perception that Copts are denied entry because of their faith (Sonbol, 1990, pp. 271 –272).
Likewise, when looking to the Copts’ past and noting their dhimmı̄ status, it is tempting to
conclude that this system worked against them. For example, while Copts and Jews have
always had their own religious institutions for family and marital issues, they often took
their family litigation to Islamic courts which were open to all religious groups during the
Ottoman period. There they could achieve a divorce or litigate other problems that Church
court would not have permitted. This was particularly beneficial to non-Muslim women
who were locked in unwanted marriages (Hanna, 1995, pp. 54 – 55). The point to be understood here is that while there were certainly cases of discrimination because of their
dhimmı̄ status, it would not be accurate to suggest that Copts did not also use opportunities
afforded them by that status.
Shawki Karas and S. S. Hasan provide more information about the contemporary Coptic
community and its history. Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: the Century-Long
Struggle for Coptic Equality, by S. S. Hasan, a Muslim scholar, provides both a good history
of the community including recent developments and candid interviews. Hasan’s stay with
the Coptic community has provided insight into the organization of the Church as well as a
view into the everyday lives of the Copts. Her work is valuable for many reasons, the biggest
being that as a Muslim and as a woman, she earned the trust of Pope Shenouda III and was
given access to Church documents and personnel. Asking ‘what do the modern Copts
“look” like?’ Shawky Karas, a Coptic Christian author, writes: ‘At present, the clearest
R. P. Henderson
picture of early Christianity is that presented by the Coptic Church’ (Karas, 1986,
pp. 42 – 43). Hasan agrees with Karas, maintaining that much of modern Coptic identity
is tied to the past. She writes: ‘To this day the two main Coptic traditions remain monasticism and martyrdom’ (Hasan, 2003, pp. 105 – 106). A look at their literature, liturgy, hymns,
and art for elements that pre-exist our modern situation can substantiate Karas’s and
Hasan’s statements. As the following discussion shows, martyrdom and monasticism
also play a role in Coptic Christians’ current confrontation with state sponsored adversity.
The Copts seem to gravitate towards ‘the forceful texts of the Apocryphal Gospels and
Acts, the violent tenor of the lives of their martyrs, and all manner of works of magic and
miracle in their Sahidic sacred letters’ (Karas, 1986, p. 63). In their communal gatherings
at mass and other functions, these stories are spoken of, in all sincerity, as being applicable
to their situation today. Without an understanding of the earliest stories of martyrdom
and magic, Hasan believes many modern topics of conversation seem coded and easily
misinterpreted (Hasan, 2003, p. 9).
Likewise, with monastic life thriving once again in the desert outside major cities, ‘the
monasteries have resumed the important role they traditionally played in the spiritual and
social life of the Coptic Church’. That is, they are a reminder that the wilderness brings
clarity of purpose and freedom from the distractions of the modern world. For a thorough
reading about the growth of female monasteries in Egypt, one should consult Pieternella
van Doorn-Harder’s book, Contemporary Coptic Nuns (1995). In her journey through
Egypt’s monasteries, Pieternella noticed that the literature being circulated was that of
the desert fathers of the fourth to sixth centuries. She writes: ‘The literature the sisters
themselves read. . .seldom went beyond the sixth century sayings and stories of the lives
of the desert fathers and mothers and martyrs. . .it was not limited to the passive
reading of literature, but was an active presence in the daily conversations of the
sisters’ (van Doorn-Harder, 1995, p. 4)
Twenty years ago, celebrating the eucharistic liturgy in some communities might have
risked looting or even burning of the church by Islamic fundamentalists. While circumstances have begun to change, being able to express one’s faith outside the home
courageously and confidently has remained a challenge for modern Copts. Hasan
writes: ‘The mass has become for them what it was in the early Christian era, a kind of
communal affirmation of survival in the face of persecution. . .the common practice of
baptizing large groups of babies together. . .is an act of affirmation by a community
ever conscious of its minority status.’ The Church declares it a moral obligation to
attend for reasons of faith. The mass is celebrated in shifts now to combat the shortage
of new churches, giving Copts who work days or evenings, or who are students, an opportunity to attend (Hasan, 2003, p. 209).
Hasan writes that ‘the rhythm of a Copt’s every day life, with its numerous fasts and
feasts, as well as the ritual prescriptions governing a Copt’s relationship to the place of
worship—especially the rules concerning the positioning of women behind the men
during prayer’ resembles Orthodox Judaism (ibid., p. 21). It is strange that Hasan does
not draw more comparisons between the daily patterns of Muslims and Christians, and
instead mentions Judaism. Like Muslims, Copts pray five times a day. The women,
although not required to do so, often wear headscarves as a sign of honor and purity,
and both men and women remove their shoes before entering the sanctuary of the
church (Karas, 1986, p. 24). Regarding Coptic prayer, the morning prayer marks Jesus’
resurrection and the last prayer of the day signifies his death on the cross. One may see
The Egyptian Coptic Christians
in this practice a never-ending cycle that speaks highly of their commitment and devotion.
The Coptic laity fast for almost 200 days of the year, including the hottest days of the
Egyptian summer, and in response to continuous government oppression, do so in great
numbers under the guidance of Pope Shenouda III (Hasan, 2003, p. 210).
The Coptic alphabet represents the final form of the Egyptian hieroglyphic language of
the Pharaohs. One goal of the Sunday School Movement was to take the language off the
shelf and popularize it. This had the effect of marking the Church out as distinct from the
world. Hymns in Coptic are widely used and Hasan believes they ‘reflect the historical
background and culture of the Coptic people, are for them what “The Star-Spangled
Banner” is for Americans. They not only proclaim their religious identity, but also
extol the sovereignty of their church, which has fought . . . to maintain its independence
from western Christendom’ (ibid., p. 203).
The origins of Coptic hymns, with their sparse style and usually allowing for no musical
accompaniment apart from the use of hand cymbals, has been a topic of debate. While
many manuscripts have been preserved in lonely desert monasteries, there has been a
concerted effort by the Copts to ‘prove’ that they are not of Byzantine origin. This
music is clearly an expression of their faith around which they wish to erect a fence.
It plays a powerful role in the liturgy, becoming a bridge between the priest and the congregation through a call-and-answer format. This lends the liturgy a quality of reciprocity
that many in the West might find refreshing (Karas, 1986, pp. 59 – 60).
In contrast, the famous Coptic art bears the marks of Egypt’s many invaders. According
to Karas, it is the same artistic style as that of the ancient hieroglyphics and with the introduction of Christianity to Egypt shows a clear shift away from ancient mythology and the
embracing of the Apostle Mark’s message (ibid., p. 47). When seen simply as art, through
Western eyes, the obvious characteristics include an obsession with symmetry, enigmatic
symbolism, richness of color, and a prominence given to the Holy Family, saints and
martyrs. In the eyes of the faithful, Coptic icons represent the presence of divinity
itself. Many Coptic Christians venerate icons, touching them before mass and then
kissing their fingertips. Hasan witnessed that many of the families she met would argue
with their icons, asking why their various requests and prayers had not been answered
and whether it was because they had not been faithful enough in their veneration.
The architecture of the churches and basilicas seems to remain the same. Out of necessity and devotion many of the older churches are still standing. They represent earlier
times and were built according to locations of martyrdom as well as the extensive pilgrimage routes inspired by the devotion of the desert fathers (Kamil, 2002, pp. 201– 215).
Many of these churches are ancient, being built before Arab settlement, presumably in
the third and fourth centuries CE.
The attempt to reintroduce the Coptic language as the official liturgical language and
hymns as a window to the past, and thus to the true ‘modern’ identity of the Copts,
seems to have been effective. If one visits the official website of the Coptic Orthodox
Christian Church on the internet there are Coptic hymns for free downloading, highspeed connections to hear the liturgy being spoken, and even international Coptic hymn
contests asking the next generation to write their own hymns, in Coptic, of course
(http://www.saintmark.com, accessed April 2004). The artwork remains both an immediate link to divinity as well as a reminder of the many peoples who have left their influence
and culture in Egypt’s history. Likewise, the architecture remains a witness to an earlier
time in which many left the ‘corruption’ of the larger world in preference for the
R. P. Henderson
wilderness of the Egyptian desert. Their preservation is perhaps a reminder to us that we
will always need the desert.
