Every Labor Day weekend for over a decade, Father Daoud Lamie, a popular priest from Cairo with a major following in the Coptic diaspora, holds a retreat on family, social issues, and evangelism in Upstate New York. Before his lecture during the 2017 retreat, Father Lamie answered questions from the audience. One question asked how youth in America should approach issues such as same-sex marriage. The priest responded:
In my opinion, you have more persecution here [as Christians] than we do in Egypt. Here, you have a secular society that imposes demands on you as Christians that are against your faith. In Egypt, we may have a terrorist come and blow up a church, but it doesn’t affect our faith. You all are more of a minority [here than we are there].
Over the past several decades, Coptic Christians in Egypt have increasingly experienced forms of persecution—including bombings, violent attacks, and quotidian practices of discrimination. During the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Copts took to the streets to demand equal citizenship and rights. In their demands, Copts sought to be seen not simply as citizens like all others, but instead as Christian members of Egyptian society. Yet, Coptic publicity continues to be systematically muted in a public sphere ostensibly shaped by Islamic norms—the Egyptian government, for example, obstructs publications on discrimination against Coptic Christians, which advocate for Coptic legibility. Strikingly, Father Lamie, himself situated between Egypt and the United States, makes use of this transnational space to hone in on the threat of “secular society” for his American Coptic listeners, who comprise a very different kind of public than what he’d find in Egypt.
Like Father Lamie, my research took me across Egypt and the United States. Between 2017-2021, I conducted multi-sited ethnographic research among recent Coptic migrants: first, second, and third-generation American Copts and clergy members moving transnationally between Upper Egypt and the New York-New Jersey area. Shuttling back and forth across these sites of migration, I examined the everyday practices and processes that shape transnational Coptic communal formation, specifically as it interfaces with larger debates on the publicity of American Christianity and political conservatism. Building on earlier work, I show here that transnational Coptic Christians are remapping indigenous narratives of persecution and martyrdom in Egypt to fight for “traditional [Christian] values” in the United States. As a minority immigrant community, Copts are now part of a public sphere in which Christian visibility and publicity unfold in new ways. The supremacy of Christianity in America, a distinctive feature of US majoritarianism, facilitates different prospects for Coptic participation in US political life, as compared to their minority status in Egypt.
(In)visibility in Egypt
In Egypt, Copts have sought to be visible in a way that compels acceptance of Christian religious differences in a Muslim-majority context. They have politically mobilized to that end, most profoundly in the 2011 Egyptian revolution when Coptic publicity became part of widespread demands for societal change. But, across the movements of the diaspora, Copts have also imagined their citizenship as a cultural identity, one in which an expression of religious nationalism is one iteration, invoking participation in a transnational Christian citizenry.
This kind of citizenry was evident in February 2017, when I participated in a service program in Egypt with an American Coptic nonprofit. The program periodically takes place over two weeks and provides an opportunity for diaspora Copts and other American Christians to connect with and serve Coptic youth in Upper Egypt through English-language learning. My program partner and I organized mock elections in each of our classes in order to build stronger communication skills between classmates. Students who ran for office developed their own political parties and platforms for a “better Egypt.” Visiting each of the students as they drew their logos and wrote their statements, we noticed how most of the party names related to Christianity: “The Party of Christ [Hizb al-Messih],” “The Party of the Saints [Hizb al-Qudiseen],” “Jesus.” One of the student candidates approached the front of the classroom, platform in hand. “We need to increase access to clean drinking water, increase access to medical treatment, improve our education system, and protect our churches.” As they said this, they made the sign of the cross and said aloud, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, Amen.” For Copts in Egypt, Christian citizenship means melding together minority religious and cultural practices within a context of Egyptian national belonging—citizenship that might allow them to spread the Gospel beyond Church walls without consequence and garner broader acceptance of liturgical feasts as part of a collective calendar. When migrating to the United States, this sense of Egyptian Christianity—with its acute experiences of confinement and, at times, punishment—affects how Copts translate their religious belonging into new political discourses and forms of religious activism and advocacy.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Christian nationalism has become the focus of an anxious scholarly debate. The idea of Christian nationalism, whereby religion directly shapes public norms, is thought to transgress the prescribed secular bounds of normative liberal, democratic governance. Scholars anxious about nationalist discourse in the United States often miss the ways that Christian nationalism relies on a transnational Christian citizenry that exceeds America and its public. Hence, while Christian nationalism has correctly been understood by many scholars as a discourse belonging predominantly to white, Protestant, early-immigrant communities in the United States, some of its tenets and US-specific discourses—on immigration, social welfare, cultural issues pertaining to abortion and LBGTQ rights, and especially fear of Muslims—are adopted and adapted by some members of minority groups like the Copts. For example, following liturgy one afternoon in New Jersey, a Coptic parishioner told me: “I think they should do a merit-based immigration system. We don’t know who they are letting in! Look at France! We don’t want those extremists to come here. They need to be able to assimilate. They come here and demand that people conform to their perspective. They want America to be Islamic!” In another conversation in New Jersey around the same time in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, another Copt lamented over post-liturgy lunch: “Trump is a Christian, and he’s trying to keep America a Christian nation…We came to the US to escape discrimination in Egypt. We don’t want to be stripped of our rights again as Christians here.”
