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Maintaining Identity: An Examination of Coptic Orthodox Young Adults

A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Atlanta, Georgia, August 15, 2003. 


 by Richard Rymarz and Marian de Souza
Australian Catholic University C/- ACU
St. Patrick’s Campus, Locked Bag 4115, Fitzroy MDC
Fitzroy 3065, Australia



The Coptic Orthodox Church represents one of the oldest continuing Christian traditions. With its origins in the Alexandria of apostolic times, the church retains a presence in modern Egypt and the Egyptian diaspora. Copts can be classed as members of the Oriental Orthodox community, diverging from Byzantine and Roman traditions after the Council of Chalcedon. Copts first started to arrive in Australia in substantial numbers in the 1960s and have now established churches, schools, and other infrastructure in major population centres such as Melbourne and Sydney. Unlike many established churches, in Australia, the Copts appear to be more successful in retaining young adults as participating members of the faith community. This paper explores some of the ways in which Copts retain their ethical and religious identity in contemporary Australian society. In particular, the role of the ordained ministry, the emphasis on continuity of belief and practice, and the importance placed on outreach to young adults will be examined.up


1.    A Brief Historical Overview of the Coptic Orthodox Church

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest Christian traditions dating back to the time of the Apostles (Meinardus, 1999). The Copts (the name is derived from the ancient term for the indigenous inhabitants of Egypt) claim St Mark the evangelist, the first Bishop of Alexandria, as their patron (Malaty, 1987). The early history of the Coptic Church is marked by a number of important and influential figures who had a lasting impact on Christian thought and practice (Frend, 1981). Among this group can be included Sts Athanasius, Anthony of the Desert and Cyril of Alexandria (Young, 1983).  The Copts of Egypt were leading figures in defining orthodox Christian belief against the heterodox teachings of both Arius and Nestorius and before this against the multitude of Gnostic sects that were prolific in Alexandria (Kelly, 1989; Roukema 1999).   Being defenders of orthodox belief remains an important feature of Coptic Orthodox religious identity (Watson, 2002)

  1. The first major spilt in the Christian Church occurred at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD when the Copts refused to accept the proposed definition of Christ’s human and divine natures (Young, 1991). They regarded this as an innovation and a contradiction of their understanding of the nature of the Trinity. Following the Council, the Byzantine Emperor placed a Patriarch in charge of the Church in Alexandria who supported the Chalcedon definitions. This enraged the Copts who, determined to maintain their own identity, supported a rival Patriarch one who was faithful to their tradition (Chadwick, 1964).  In 642 CE Egypt was conquered by Arab Islamic forces. This marked the beginning of political domination of Coptic Christians by Moslems, a situation that continues in Egypt, to this day.   There are officially six million Copts living in Egypt today although the unofficial figure, which is politically sensitive, is much higher than this (Wakin, 2000).   Coptic Orthodox Christianity is an important influence in Ethiopia and to a lesser extent in Sudan and Eritrea. There are well over a million Copts living in a long-standing diaspora.  Coptic Orthodox Christians began to arrive in Australia, from Egypt, in substantial numbers in the 1960’s.   At present there are between 50 and 60,000 Copts in Australia, largely in Melbourne and Sydney.up
2.    Exploring Coptic Identity: This study

Archbishop George Carey has noted that in the London area alone there are over thirty thousand Coptic Sunday school teachers  (Watson, 2002)).   Coptic youth report high levels of both religious belief and affiliation and identification with the tradition (de Souza and Rymarz 2003).   This connection was also evident amongst young adults (de Souza and Rymarz 2003b).   At a time when many traditional Christian churches are struggling to attract and maintain links with young people, the Coptic Church appears to provide an example of an ancient tradition that is well integrated into the lives of its followers both old and young.   This paper will explore some of the reasons why the Coptic Orthodox tradition is able to maintain such a prominent part in the lives of its followers.   It will draw from data gathered from interviews with 20 Coptic young adults, 9 male and 11 female.  Interviewees were aged between 24 and 32 years of age.   Data from these interviews will be presented as part of a wider discussion which identifies a number of key factors that underline the resilience of Coptic Christians in the contemporary Western cultures. 