The Structure of the Coptic Church Today
My only ambition is to integrate the Copts—every single one of them into the
church. Pope Shenouda III (Hasan, 2003, p. 130)
These words recorded by Hasan reflect an attitude formed in the 1960s when the older
clergy were being replaced by Pope Shenouda’s generation of the Sunday School
Movement. It is fascinating that Shenouda’s approach to this would take the form of
resurrecting positions that had been abandoned early in Coptic history. Lay people, including women, are now given positions requiring consecration by bishops. Some of these
are: khādim (church-servant); mukarras (consecrated celibate); and shammās (deacon).
Under the shamāmisa (plural of shammās) are positions that have their roots in the earliest
history of the Coptic Church. The Church under Shenouda now appoints the ipoudiacon
(subdeacon in charge of the sanctuary and the entrance doors), aganosthos (reader of
the Holy Texts), and absalmos (cantor) (ibid., p. 130).
With Shenouda’s creation of the Bishopric for Youth in 1980, ‘the pope aimed for. . .a
tighter incorporation of university student groups into the church,. . .more than just the
loyalty of the young people. He wanted to achieve their total assimilation into the clerical
space’ (ibid., p. 184). Having involved both the young and old by recalling a heritage and a
past which presented challenges similar to those faced by the first Copts, the Pope’s next
step would be reforming the upper levels of ecclesial organization. He began a more concerted effort to bring about a changing of the guard by involving his appointees and replacing or ‘doubling’ those too stubborn to adapt to his ideas. Some bishops were of the
opinion that the changes made by the Sunday School Movement were simply contributing
to corruption. Because a bishop cannot be replaced until his death, Shenouda began
mapping out and subdividing existing dioceses so that he could appoint new ones. He
also sent young protégés to assist those he could not replace.
Hasan writes: ‘In the course of a reign spanning more than three decades, the pope had
the opportunity to appoint over sixty-four bishops, thereby quadrupling the number of
bishops that ruled at his accession’ (ibid., pp. 124 –125). By increasing the number of
bishops he was able to foster a wider sense of protection and interest. The people who
had previously been frustrated by the inaccessibility of overworked bishops now had
more than enough opportunity to express their opinions. Hasan identifies that the difference was like night and day, in that ‘the new-style bishops, who resemble baby-kissing
American presidential candidates on a campaign trail’ (ibid., p. 233) were successful in
inspiring confidence and action in the newly involved laity. This changed the way the
Egyptian president had to view the Pope and the Copts: ‘The head of state no longer
had to deal merely with one of Egypt’s spiritual dignitaries, but with the institutional
representative of a large, well-organized and unified religious community’ (ibid.,
p. 135). It would be accurate to say that the Church was becoming a second government
for the people, not just in organization and hierarchy which of course had existed before
the Sunday School Movement, but as Hasan observed, ‘the relationship between individual and church is not just pastoral but resembles a citizen –state relationship . . . He expects
it to not only cater to his spiritual needs but also to help him with educational,
The Egyptian Coptic Christians
occupational, housing, and medical problems’ (ibid., p. 153). The remarkable thing about
these changes is that they resulted from a reform movement that looked for ideas in the
earliest memories of Coptic Christianity. Here similarities can be seen with what
Sonbol discusses as ‘Muslim and Coptic revivalism’ which she has described in terms
of a reaction towards the Egyptian government’s failure to provide both groups with
viable forms of involvement in the political process. It is true that both groups are also
reacting to one another’s escalation of social activism, but the government perpetuates
the divisions between the two communities even while acting as if a viable democratic
opportunity exists (Sonbol, 1990, p. 266).
The Coptic Identity
The Sunday School Movement and the call for a separate Coptic state were shaped by the
thoughts of Habib Girgis. The government, the hierarchy of the Coptic Church, and the
Coptic elite were not addressing the needs of average Copts. In the case of their
Muslim neighbors, many were in a similar situation. The government and the official
Muslim clergy were not providing for the majority of Muslims in Egypt, and hence
groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were prominent in social activism (ibid., p. 274).
In recent times Copts have also had to respond to the growing threat of the Protestant
and Catholic missionaries. Liberation theology asserts that an unjust theology or social
structure will try to justify the injustice in theological or spiritual terms. In other words,
as Christ suffered, so it may be your lot too. In many ways, the Copts have voluntarily sustained their marginalized position in order to preserve their basic identity. Hasan writes:
In answer to the Islamic references in the official discourse of the state and the
growing threat of their annihilation at the hands of the Islamic militants, they
have created their own orbit and their own metaphoric language of resistance,
couched in the legends of the ancient Christian martyrs. (Hasan, 2003, p. 264)
A significant characteristic of the Coptic identity is the extent to which they venerate the
saints and pray for intercession between themselves and God. Van Doorn-Harder writes:
‘As intercession or mediation plays an important role in dealing with authorities in a social
hierarchy, so too do they play important roles in dealing with the supernatural in a spiritual
hierarchy’ (van Doorn-Harder, 1995, p. 13). She noticed that the sisters believed one could
develop the power of healing by extreme devotion to a saint and that the needs met by such
sisters were simply taken as the result of intercession. Hasan explains these mystical and
fantastic characteristics of their experience as being directly proportional to the amount of
social, religious, and political adversity that they encountered in the past and now in the
present. She quotes one of her sources as saying: ‘The category of secularity has collapsed
under the weight of heaven. Hence, the Copts are available to experiences of visions, locutions, inspired dreams, mystical apparitions, miracles, and revelations’ (Hasan, 2003,
p. 215).
Copts continue to face serious tensions between equality and basic identity. According
to President Mubarak, ‘All are Egyptians in the land of Egypt regardless of religion’
(Strickert, 2000). But what is it that shapes a religious tradition’s identity? Is it found
within the moments in which the past is echoed in the present through ritual and doctrine,
or it is the promise of what lies ahead? The Copts are the largest Christian community in
R. P. Henderson
the Middle East, and of this fact they are proud. David Zeidan writes: ‘they see themselves
both as the authentic Egyptians and as Arabs sharing a common history and culture with
Muslim Egyptians as part of the Islamic world’ (Zeidan, 1999, p. 56). Zeidan points out an
often overlooked fact: the identity of the Coptic Christians is tied as much to membership
in the Arab world with its goals, as it is to the Christianity we so quickly associate with
Western ideals.
Along with their wish to be counted as Arabs and as Egyptians, ‘Copts view their history
as a long series of persecutions, massacres, forced conversions and destroyed churches. . .Martyrdom and suffering have a high symbolic meaning for Copts as they perceive
themselves as facing constant existential threat’ (ibid.). How are they to make both
aspects of their identity work? Zeidan believes that ‘Acknowledging Islamic superiority
is a hard pill to swallow, but it might enable the Copts to receive a guaranteed significant
block of political representation in the state system, which they lack now’ (ibid., p. 64).
The most excellent Jihad is the speaking up the truth in the face of an unjust ruler.
Mishkāt: 17 (Doi, 1979, p. 101)
The Coptic Christian writer Shawky Karas suggests that the desire to make Christians
submit under Islamic rule remains but has taken a less violent approach. He believes that:
President Mubarak has been continuing the same policy of religious oppression and
discrimination against Egypt’s Christians without physical attacks. Psychological
and economic warfares have been intensified by the Egyptian government and
mass media against them, keeping any violence at a minimum to avoid any reaction
by the Copts in Egypt or abroad. (Karas, 1986, p. 207)
If this is true, it will take much work on both sides to correct the situation. In any case,
statements such as this show that distrust and suspicions are social and spiritual wounds
that are difficult to heal.