When Copts immigrate to the United States, they “do” transnationalism as a minority community with a foot in two different political and social contexts—Egypt and the United States. The legibility of Christian (trans)nationalism for Coptic migrants to the United States is inseparable from the collective memory of sectarian violence and the traumatic impossibilities of Coptic Christianity in Egypt. By contrast, when Coptic Christians migrate to the United States, they find themselves in the disjuncture between a (supposedly) Christian-majority society and an ostensibly Muslim-majority Egypt. Evinced in political advocacy and public proclamations of faith, Copts are better able to “publicize” their Christianity without the threat of violence or state censure. Yet, the translation of Coptic Christianity is predicated on the forms of public religion that are acceptable in American “secular society” (as Father Lamie notes above), which is itself a charged political field and thus mutes any possibilities for acknowledging Coptic Christian difference.
Publicity in the United States
Copts’ transnational translation of Christianity into an American public debate was evidenced when, in January 2019, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy signed a law requiring that schools teach middle- and high-schoolers about the political, economic, and social contributions of LGBTQ people. Coptic Christian (as well as Egyptian Muslim) communities came out against the curriculum, alongside clergy and other members of the community who also attended town hall meetings to oppose the initiative. One Coptic priest proclaimed during a town hall, “You want our children to learn something that is against our values, freedom, and our faith.” While the curriculum was implemented during the 2020-2021 pandemic school year, Copts and others religious communities continue to fight it, calling on New Jersey to offer them vouchers for private schooling if they cannot opt their children out of the curriculum.
After the 2021 Palm Sunday liturgy in Jersey City, I was handed a petition for signatures on the voucher proposal. It read that “Jews, Muslims, and Christians” of New Jersey are coming together against the curriculum, and “the environment is toxic and intolerant of [our] families’ deeply held religious beliefs.” They asked parishioners to sign the petition and mail it to their congressional representatives. Over the course of 2021, opposition to the curriculum gained steam as schools in the region began to open up post-vaccination. Between early 2020-2021, Copts and other New Jersey residents took to their Facebook groups to share their concerns and to think about possible solutions to the crisis. In July 2021, the Coptic American Political Action Committee (PAC) launched their website and social media platforms, with the slogan: “Our state. Our children. Our future.” The website outlines the aims of the group—to help conservative American Copts run for political office, to determine their own futures, and to challenge the liberal tilt of the state’s administration. Ultimately, their stated goal is to promote “Christian family values,” which “derive from our Coptic Christian Heritage.”
Copts in New Jersey and New York translate a collective memory of martyrdom and invisibility that derives from experiences in Egypt, adapting it to their circumstances in the United States. They become visibly religious in the American context by publicizing Coptic Orthodox persecution as ultimately laden with transnational value. “This is our Pearl Harbor moment,” one of the PAC candidates described to me this Fall. “I’m sure you heard a couple years ago when the Church blew up [in Egypt] and all those kids died. That night, they were buried in the same church. In the United States, Christianity is also under attack, but in a different way. The Coptic community comes here a bit more emboldened. They’re not afraid to share their religion now that they can.” Part of that diaspora boldness is intimately connected to the collective memory of Christian (in)visibility in Egypt.
Different generations of American Copts carry with them lived cultural trauma and long histories of persecution from Egypt. Those legacies help to shape Coptic translations onto an American political field, one which has been molded by the Christian Right and other conservative forces over the last half-century. The idea of white, Christian nationalism that has captured recent scholarship is helpful insofar as it illuminates the racial and religious majoritarian norms of American cultural conservatism today. Yet, its scope is too limited. It overlooks minority and migrant perspectives that support and add diasporic texture to the messy and multifaceted networks of an emerging multiracial conservativism. American Copts—shaped by their minority histories of (in)visibility in Egypt and contemporary contexts of publicity in the United States—are part of this broader, unfolding story.