3.    This is our Church and they are our leaders

Copts have a strong affiliation with the religious tradition via existing leadership structures.   In the terms of D’Antonio et al (1996) the gap between claimed and accepted authority is relatively low among Copts when compared to other mainline Christian denominations.    Copts are an Episcopal Church with a sacramental priesthood. Some of the most revered figures in both the ancient and recent history of the Copts have been bishops.   Many of the young people interviewed as part of our study, for example, nominated both the current Pope and his predecessor as the most significant figures in their lives.  The monk/bishop also has additional credibility within the Coptic community because of the special place that monks have within the tradition (Angaelos, 1997).  This is a community, which claims as one of its own St Anthony of Egypt the progenitor of monastic life in Christianity.  The wellspring of Coptic spirituality lies in the leadership provided by the great monasteries  (Meinardus, 1977).  This is most obvious in Egypt where the monasteries are also a treasure trove of Coptic history.        It is significant that in Australia one of the first actions of the emerging community was to establish a monastery in rural Victoria.  

As in other Eastern and Oriental traditions the bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church are monks. Priests, on the other hand, are drawn from the ranks of the laity.  Priests are married men who have been selected for priesthood in an exchange between the bishop and the congregation.  Typically, when a community gets large enough, the bishop is approached and asked to consider a member of the community for ordination to the priesthood.  Note how this gives the community a strong link to the priest, who is seen as one of the community but who has, nonetheless, been selected for a special grace.  The closeness between the priest and the people can be seen in contrast to other Christian denominations where the role of the clergy is increasingly questioned (Cozzens, 2000; Russell, 1980).   Copts have a highly significant relationship with their confession father.  Whereas confession has all but disappeared from the Catholic tradition in Western industrial countries it remains an important feature of Coptic devotional life (Greeley, 1985).  This ensues that the link between the individual and the tradition is maintained through the sharing of intimate and life shaping personal details.  One example of this is provided from our research data.  When asked about marriage, a number of young Coptic males, educated professionals in their mid-twenties, stated that when it came time to marry their Confession Father would play an important role in the selection of a suitable bride both in advice about the woman and also in discussion with the woman’s Confession Father.  At the very least such a system makes it much more likely that Cops marry within the tradition but also indicates the level of trust that individuals place in their Confession Father.  Here is how another young Copt described the importance of the Confession Father in her life: I have a confession regularly in front of my spiritual adviser and he is probably the one of the most significant people in my life. 

4. The Coptic mentality – the Church of the martyrs

The place of Christians in postmodern society has been widely discussed  (Beaudoin, 1998; Davie,1994; Reeves, 1996).     Part of this discussion has been how churches have coped with losing their place of pre-eminence in the aftermath of modernity.  The Coptic experience has been different and this is partly explained by their historical memory.  One of the most common epitaphs given to the Coptic community is the Church of the Martyrs.  The Copts have an almost unmatched record for being able to withstand persecution and to survive despite their minority status.  The experience of being separated by their beliefs and practices is at the heart of Coptic self-understanding.  As Stark and Bainbridge (1985) point out, the most extreme form of persecution, martyrdom, can act as a significant religious compensator to unify a minority faith.   This is how one young Copt identified the significance of the experience of martyrdom for him today:up

If you lose your traditions, you lose your background and you change so I guess our Church really stuck at it.  I mean that’s the whole idea of our Church, we stuck at it from the very start.  What we got from St Mark has been passed down, it has never changed… our Church is we are full of martyrs.  We have plenty and thousands of martyrs even to this day. What happened a couple of years ago in one of the villages in Egypt, Muslims killed 30 Egyptians and they were named martyrs.

The Coptic calendar begins in the year 284CE when the Emperor Diocletian came to power. This marked a ferocious persecution of Christians in Egypt.  Coptic history is defined by persecution –by Romans, fellow Christians and Moslems.   The Copts are used to doing things their own way and realize that they may have to pay a price for being faithful to their traditions.