Likewise, in The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: from Jihad to Dhimmitude, Bat Ye’or suggests that Islamic leaders are beginning to ask themselves difficult
questions regarding their history and future. She believes that the ‘approach of the
Egyptian government to tackle Islamic extremists will not succeed without. . .a complete
recasting of mentalities, the desacralization of the historical jihad and an unbiased examination of Islamic imperialism’ (Ye’or, 1996, p. 220). It is debatable whether or not we
have effectively ‘exorcized’ similar tendencies in the West, but Ye’or’s point should be
discussed further. There are elements within every tradition we would rather gloss over,
approach simply as mystery, or explain away as historical. Her basic belief about
Islam, which has its flaws, is that contemporary Islamist movements are nothing new
but represent a cycle within Islam in which Islam conquers and spreads through jihad
and its imposition of dhimmitude (ibid., pp. 218– 220).
Shaykh Kishk accuses the Copts of having been historically involved in the Crusades,
and of having formed pacts with Western powers and Zionists (Zeidan, 1999, p. 62).
Zeidan believes the fear runs both ways. The Copts believe oppression will be cast
upon them regardless of how non-violent it may appear, and the Muslim majority will
The Egyptian Coptic Christians
remember times in which Christians tried to trick them into converting. He also believes
the situation has been made worse by those who know how to play on these fears. He
writes: ‘A main element in the unsteady balance of Muslim –Coptic relations in this
century has been the tendency of unscrupulous politicians to manipulate the religious
divide in an effort to strengthen their own position’ (ibid., p. 54).
This suspicion and historical sensitivity are not all they share. In many ways they have
the benefit of having to deal with one another because they share pride in being Arab
Egyptians. They have the same opinion about the Palestinian right to a country, which
earned Shenouda the title ‘the Arabs’ Pope’ (Saad, 2000, pp. 198– 199). They also
share similar reverence for saints, sometimes even the same saints. On feast days both
communities usually visit each other, Coptic Christmas celebrations are even broadcast
on national television, and both communities responded similarly to the appearances of
the Virgin Mary in 1968 and 2000 (van Doorn-Harder, 1995, p. 26).
The desire for peaceful interaction and dialogue exists. The reasons are most likely
utilitarian as well as spiritually based, but in any case, they are taking place. Bishop
Moses, in charge of the Bishopric for Youth, has said:
. . . a social personality is useful to the church, he is the one who organizes conferences, exhibitions, competitions, excursions, he is the one who prods the church to
move in the direction of a dialogue with the Muslims. . .Jesus Christ did not neglect
the need of man for food; when he saw that the people were hungry he performed the
miracle of the fish. (Hasan, 2003, p. 193)
Pope Shenouda and some of Egypt’s top Muslim thinkers and religious leaders have been
joining each other for conversations and feasts. Shenouda ‘annually invited political and
religious leaders to the patriarchate to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan with
fellowship and religious –patriotic speeches by all sides’ (Saad, 2000, pp. 198 – 199).
One challenge left for Coptic Christian leadership is providing Egyptian Christians with
an identity associated not only with the cross of martyrdom and persecution, but with
emancipation and the motivation to take what is theirs. The question for the next
century is: Can the Coptic tradition seek out and co-operate in the efforts of their
Muslims neighbors who share a similar struggle in obtaining a voice and inclusion in
the Egyptian government? The cross is a powerful symbol for all Christians. At times,
much to the dismay of liberation theologians, people need to embrace a reality of horrific
persecution and martyrdom in order to maintain identity, in order to say ‘This is who we
are.’ There comes a time, however, when the cross of patient faith must be replaced with
the cross of action. The best chance of success may be found when the majority of
Muslims and Copts put down their differences in favor of their common Egyptian Arab
identity and recognize the potential power they have together against an establishment
unable to provide for its people.
Afifi, M. El-Hadi (1964) The Arabs and the United Nations (London: Longmans, Green & Co.).
Doi, A. R. (1979) Non-Muslims under Shari’ah (Brentwood, MD: International Graphics).
Doorn-Harder, P. van (1995) Contemporary Coptic Nuns (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press).
Hanna, N. (Ed.) (1995) The State and its Servants: Administration in Egypt from Ottoman Times to the Present
(Cairo: American University in Cairo Press).
R. P. Henderson
Hanna, N. (2003) In Praise of Books (New York: Syracuse University Press).
Hasan, S. S. (2003) Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: the Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality
(Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Kamil, J. (2002) Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs (London: Routledge).
Karas, S. (1986) The Copts since the Arab Invasion: Strangers in their Land (Jersey City, NJ: American,
Canadian, and Australian Coptic Associations).
Malek, N. A. (1993) The Copts: from an ethnic majority to a religious minority, in: D. W. Johnson (Ed.) Acts of
the Fifth International Congress of Coptic Studies (Rome: International Association for Coptic Studies),
pp. 299 –312.
Saad, S. M. (2000) A Coptic leader invokes the Quran: a Christian appeal to Islam, EBSCOhost: Christian
Century, 23 February, pp. 198–199.
Shenouda III, H. H. (1998) Report from Pope Shenouda III concerning the events in El-Kosheh, dated 5
November 1998, http://Copticpope.net, accessed 4 April 2004.
Shuman, M. (1995) The beginnings of urban iltizām in Egypt, in: N. Hanna (Ed.) The State and its Servants:
Administration in Egypt from Ottoman Times to the Present (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press).
Siddiqi, A. H. (1969) Non-Muslims under Muslim Rule and Muslims under Non-Muslim Rule (Karachi: Jamiyatul
Falah Publications).
Sonbol, A. (1990) Society, politics, and sectarian strife, in: I. M. Oweiss (Ed.) The Political Economy of Contemporary Egypt (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies).
Strickert, F. (2000) Muslims and Coptic Christians of Egypt: an uneasy peace, EBSCOhost: Washington Report
on Middle East Affairs, 19(3), April.
Ye’or, B. (1996) The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: from Jihad to Dhimmitude (London:
Associated University Press).
Zeidan, D. (1999) The Copts: equal, protected or persecuted? The impact of Islamization on Muslim–Christian
relations in modern Egypt, EBSCOhost: Islam and Christian– Muslim Relations, 10(1), pp. 53 –67.
History Compass 9/4 (2011): 312–325, 10.1111/j.1478-0542.2011.00767.x
Recent Perspectives on Christianity in the Modern
Arab World
Laura Robson*
Department of History, Portland State University
Although Christians constitute large and important communities in much of the modern Arab
world, scholars have long tended to overlook their histories, viewing them as little more than
pawns of Western interests or victims of Muslim overlords. Recently, however, a body of new
scholarship has sought to explore the modern experience of Christians in the Arab world. This
historiographical article examines the past reluctance to deal with the modern history of Christianity in the Arab world; investigates the reasons for its recent emergence as a topic of interest to
historians; analyzes the approaches and contributions of the new scholarship; and suggests some
possibilities for future directions.
For many decades, scholarship on the modern Arab world largely avoided the topic of
Christians. Area studies researchers, who traditionally viewed Islam as central to the
coherent definition of the region, were disinclined to investigate the role of Christianity
there. Furthermore, the histories of the Arab world’s Christian communities raised questions about sectarianism and communal politics which many scholars, both in the West
and in the Middle East, were reluctant to approach. Historians responded to these difficulties by presenting Arab Christians as essentially marginal, appearing either as hapless
victims of Muslim domination or as agents of the Western powers with which they had
religious and political connections. Consequently, the history of Arab Christianity long
remained a fringe interest, confined mainly to religious historians working on ecclesiastical history in the context of divinity schools and nearly absent from the secular study of
the modern Middle East.
This has changed dramatically in recent years. Scholarship on the Christians of the
Arab world has exploded, as evinced by a recent ‘‘roundtable’’ on the subject published
in Middle East Studies’ flagship journal, by conference presentations at the Middle East
Studies Association and the World Congress for Middle East Studies, and by a proliferation of publications in both history and area studies. This sudden upsurge of scholarly
interest has emerged alongside increased media coverage of Christian communities in the
Middle East—focused especially on the plight of the Christians of Iraq as their nation disintegrated in the aftermath of the American invasion, but also including coverage of the
Arab Christian communities of Palestine ⁄ Israel, Syria and Egypt.1 Such journalistic narratives have tended to emphasize old tropes of Middle Eastern Christians as victims of their
Muslim overlords, in need of rescue by the West.
While much of the popular media coverage of Arab Christians has reproduced stereotypes and parroted the least convincing aspects of older accounts, the new scholarly literature has developed the study of Christians in the Middle East in increasingly sophisticated
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Christianity in the Modern Arab World
ways. This article looks at the past reluctance to deal with the modern history of Arab
Christianity, investigates the reasons for its recent emergence as a topic of interest,
identifies key trends in the new scholarship, and suggests some possibilities for future
Why So Long Ignored?
Historically, Christians have constituted important minorities in most of the Arab world,
and they still comprise substantial communities throughout the region. The major Christian branches in the Middle East are the Eastern Orthodox churches, which are especially
prominent in Syria, Palestine ⁄ Israel and Jordan; the Maronite church, based primarily in
Lebanon; and the Coptic church, centered in Egypt. Smaller Catholic, Assyrian and Protestant communities are scattered throughout the Levant, Iraq, and North Africa. The
Gulf states, especially Bahrain, are also home to small Arab Christian communities, many
of whose members are expatriates from other parts of the Arab world.2
Precise numbers, though, are often difficult to determine. In Egypt, the Coptic church
claims that its adherents make up about 20% of the population, while official government
estimates put the number at about 6%. Regardless, the Egyptian Coptic church is
undoubtedly the largest Arab Christian community in the Middle East; as S. S. Hasan has
written, ‘even if one accepts the low government estimate of 6% there is still the fact that
the Christian population of Egypt is as large as the Jewish population of the entire state
of Israel’.3 Numbers are similarly difficult to ascertain for Lebanon. The Christian (mainly
Maronite and Greek Orthodox) population probably now represents about 35% of the
Lebanese population, but the lack of census information and the political ramifications of
determining communal ratios make such assertions both provisional and controversial.4
The Christian population has sunk to historic lows in Palestine ⁄ Israel, having dropped
from more than 10% of the Arab population in the first decades of the twentieth century
to approximately 2.6% now.5 Arab Christians represent about 6% of the population in
Syria and 3.6% in Jordan.6 North Africa has smaller but still significant Christian communities, with representatives in Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Generally, Christian
numbers have declined throughout the region over the last century, as a consequence
of high levels of emigration, comparatively low birth rates, and intermarriage with
Despite the recent decline in numbers, Arab Christians have historically constituted
substantial and important minorities in much of the Arab world. Why, then, has their
experience been traditionally overlooked? Above all, historians were long reluctant to
highlight religious difference as a tool of analysis for the Middle East, not wishing either
to engage a Western view of the region as a hotbed of primitive religious feeling or to
fuel a minority local perspective that views religion as the basis for all identity.8 As Ottoman historian Bruce Masters has written, ‘To place Christians at the center of any
research agenda might aid and abet those who would promote the politics of sectarianism
in the region by providing unintended fodder for their polemic. As such, even the
acknowledgement of the existence of separate religious communities … has sometimes
been deftly sidestepped in the historical literature’.9 Pressure on Middle Eastern historians
to emphasize themes of national or regional loyalty over religious identity has exacerbated
the problem, producing histories that simply do not acknowledge the existence of Christian communities as distinct groups within the nation.10 Ironically, as Ussama Makdisi has
pointed out, this silence surrounding issues of communal and especially minority identities
has ‘allow[ed] the void to be filled with scholarship obsessed with the idea of perpetual
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314 Christianity in the Modern Arab World
hostility between Christian and Muslim minorities and an oppressive monolithic Muslim
majority’11—a common perspective in the admittedly limited older literature dealing with
the histories of the Arab Christian communities.12
A suspicion of Christianity’s historical associations with various forms of Western imperialism also contributed to the dearth of scholarship on the Arab Christian experience.
The secular scholarly community was long accustomed to considering Christianity primarily within the context of the history of European imperialism and, later, American
cultural, military and economic domination. Historians of the Middle East, animated by
discussions of the frequently exploitative attitude of the West towards the Arab world,
were not moved to study a religion they associated primarily with Western imperial
expansionism. Arab Christian contacts with Western church institutions, and the ways in
which some of the Western powers had claimed Eastern Christian communities as ‘protectorates’ during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, further helped cement the
assumption that Arab Christianity was more an outpost of Western imperial interests than
an authentically Middle Eastern entity worthy of close study. The explicitly anti-Islamic
agenda of many of the most vocal contemporary political expressions of Christianity in
the West probably also served to further this reluctance to explore the Middle Eastern
Christian experience. (In the Middle East itself, it has also advanced the sense of a radical
disconnect between Arab Christians and what they see as their inexplicably hostile Western coreligionists—a sense of estrangement deepened by the rise of evangelical Christian
The small body of older scholarship on Christian communities in the Middle East came
mainly out of ecclesiastical institutions not regarded as mainstream by many historians.14
Much of it assumed a theological rather than a historical perspective, and tended to
understand modern Arab Christianity as conditioned primarily by a long pre-modern
experience of religious resistance to Islam.15 Some of this work explicitly celebrated the
Christian presence in the Middle East, and especially in Palestine, as a praiseworthy holdout of Christian tradition against a hostile and constantly threatening Muslim presence,
and viewed the communities’ dwindling numbers as a threat to Christian tradition. ‘If it
should happen’, religious historian Robert Wilken wrote, ‘that the only Christians to survive in the Holy Land were caretakers of the holy places, Christianity would forfeit a
precious part of its inheritance… Only people, not stones and earth and marble, can bear
an authentic witness’.16 Accounts like this have served to distance the study of Middle
Eastern Christianity from contemporary secular scholarship.17
An incapacity on the part of historians of the Middle East to engage with the specifics
of Eastern Christianity has further limited the study of Arab Christian history. For
most historians of the modern Arab world, the functioning of the Orthodox and other
eastern churches that dominate Arab Christianity remains an arcane mystery. Its theology,
ecclesiastical structure, and institutional history are unfamiliar to many scholars trained
in universities in Europe and the United States, where Eastern Christianity is not a
commonly taught subject and where the structures of area studies throw up barriers
between the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Moreover, there continue to be substantial practical difficulties with research on the
institutions of eastern Christianity. Throughout the Middle East, gaining access to patriarchal and official church archives is nearly always difficult and often impossible. To add to
the practical problems of researching Arab Christian church history, the relevant documents that are available to scholars—such as official church histories or hagiographies—have often been regarded as literary rather than historical, and therefore unsuitable
for use in secular historical inquiry.18 Partly as a consequence of these logistical and
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Christianity in the Modern Arab World
practical impediments, there have been relatively few serious attempts to grapple with the
roles of the eastern churches in the modern Middle East.19
Even in the context of global Christian studies, which in recent years has generated a
great deal of innovative scholarship on Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and South
and Southeast Asia, Arab Christians have been largely ignored. The field focuses primarily
on Christian communities spawned by Western Protestant and Catholic mission efforts:
their alignments with colonial and postcolonial forms of rule, their strategies of resistance
and accommodation towards the West, and their incorporation of local traditions into
mission-taught Christian dogmas.20 Despite the global orientation of these scholars, their
underlying assumption is that Christianity has Western roots. The histories of the various
Arab Christian communities, who are mainly not converts and who profess an indigenous, non-Western form of Christianity, do not fit easily within this paradigm.