This gives the community great resilience and a strong sense of what makes them special. As one young adult put it, to be a Copt in Egypt is not easy but you must also recognize that you have been born with gold in your mouth – that is you have been given a great treasure that others have to strive for.   This attitude is expressed in a number of ways, each of which expresses the confidence that Copts feel in being part of a tradition that stretches back to Apostolic times.  For example, like all Orthodox and Oriental Churches the Copts see the liturgy as the most perfect expression of their faith.  To change the liturgy, is unthinkable because it represents the patrimony of the ages.  As one young Copt put it:

How can we change the liturgy that has come to us from St Basil?  Think of the shame that would come to us, if we were the ones to change the liturgy that our ancestors have died for.

5.    A way into the tradition

This close identification with ancient traditions and customs is a feature of Coptic life.  This is nowhere more evident than in the practice of fasting.  Amongst Christian Churches the Copts probably have the most extensive fasting regime.  All Fridays and Wednesday’s are fast days, as well as major fasts that correspond with important events in the liturgical calendar.  Greeley (2002) has noted that one of the most significant changes in Catholic life in the post conciliar period was the virtual abolition of fasting.   As well as being a practice that has been a constant feature of Christian life since its very origins, fasting serves as one way of linking the individual with a religious tradition.   The Coptic young adults who were interviewed identified fasting as the one practice which marked them as Coptic Christians. 

Prayer and fasting is what our Church has taught us firstly.  At least  two-thirds of our calendar is involved in fasting so through prayer and fasting you obtain that spirituality, you obtain that closeness to God, you obtain that perfection or struggle for perfection because no-ones perfect.

Practices like fasting unites them with other Copts and is by its very nature an egalitarian practice.  The monks who have an even more rigorous regime, and all Copts are united by taking part in activities like the great Lenten Fast.  This is a simple but extremely effective way of building a sense of community and fellowship.  It also has other cultural effects, such as sparking a distinctive cuisine that includes both dishes for fasting and non-fasting periods and a number of festivals that mark the end of fast periods.  The combined effect of this is to allow Copts a way to express their religious identity that is constant and marks them as distinct from the wider community thereby establishing an important boundary between themselves and others.  This is done at no great cost to the individual  – as well as giving as sense of identity fasting is not too onerous or without compensation.       

Fasting is one way the Copts express their religious identity but there are many others.   A Coptic home, for example, is full of religious art most notably icons, which are painted in a distinctly Coptic style.  Copts also have a unique musical culture that incorporates melodies that originated in the Pharonic era – predating Christianity. 

Another feature of Coptic life that is significant here is the way young adults, especially males, are incorporated into the faith community via formalized roles.  The most prominent of these is the position of deacon.  Deacons are part of the ordained ministry and play an important role in the liturgical, life of the Church.  Deacons are ordained by the bishop, thereby giving them status and dignity.  Other Christian traditions have been somewhat reluctant to embrace the use of a permanent diaconate, despite this being part of the classical understanding of the three fold ministry  (Fink, 1990). It is not unusual for a young Coptic male to be a deacon of the Church. There are a number of grades of diaconate to accommodate different levels of maturity and commitment but all of these give the young Copts a sense that they are part of the Church in a clear and absolute way.   As well as being deacons another well-developed pathway that can connect the young Copt to the faith tradition is that of Servant of the Church.  Servants do a range of tasks, such as catechesis and family ministry, and is an especially popular role for young women. The servants provide the Coptic with a great human resource asset but also give young adults an important sense of belonging.up

6.         In the company of Angels

The experience of Australia is a new one for Copts.  Compared to Egypt, Australia is a rich and secular country, where religious persecution – at least in the Copts understanding of the term does not exist.  Nonetheless, the leaders of the Church in Australia have been quick to identify the secularism of the wider Australian society as something that is incompatible with Coptic life and must be resisted.  They have not made the accommodations to modern life that other Christians leaders have.  For example, in the Coptic schools, which are coeducational for practical rather than ideological reasons, students are not permitted to dance, or to be alone in the company of a member of the opposite sex.  In adult life Copts who strive to have professional careers are much happier in their own company.  The sexual morality of the Copts is at odds with  perceived  Western promiscuity.  A word that is often used in talks by Coptic leaders on these matters is purity.  This is a virtue to be practised and should be reflected in how the Copt dresses and what entertainment they allow themselves.  As one Copt put it:  

I have lots of friends at work but I mainly go out at night with my Coptic ones.  It is just that I feel more comfortable with them.  We all know what we can and can’t do so I am under no pressure when I am with them. A bad situation will not arise.