Finally, of course, there is the broad assumption that Islam is a—perhaps the—primary
unifying factor justifying the area study of the Middle East. The presence of substantial
Arab Christian populations in the Middle East challenges the belief that the Middle East
is a reasonably homogenous Muslim region that can usefully be placed in opposition to a
predominantly Christian West. Further, area study has argued for the essential separation
of the Middle East and eastern Europe, leaving little room to discuss the long history of
exchange and encounter between the two ‘areas’ or to recognize the porous nature of
the cultural, political, economic and linguistic demarcations that separate them. Arab
Christians’ long history of engagement with eastern Europe and Russia points up the
arbitrary nature of the borders that area studies departments have erected around the
Middle East. The modern history of Arab Christianity complicates the assumption that
the Middle East constitutes a natural or even a viable category of analysis, and may
suggest certain weaknesses in the way area study has conceptualized the Middle East as a
Why Now? The Recent Upsurge
Recent interest in the Christians of the Arab world has been in part a response to the
rise of political Islam since the 1970s and the consequent Islamization of Middle Eastern
politics and public discourse. This phenomenon affected Arab Christians in two main
ways. First, as religion became a more prominent aspect of Middle Eastern political life,
the relationship between religious minorities and the state grew more fraught in a number of Middle Eastern nations. The position of the Coptic community in Egypt represents a particularly clear example; as an opposition committed in varying degrees to
political Islam has placed pressure on a theoretically secular government to Islamize
aspects of Egyptian political life, the Coptic position appears to have become more precarious.21 Second, as Islam’s institutional appeal rose in the wake of the many failures of
Middle Eastern secular nationalism, Christians similarly recommitted to Christianity as an
institutionally and politically significant entity, especially in Egypt and Lebanon.22 The
rise of political Islam therefore assisted the rise of new brands of political Christianity
throughout the Arab world, and brought new attention to the issues surrounding Arab
Further, as the question of sectarianism emerged as a major debate in Middle Eastern
history, the experience of religious minorities came to seem especially relevant. Sectarianism, always a matter of interest to scholars of the region, became a central concern in
Middle Eastern history in the early 1990s, when Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis
began to publish their ‘clash of civilizations’ theories that asserted the basic incompatibility
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316 Christianity in the Modern Arab World
of Islam and modernity and presented religion as the basis for all identity in the Middle
East.23 Scholars opposing this point of view began to approach sectarianism as a
historically specific process dictated by the particular conditions of modernity, rather than
a permanent, essential, natural aspect of politics in the Islamic world.24 Their investigations into the meaning of sectarianism and the historical origins of sectarian politics in the
Middle East have necessarily required a closer examination of religious minorities and
have encouraged the development of a scholarly literature on the region’s Christians.
Arab Christians themselves have participated in raising the profiles of their communities, asserting their full membership and participation in the history and politics of the
region and demanding that attention be paid to their historical experiences. Palestinian
Christians have been especially central to this effort; in recent decades, a number of publications have come out of Palestine from Palestinian Christian writers that discuss in
frank terms issues of identity, belonging, participation in the Palestinian nationalist movement, and role in the Palestine-Israel conflict.25 Such writings include voices from the
diaspora as well as the Arab world; they have drawn attention to the Palestinian Christian
experience and raised interest, both scholarly and popular, in the narrative of Arab Christianity in the modern Middle East.
A recent broader interest in the study of global Christian missions has also helped bring
the history of Middle Eastern Christianity to greater prominence. Long considered the
preserve of scholars in ecclesiastical institutions, the history of missions has now emerged
as a mainstream topic. Rejecting earlier assumptions that missions served as little more
than the cultural arm of imperialism, scholars of regions as disparate as North America,
Africa, and India have begun to pay serious attention to the interactions of global Christian mission efforts with local populations and the consequences of such encounters.26 In
the context of the Middle East, this has brought a great deal more attention to the Arab
Christian populations who were the primary targets and contacts of Western missions
operating in the Arab world from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.
Finally, the ‘global turn’ which has influenced the discipline of history broadly over
the past two decades has increased interest in the Christian communities of the Middle
East. The modern history of the Arab Christians is essentially transnational; as well as the
multiplicity of class, ethnic, national and regional loyalties common to both Christians
and Muslims in the Middle East, it has involved supra-national institutions like the Greek
Orthodox patriarchate and the Vatican; Orthodox ties with co-religionists in Eastern Europe and Russia; Catholic ties with France and Italy; contact with Western missionaries
from Britain, Germany, France and the United States; and enormous networks of expatriate Christian families and churches in the diaspora. The global turn has meant that rather
than viewing Arab Christianity as little more than an outpost of Western interests in the
Middle East, scholars interested in new kinds of transnational narratives have been eager
to explore its genuinely global nature.
New Trends
Above all, recent scholarship on Arab Christians in the modern Middle East attempts to
deal sensitively with the meaning of religious practice and community belonging, without
assuming an absolute and unchanging meaning for religious affiliation in the Arab world.
As Anna Akasoy has recently noted in a different context, ‘Even though we may be able
to tell whether someone was a Christian or Muslim, we may not understand what that
meant for him or her’.27 Such an approach constitutes a reaction to much of the older
scholarship on Arab Christianity, which often assumed belief in the Christian doctrines
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Christianity in the Modern Arab World
for all members of the community and took for granted a permanent and unbridgeable
divide between Christians and Muslims. Instead of making such sweeping assumptions,
more recent approaches focus on specific expressions of religious practice by individuals,
families and church leaders. Geraldine Chatelard, for instance, in her research on the Arab
Christians of Madaba, Jordan, investigates the ways in which local Christians who also
identify as Bedouins share cultural and religious practices with Muslim Bedouins.28
Gender provides an important analytical framework in some of this new work. Febe
Armanios describes how the Coptic clergy in Egypt set out newly specific ideas about
female virtue and female sexuality that owed as much to secular political ideologies
circulating in the post-Nasser period as to longer-standing church traditions.29 Similarly,
Nelly van Doorn-Harder’s work focuses on the particulars of daily religious practice and
community activity among different Egyptian Coptic communities, including Coptic
nuns.30 Akram Khater’s forthcoming book offers this kind of gendered specificity by
focusing on the remarkable experience of a single person, a Catholic nun and charismatic
in eighteenth-century Lebanon.31 Such investigations break down assumptions that Arab
Christian communities were, as Bernard Heyberger has put it, ‘immutably coherent and
homogenous’, unaffected by changing conditions and isolated from their Muslim compatriots.32 Instead, they focus on the ways in which Arab Christians have forged their
communal identities and practices through constant and active engagement with their
local, regional and national communities—an important re-integration of Arab Christian
narratives into the broader history of the region, and a reminder of the heterogeneity of
the Arab Christian historical experience.
Other recent work has investigated how the category of ‘Christian’ has overlapped
with regional, ethnic and, especially, class identifications, arguing that communal affiliation was just one of a number of simultaneously held identities. Not all this work focuses
explicitly on the Christian populations of the Arab world. Keith Watenpaugh, for
instance, does not offer extensive analyses of religious identification in his book Becoming
Modern in the Middle East; nevertheless, he makes an important contribution to the field
by examining how the Christian-dominated Syrian middle classes in late nineteenth and
early twentieth century Aleppo viewed themselves as avatars of a specifically Arab modernity.33 Vivian Ibrahim’s work on the Copts in the mid-twentieth century suggests a
number of alternate identifications and loyalties that sometimes led to intra-communal
tensions.34 Paul Sedra has also argued for a more nuanced approach to subaltern and elite
Coptic histories.35 Many Arab Christians themselves have focused on this question of
identification, objecting in the strongest terms to being labeled a ‘minority’, declaring
their primary loyalties to be ethnic or national rather than religious, and proclaiming the
authentically Arab and Middle Eastern nature of their historical experience.
Such accounts seek to complicate long-held assumptions that religious categories, and
perhaps especially minority religious categories, trumped all other forms of identity in the
modern Arab world and inevitably meant a rigid communal segregation. Some of them
have also suggested that the sectarian divisions now evident in parts of the contemporary
Middle East are not the results of long-standing communal hostilities but of an aggressive
British and French colonial occupation that categorized subjects by religion for its own
purposes. Laura Robson’s recent work has examined British efforts in mandate Palestine
to construct religion as a legal and political category in specifically colonial ways;
similarly, Benjamin White has made the case that the French mandate state in Syria
deliberately promoted the concept of ‘minority’ identities.36 Kais Firro argues that the
persistence of these European-drawn national borders and religious divisions into the
postcolonial period created permanent difficulties for Christians, who were often forced
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318 Christianity in the Modern Arab World
to declare their allegiance to a nationalist vision associated with elites and positioned
against a much more populist Islamist discourse.37
Newer scholarship also rejects the longstanding narrative of Arab Christian victimhood
and marginalization, a trope that recent journalistic accounts depicting Middle Eastern
Christianity as in an irreversible state of decline have further perpetuated. As Paul Rowe
has written, the ‘widespread concern today that Christians are in declining numbers in
the Middle East easily falls prey to the enervating assertion that they are victims of persecution or mere relics of a fading past and runs the risk of once again robbing Christians
of agency as powerful actors in their own societies’.38 A number of recent historical
accounts have explicitly positioned themselves as rehabilitating Arab Christians as agents
of their communities’ destinies, and as authentic and essential parts of Arab historical, cultural, and political narratives. S. S. Hasan, for instance, describes the recent history of
Egypt’s Coptic community as a move ‘from a mere ethnic category to a solidari community’, adding that this regrouping was ‘a deliberate, creative enterprise, not merely a
defensive reaction’.39 Similarly, Alexander Henley has recently argued that the Maronite
patriarchate’s abstention from national political debate during the Lebanese civil war was
not a reflection of the decline of the power of the Maronite community, but an indication of shifting alignments and political loyalties within the church community itself.40
Such work rejects the idea of the inevitable decline of the Middle East’s Christians,
instead examining them as vibrant communities committed to active and creative participation in regional, national, and local politics.
A considerable amount of the recent work on Arab Christians has focused on their
relationship with Western missions. Rather than assuming an imperial relationship
between Western missionaries and the Eastern Christians who were their targets, it looks
at specific local impacts, focusing especially on the joint development of educational institutions, a secularizing and liberalizing public discourse, and global Christian networks.
Rejecting the old trope that Arab Christians, under the influence of Western missionaries,
were responsible for bringing ‘modernity’ into Arab political thought,41 newer work nevertheless insists that the contact between European and American missions and indigenous
Arab Christian populations had an important role in creating new kinds of transnational
awareness and public discourse in the Middle East from the mid-nineteenth century on.
Ussama Makdisi, in his Artillery of Heaven, tells the story of a young Maronite, converted
to Protestantism by American missionaries and eventually martyred for his newly acquired
beliefs, who later became the subject of a book by the famous Maronite-turned-Protestant
intellectual Butrus al-Bustani. In this case, the Protestant-Arab Christian mission encounter
contributed to al-Bustani’s articulation of a ‘seminal plea for the practice of liberalism
that was neither derived from, nor fully independent of, the context of mission and
empire’—a conception of new kinds of political community, involving the explicit recognition of Muslims and Christians as political equals.42 Similar arguments occur in Heather
Sharkey’s American Evangelicals in Egypt, in which she makes the case that actual conversions were the least important legacy of the American Protestant mission encounter with
the Coptic church in Egypt: ‘the counting of baptisms and bodies in churches cannot
alone measure the impact of an encounter that elicited striking cultural ‘conversions’ or
transformations among Egyptians, Americans and others’.43 The missionary presence in
Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth century, Sharkey argues, led to a refocusing
within the Coptic church on lay worship; expanded educational opportunities in Egypt
for Muslims and Christians alike, and especially for women; the development of new
forms of social organization, particularly the youth groups that would come to play such
an important political role in twentieth-century Egyptian politics; and, not least, major
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Christianity in the Modern Arab World
changes in communal relations, as missionaries simultaneously associated themselves with
the Coptic churches and with institutions of British and American colonial power,
thereby instilling a suspicion of Egyptian Christians among the Muslim population that
persists today.44 Paul Sedra deals with some of the same themes, arguing that missions
aimed above all at a cultural conversion to the Western doctrine of ‘industry, discipline
and order’.45 Taking gender into account, Ellen Fleischmann has examined how the Syrian—American mission encounter shaped gender norms among the mainly Christian,
middle-class Syrian women with whom the missions had the most contact, but only as
‘one of many interdependent, linking factors’.46 This new body of work shows how the
active encounters between Arab Christians and Western missionaries in Egypt and the
Levant helped reshape concepts of communalism, education, social organization and
political reform, with important consequences for both Christians and Muslims.
Contemporary historical scholarship, then, seeks to re-integrate the study of Arab
Christianity into the historiography of the modern Middle East. These recent historical
narratives have tried to demonstrate the ‘authenticity’ of the Arab Christian experience,
placing it beside Islam as a central aspect of the region’s history and asserting its essentially
Arab and Middle Eastern (rather than Western and imperialist) character. Simultaneously,
scholars have begun to view the Arab Christian experience as a demonstration of the
inherently global nature of modern Middle Eastern history, citing Arab Christians’
connections to the West through mission contacts and shared educational networks, to
Eastern Europe through the institutions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and to Arab
Christian diasporas throughout the world. This globalizing religious outlook often coexisted quite comfortably with local, regional, ethnic and national loyalties; this recent
scholarship argues strongly that Arab Christian communities actively engaged with
their Muslim compatriots in attempts to build not only viable independent political structures but also vibrant social and cultural institutions throughout the Middle East. Above
all, then, new scholarship has sought to challenge the idea that Arab Christians constituted segregated and victimized communities in the nineteenth and twentieth century
Middle East.
Some Thoughts on Future Directions
The recent spate of historical scholarship on the Arab Christians of the Middle East has
been a welcome and salutary addition to the field. It emphasizes the heterogeneity of the
region and encourages a more global and transnational approach, as well as telling a number of long-ignored stories. It also offers challenges to some of the more intractable
stereotypes of the Middle East: the oft-repeated ‘clash of civilizations’ theory, the belief
that the region is dominated by a ‘primitive’ and fundamentalist Islam, and the notion of
an inherent, unwavering and violent sectarianism characterizing Middle Eastern politics
are all undermined by what recent scholarship has had to say about the Arab Christian
historical experience. Clearly, this is a new subfield that has a great deal to contribute to
broader histories of the Middle East. How might it continue to develop?
The scholarship’s focus on defending a claim of authenticity for the Arab Christian
experience is entirely understandable, given the long historiographical tradition of positioning Arab Christians as outsiders excluded from their majority-Muslim societies and as
victims of Islam and pawns of Western interests. It may be time, however, to move away
from this trope. The framework of defending the cultural authenticity of Arab Christians
suggests, first, the existence of a recognizably ‘authentic’ Middle Eastern cultural experience; attempts to expand the definition beyond Islam do not alter the essentialist nature
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320 Christianity in the Modern Arab World
of this argument. Subjects should not need to pass a kind of litmus test of cultural
belonging in order to be declared worthy of intellectual attention, and insistence on the
‘authenticity’ of the Arab Christian experience within the context of the Middle East has
meant that it has been easier for scholars to bring attention to the Arabic-speaking Christians of Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt and Syria than the non-Arabic-speaking churches in
the Arab world, such as the Armenians of Jerusalem or the Chaldean Christians of Iraq,
who speak the Syriac dialect Sourath.47 An acceptance of the genuinely transnational and
transethnic nature of Middle Eastern Christianity (and indeed of the Middle East more
generally) will allow scholars to move beyond the strictures of area and ethnic studies, as
well as nationalist historiographies, to address a number of still-neglected narratives.