An example of a bad situation could relate to something like alcohol.  Copts are not complete abstainers. This is an important distinction between themselves and Moslems in Egypt.  It would, nonetheless, be quite shameful for a Copt to drink to excess. 

Say every Friday after work they all go to have a drink. While I might accept some of these things I find myself different from my work mates. I might have an orange juice, I might have a coke.  I would never put my Christianity to shame by becoming drunk in front of the rest and doing all sorts of stuff and following their ways.

A strategy that many Copts use to avoid this situation is to socialize with other Copts where the collective group would ensure that any individual would not overstep what is accepted behaviour.  In this sense Cops resemble the behavioural mores of evangelical Christians and this also applies to many of their attitudes.  At a youth meeting Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was asked what he considered to be a not negotiable part of Coptic heritage.  To answer this he raised a copy of the bible and remarked: This is basic if we cannot believe what is in here then we have nothing.   The comment expressed by Bishop Angaelos is one that many Evangelicals would endorse.  Here is how a young Copt links the Bible with the problems of everyday life: 

We also go by the Bible a lot.  We use it in practically everything we do, not as a storybook, not as a myth, not as a metaphor but as pretty much the answer to everyday life. So looking at somebody in a bad way, the Bible says that is exactly the same as committing adultery.  That would be exactly the same as committing adultery… and it is not symbolic or just a fairy tale or something like.

What makes the Coptic experience different from a purely Evangelical one is that they combine this view of scripture with a rich liturgical and sacramental life as well as strong Episcopal governance. Watson (2003) commented on a meeting of the World Council of Churches. In a post keynote session, there was a discussion group comprising Bishop Dishoy, Moderator of the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church, John Shelby Spoog a liberal Episcopalian bishop and Richard Harries a progressive Anglican from Oxford.  The encounter was memorable because of the gap in understanding displayed by the Coptic bishop and the liberal Protestant leaders.  It was not a clash of ideas so much as a display of widely divergent conceptions of what it means to be a Christian in the world.  On the one hand, there was a conscious effort to make the Christian message as modern and as amenable to contemporary men and women as possible.  On the other, there was a tradition that placed great importance to being faithful to the Apostolic faith that has been mediated by the writers of the patristic period. For the Copts, issues that dominate discussion in other Christian traditions, such as ordination of women and the illicitness of homosexuality do not arise because they fall outside the boundaries established by the great Fathers of the Church such as Cyril and Athanasius – both of whom were Archbishops of Alexandria.   up

7.     Here is where we stand

Copts readily identify their beliefs as something which sets them apart from other groups.   The stigma and sacrifice associated with belonging to a religious group can bring with it an associated increase in commitment and participation and this seems to be evident in the Coptic community (Iannaccone, 1994). Their core beliefs are often expressed in metaphysical terms and they are not generally comfortable with an expression of religious belief that minimizes the significance of God acting in their lives.  

when dealing with other people, we do things from a more ‘what’s right, what’s wrong’ perspective or ‘would this please God or wouldn’t it’.  I wouldn’t say that we’re better than other people, we’re not, we are all equal, but we struggle to do well and we struggle first of all to please God, to glorify Gods name.   I haven’t seen many other cultures do that. 

Copts are clear about the boundaries that separate them from other groups.  This allows Copts to be clear about their defining beliefs and is an important element in the process for maintaining identity (Berger, 1992; Hogg, 1992). This is in part explained by their history of disputing heterodox positions.  Indeed, their refusal to accept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon was seen by them as a stand against the innovations of Western bishops lead by Pope Leo the Great which seriously compromised the position taken by their great predecessor Cyril of Alexandria.  These historical events are kept alive in the Coptic mind by constant but effective reminders of the Coptic position.  The following formula is recited and is readily recalled but Coptic youth.

We confess that our Lord and God and Savior and King of us all, Jesus Christ, is perfect God with respect to His divinity, and perfect man with respect to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commixtion, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation.

This statement is from a joint statement in May 1973 by the Coptic Pope-Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI.  It represents a common Christological formula by the Catholic and Coptic leaders.  It is nonetheless constantly repeated by Copts as an expression of their core belief.  It is largely unknown by contemporary Catholics.