Studies of Arab Christianity have until now been largely atomized by nation and
denomination; it may be useful in the future to consider a broader and perhaps a more
explicitly comparative approach. There are important comparisons to be made among the
many varieties of Christian experience throughout the Middle East, as well as studies of
the networks that connect, for instance, Greek Orthodox communities in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, or Maronite communities in Lebanon with coreligionists in Syria and
Israel. Comparative attention to the histories of Christians or other religious minorities in
non-Middle Eastern Muslim contexts—for instance, placing Christian–Muslim relations in
Indonesia, Hindu–Muslim relations in South Asia, or Christian histories in Ethiopia
alongside the Arab Christian experience in the Middle East—would likely also yield
important insights.48 Similarly, scholars might consider giving more serious treatment to
the linkages between Arab Christians and Eastern Europe. The history of the late nineteenth century uprisings against the Greek Orthodox hierarchy in the Balkans, for
instance, spread into Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, where Arab congregants followed their Balkan coreligionists’ examples and demanded control over church finances,
services and scriptures in the local vernacular, and appointments in the higher levels of
the church hierarchies. Careful examination of such historical connections might open up
new avenues of exploration for the study of nationalism, ethnic identification, and the
construction of self-consciously modern political structures in the nineteenth and twentieth century Middle East.
Finally, scholars have as of yet given relatively little attention to the histories of Middle
Eastern Christians in the diaspora, a demographic whose experiences raise fascinating
questions about the role of religious identity in transnational as well as local and regional
alignments. What might it mean, for instance, for a Christian Jordanian family, belonging
to a religious minority but an ethnic and linguistic majority, to become part of an Arab
ethnic minority but join the Christian religious majority as newly minted citizens of Australia? A few studies of the Coptic diaspora have demonstrated how rich an area of study
this might be,49 and it seems likely that scholars will expand their investigations into this
area in the coming years.
The recent scholarly interest in the Middle East’s Christian communities has expanded
the historiography of the modern Middle East in a number of valuable ways. It has
encouraged scholars and students to think of the region as a globally connected, heterogeneous, complex place, and has fueled the rejection of common notions of the Middle
East as an isolated region that speaks primarily with the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.
It has brought attention to the historical specifics of identity construction—local, national
and regional—in the Arab world and offered insights into the relations between religion
and politics in Ottoman, colonial and post-colonial contexts. It is to be hoped that scholars will continue to develop a historiography of Arab Christianity that illuminates the
ineluctably global, multifarious, and multivocal character of the modern Middle East.
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Christianity in the Modern Arab World
Short Biography
Laura Robson is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Portland
State University in Portland, Oregon. She holds a doctorate in history from Yale University, and has been the recipient of a number of fellowships and grants from such bodies
as the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and
the Whiting Foundation. Her book Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine will
appear from the University of Texas Press in 2011.
* Correspondence: Department of History, Portland State University, PO Box 751, Portland, OR 97207-0751,
USA. Email: lrobson@pdx.edu.
See, for instance, ‘Violence in Mosul Forces Iraqi Christians to Flee’, New York Times, 10 Oct, 2008; ‘Iraqi
Christians’ long history’, BBC News, 13 Mar, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3526386.stm; ‘Iraqi Christians
under fire’, Daily Telegraph, 3 Apr, 2010; ‘Egyptian Christians Clash with Police’, New York Times, 7 Jan, 2010;
‘The Forgotten Faithful’, National Geographic Jun 2009; ‘Palestinian Christians look back on a year of troubles’, New
York Times 11 Mar 2007; ‘Sectarian violence, economic hardship accelerate exodus of Bethlehem’s Christians’,
Chicago Tribune, 21 Dec, 2006.
For a useful overview of Christian demographics in the Gulf, see F. Strickert, ‘Christianity in the Gulf’, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (March 2000): 68–71.
S. S. Hasan, Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2003), 18; see also P. Makari, Conflict and Cooperation: Christian-Muslim Relations in
Contemporary Egypt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 38–9.
On the problems of the last census, conducted in 1932, and the political difficulties of census-taking in Lebanon,
see especially R. Maktabi, ‘The Lebanese Census of 1932 Revisited: Who Are the Lebanese?’ British Journal of
Middle East Studies, 26 ⁄ 2 (1999): 219–41.
For Palestine, see B. Sabella, ‘The Emigration of Christian Arabs: Dimensions and Causes of the Phenomenon’,
in A. Pacini (ed.), Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1998), 127–54, and ‘Palestinian Christian Emigration from the Holy Land’, Proche-Orient Chretien, 41 (1991):
P. Fargues, ‘Demographic Islamization: Non-Muslims in Muslim Countries’, SAIS Review, 21 ⁄ 2 (2001): 103–16.
On this point, see especially Fargues, ‘Demographic Islamization’.
As Sami Zubaida has observed, the focus on religion as a primary mover in the Middle East has been upheld in
entirely different ways: ‘For religious and political Muslims, it is held with pride, as a steadfast attachment to God
and his revelations, valid for all times. For Western commentators, it is part of Muslim (and Arab) exceptionalism—impervious to the march of modernity and progress’. See ‘Islam and Secularization’, Asian Journal of Social
Science, 33 ⁄ 3 (2005): 438.
See B. Masters, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Arab World: the Roots of Sectarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 4. This state of affairs, he also notes, is in sharp contrast to a plethora of historical writings on
the position of Jewish communities in the Middle East which have appeared since the founding of the state of Israel.
U. Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2008), 8.
U. Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven, 8.
A particularly egregious example is B. Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985), and The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude
(Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996). For examples of less aggressive interpretations that
nevertheless assume a degree of victimhood, see R. Haddad, Syrian Christians in Muslim Society: An Interpretation
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), and R. B. Betts, Christians in the Arab East: A Political Study (Athens:
Lycabettus Press, 1975).
Some of these issues have also been raised in the context of anthropological scholarship on Christianity broadly.
For a useful overview, see F. Cannell’s introduction to The Anthropology of Christianity, ed. F. Cannell (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2006), 1–50.
P. Rowe, B. Heyberger and F. McCallum all comment on this positioning of the topic in their contributions to
‘Roundtable: How Does New Scholarship on Christians and Christianity in the Middle East Shape How We View
the History of the Region and its Current Issues?’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42 ⁄ 3 (2010): 471–88.
See, for instance, K. Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (London: Mowbray, 1992), on the
problem of Israel: ‘All these burdens of mind and spirit devolve most acutely of all on Arab Christians. It is urgent
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322 Christianity in the Modern Arab World
for outsiders to reckon perceptively with the contradiction between spiritual ancestor and political enemy under
which Christians suffer in the Middle East. For Israel is both’ (240).
R. L. Wilken, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1992), 254.
However, it should be noted that this type of religious history has offered a venue for both Western and Middle
Eastern scholars to point out the long history of cultural accommodation and mutual influence between Muslims
and Christians in the region—an important issue with which most Middle Eastern historians, intent on rejecting
what they see as a Western-centric focus on Christianity, have been reluctant to engage. See, for instance, the essays
in A. O’Mahony et al. (eds.), The Christian Heritage in the Holy Land (London: Scorpion Cavendish, 1995).
On ways of using such sources for historical purposes, see M. Shenoda, ‘Displacing Dhimmi, Maintaining Hope:
Unthinkable Coptic Representations of Fatimid Egypt’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 39 ⁄ 4 (2007): 587–
606. I thank the anonymous reviewer who made this important point to me.
This is another space where most of the few extant contributions come from a descriptive, ecclesiastical
approach rather than a disciplinary area. See, for instance, S. Roussos’ articles on the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.
A notable recent exception is F. McCallum, ‘The Political Role of the Patriarch in the Contemporary Middle East’,
Middle Eastern Studies, 43 ⁄ 6 (2007): 923–40.
Some good examples of this type of global Christian studies are P. Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of
Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); A. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History:
Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1996); and L. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations:
Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
On this point, see especially P. Rowe, ‘The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State’,
Middle East Journal, 64 ⁄ 4 (2010): 654–5, and M. Tadros, ‘Vicissitudes in the Entente between the Coptic Orthodox
Church and the State in Egypt (1952–2007)’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 41 ⁄ 2 (2009): 269–87.
See, for instance, E. Hagopian, ‘Maronite Hegemony to Maronite Militancy: The Creation and Disintegration
of Lebanon’, Third World Quarterly 11 ⁄ 4 (1989): 101–17; S. Haddad, ‘A Survey of Maronite Christian Socio-Political Attitudes in Postwar Lebanon’, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 12 ⁄ 4 (2001): 465–80; and especially the
many relevant articles in M. Shatzmiller (ed.), Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies (Montreal:
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).
B. Lewis coined the term ‘clash of civilizations’ in his much-read article ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, The
Atlantic Monthly, 266 ⁄ 3 (September 1990): 47–60; he expands on this premise in some of his other work, including What
Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). See
also S. Huntington’s famous exposition on the theme in ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ Foreign Affairs, 72 ⁄ 3 (1993):
22–49, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).
For a useful overview of recent scholarly approaches to the question of sectarianism in the Middle East, see the
group of short articles by U. Makdisi, E. Davis, J. Peteet and S. Joseph on the question, ‘How Useful has the
Concept of Sectarianism been for Understanding the History, Society and Politics of the Middle East?’ International
Journal of Middle East Studies, 40 ⁄ 4 (2008): 550–60.
See, for instance, N. K. Farah, A Continent Called Palestine: One Woman’s Story (London: SPCK, 1996); R. A.
El-Assal, Caught in Between: The Story of an Arab Palestinian Christian Israeli (London: SPCK, 1999); M. Raheb, I
Am a Palestinian Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995); and the many works of N. Ateek, including Faith and
the Intifada: Palestinian Christian Voices (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), and Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989). For an overview of some of the Palestinian Christian theological
approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the particular position of Arab Christians in Palestine ⁄ Israel, see
L. Robson, ‘Palestinian Liberation Theology, Muslim-Christian Relations and the Arab-Israeli Conflict’, Islam and
Christian-Muslim Relations, 21 ⁄ 1 (2010): 39–50.
Historians of India, Africa and Asia have all dealt extensively with Christianity in these colonial and post-colonial
contexts. See, for instance, G. Visawanathan, Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief (Princeton University
Press, 1998); J. and J. Comaroff, Of Revelation and Revolution, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991
and 1997); L. Sanneh, The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2005); and B. Cooper, Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
2006). On the relationship between missions and the European imperial project, see especially A. Porter, Religion
Versus Empire? British Protestant Missionaries and Overseas Expansion, 1700–1914 (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2004).
A. Akavoy, ‘Convicencia and its Discontents’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42 ⁄ 3 (August 2010):
G. Chatelard, Briser la mosaique: Lien social et identities collective chez les chretiens de Madaba, Jordanie, 1870–1997
(Paris: Editions du CNRS, 2004).
F. Armanios, ‘The ‘‘Virtuous Woman’’: Images of Gender in Modern Coptic Society’, Middle Eastern Studies,
38 ⁄ 1 (2002): 110–30.
See especially N. van Doorn-Harder, Contemporary Coptic Nuns (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press,
1995); ‘Finding a Platform: Studying the Copts in the 19th and 20th Centuries’, International Journal of Middle East
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Christianity in the Modern Arab World
Studies, 42 ⁄ 3 (2010): 479–82, and with K. Vogt (eds.), Between Desert and City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today
(Oslo: Novus Verlag, 1997).
A. Khater, Embracing the Divine: Passion, Politics and Gender in the Christian Middle East, 1720–1798 (Syracuse:
Syracuse University Press, 2011).
B. Heyberger, ‘Eastern Christians, Islam and the West: A Connected History’, International Journal of Middle East
Studies, 42 ⁄ 3 (2010): 475.
K. Watenpaugh, Becoming Modern in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
V. Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (London: Tauris, 2010). Another
work to deal with some of the same issues is B. Voile, Les Coptes d’Egypte Sous Nasser: Saintete, Miracles, Apparitions
(Paris: CNRS, 2004).
P. Sedra, ‘Writing the History of the Modern Copts: From Victims and Symbols to Actors’, History Compass
7 ⁄ 3 (2009): 1049–63.
L. Robson, Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), and B.
White, ‘The Nation-State Form and the Emergence of ‘‘Minorities’’ in French Mandate Syria, 1919–1939’, Ph.D.
diss. (Oxford University, 2008); see also N. Haiduc-Dale, ‘Nationalism and Religious Identification: Palestinian
Christians in Mandate Palestine, 1918–1948’, Ph.D. diss. (New York University, 2009).
K. Firro, Metamorphosis of the Nation (al-Umma): The Rise of Arabism and Minorities in Syria and Lebanon, 1850–
1940 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2009), 148–9.
P. Rowe, ‘The Middle Eastern Christian as Agent’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42 ⁄ 3 (2010): 473.
Although, as others have pointed out, she also emphasizes the centrality of sectarian tensions to the modern
Coptic experience. See S. S. Hasan, Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic
Equality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 258–9.
A. Henley, ‘Politics of a Church at War: Maronite Catholicism in the Lebanese Civil War’, Mediterranean Politics,
13 ⁄ 3 (2008): 353–69.
As was first argued by G. Antonius, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (London:
Hamilton, 1938), and was put forward in a slightly different form by A. Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age,
1798–1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), among others.
U. Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven, 213.
H. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2008), 218.
Ibid., Princeton University Press, 1–17.
P. Sedra, ‘John Lieder and his Mission in Egypt: The Evangelical Ethos at Work among Nineteenth-Century
Copts’, Journal of Religious History, 28 ⁄ 3 (2004): 222. Sedra argues that this brand of mission activity was explicitly
colonial in nature. In his subsequent essay ‘Missionaries, Peasants, and the Protection Problem: Negotiating Coptic
Reform in Nineteenth-Century Egypt’, in A. Amanat and M. T. Bernhardsson (eds.), U.S. – Middle East Historical
Encounters: A Critical Study (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007), 77–100, Sedra looks at the reaction of
the Copts at whom this mission activity was directed and describes how they too were ‘parties to a cultural negotiation… in which modernity was manipulated, and tradition, invented’ (96).
E. Fleischmann, ‘Impact of American Protestant Missions in Lebanon on the Construction of Female Identity’,
Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 13 ⁄ 4 (2002): 422.
For a rare examination of the Chaldean Christians of Iraq, see A. O’Mahony, ‘The Chaldean Catholic Church:
The Politics of Church-State Relations in Modern Iraq’, Heythrop Journal, 45 ⁄ 4 (2004): 435–50. The Armenian
experience has, of course, received attention in the context of the Armenian genocide, but there have been few
efforts to address the experience of Armenian Christians in the context of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman
Empire or in the colonial or post-colonial Arab world.
One new effort at just such a comparative approach is H. Sharkey (ed.), Unexpected Consequences: Christian Missionary Encounters and Cultural ‘Conversions’ in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia (forthcoming).
See N. Stene, ‘The Challenge of the Diaspora as Reflected in a Coptic Sunday School’, Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, 54 (2002): 77–90, and ‘Into the Land of Immigration’, in K. Vogt and N. van Doorn-Harder (ed.),
Between Desert and City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today (Oslo: Novus Vorlag, 1997); also G. Botros, ‘Religious
Identity as an Historical Narrative: Coptic Orthodox Immigrant Churches and the Representation of History’,
Journal of Historical Sociology, 19 (2006): 180.
Akasoy, A., ‘Convicencia and its Discontents’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 42 ⁄ 3 (August 2010): 489–
Antonius, G., The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement (London: Hamilton, 1938).
Armanios, F., ‘The ‘‘Virtuous Woman’’: Images of Gender in Modern Coptic Society’, Middle Eastern Studies, 38 ⁄ 1
(2002): 110–30.
Ateek, N., Faith and the Intifada: Palestinian Christian Voices (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992).
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324 Christianity in the Modern Arab World
Ateek, N., Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).
Betts, R. B., Christians in the Arab East: A Political Study (Athens: Lycabettus Press, 1975).
Botros, G., ‘Religious Identity as an Historical Narrative: Coptic Orthodox Immigrant Churches and the Representation of History’, Journal of Historical Sociology, 19 (2006): 174–201.
Cannell, F. (ed.), The Anthropology of Christianity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).
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