The contrast with other Christian groups is something that Copts are aware of and they recognize their steadfastness with the accommodation of others.

I know that the Catholic religion tends to make certain subtle changes as time goes by to accommodate the new era and I think as a direct result of those subtle changes the wall begins to crumble and then you start having all these indifferences and people falling out of that particular religion because something doesn’t feel right or something doesn’t fit.  Whereas with Coptic Orthodox, because it has always been set up the same from the word go and has always kept and maintained its tradition, nothing has changed and we’ve felt ourselves as the sole foundation and we’ve constantly built upon that and the walls will not crumble.

8.    We have a plan

When the Coptic leader Pope Shenouda III visited Melbourne in November of 2002 it is estimated that over ninety percent of Copts aged between 15 and 35 attended his meetings.  This attraction of young Copts is a manifestation of how Coptic leadership assiduously plans to incorporate young people into their mission.   For Copts it is quite a natural thing for the leader of the Church to visit a community and to have a dedicated meeting with young people.   In all of this planing, the Copts in Australia have set out to ensure that the needs of young people are addressed.    By the 1980’s Copts when they began to develop an institutional presence in the country – education of youth was an important part of this consolidation.  As the community has grown significantly over the years the institutional strength of the Coptic community is now expressed by schools in major centres as well as two theological academies, two monasteries and a retirement hospice. A significant milestone in the history of the Copts in Australia was the appointment of the first local bishop in December 1999. This was recognition of the significance of their presence in Australia by the international Coptic community.   The bishop sees his outreach to youth and young adults as a vital part of his ministry.  

The bishop has brought us all together and because he has brought us all together, all these events that happen, whether it’s a youth meeting or whether its summer competition, activities, conventions, camps, whatever, it brings all the youth together and that way you are still with your Egyptian culture, you are still with your Egyptian friends…..

You no longer think you are the minority.  You walk in and you think there are so many people here, you don’t feel like you’re singled out again.  You have a whole group of people.  It gives you a sense of confidence that what I believe in, I should be proud of.  Look at what I’m a part of…..

As part of this outreach the Coptic community regularly organises a variety of activities for young people.     These are age specific and separate senior school students, those at university and those in the workforce.    Regular meetings of these groups are held at local, state and national, level.    up

9.    Some issues for the future

Copts in Australia face a number of issues in the future that are consistent with a religious tradition becoming more enmeshed in a secular Western culture.  One important issue is the role to be played by women in the Church and in the wider society.   Some of the women interviewed remarked on the different expectations placed on them when compared to males.  

My brother can come home at 12 or 1 o’clock and that’s fine, they (parents) go to sleep and are not worried.  Me, I get 100 calls…..

I think it depends.  I’m probably the most different out of the girls.  I don’t have a curfew but up until a certain age, I did have a curfew.  I have an older brother so it did make life a little easier but I think generally it got to the point where after I finished all my schooling, my parents just must have thought about it and said well, she hasn’t done that bad so far.  She’s turned out ok.  She’s working.  She’s educated.  I think its time she makes up her own mind and there are differences but then there was a certain time when my parents were very concerned about what the community was going to say. 

A very significant issue is how will the Copts cope with the challenges of living in Australia after the initial migrant experience is over.    This experience has proved to be a critical factor in determining ethic and religious identity in other faith communities (Alba, 1985; Steinberg 1965).     This is an issue that the Copts are aware of, both at a leadership and common level.  

What we have behind us is a treasure - it really is and to think of not having that is quite scary really and the one thing, I speak of myself, I want it to grow stronger with me and my family and my children and so on and so forth and just for the church to grow stronger and His Grace always tells us this one little thing.  His Holiness had a meeting, I’m not sure whether in Egypt or here and he said to everyone that the church without you is a Church without a future and one of the youth replied and said.  Youth without Church is youth without future and the more you think of it, you think, wow.

The arguments set out in this paper suggests that the Copts display a number of characteristics that will continue to make them a resilient community of believers.     Whether these characteristics are kept in place for an extended period of time is conjecture but the history of the Copts to this point suggests that they have a community which is confident of its ability to survive in the pluralist Australian environment in which they are a distinct minority.  




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