Would You Call Yourself a Copt?

150406_Find the Copt
Two Copts take a break during Serve to Learn 2014 in Egypt.

Not long ago, many of the staff here at Coptic Orphans sat down to talk about what it means to be a Copt. We also tried to figure out how Copts and our identity are intertwined with Egypt. As you can imagine, we talked a lot about molokhia.

We started from the premise that we weren’t trying to define a Coptic identity, because that’s for theologians and other people far more knowledgeable than we are. We ended with a deeper appreciation for the rich religious and cultural heritage that we have, as Christians rooted in a land where Jesus walked.

One thing we learned is that, without a doubt, “Lots of people have lots of opinions.” In fact, as often as we tried to throw something into the basket of things labeled “Copt,” someone would try to grab it and throw it out. That was true, for example, with the idea of Coptic language. Some saw knowing Coptic as a critical aspect of being a Copt. Others found that idea mysterious.

Actually, the more we looked at the word “Copt,” the more we realized that there were people using it in multiple ways. There was certainly the religious meaning — that was indispensable. But there were also cultural meanings. And even if we managed to group all these elements in an orderly way, who were we to decide who was a Copt and who was not?

In fact, the more we talked, the more we realized that we weren’t even sure how many people saw themselves. In a few cases, we wondered if the simplest thing wasn’t simply to ask people, “Would you call yourself a Copt?”

For we who are not theologians, this makes all kinds of sense. First, because it’s not up to us to judge. And second, because the unfolding of the Coptic diaspora has created people whose complex backgrounds don’t fit neat definitions.

It’s no longer that you’re simply a Copt from Minya or Sohag or wherever. An Ethiopian Copt living in the United States considers themselves just as Coptic as the Copt from Shobra. Another person may be Australian born and bred, without the faintest conception of Egypt, yet they come to the word “Copt” by way of conversion. And then there are people who see themselves as Christians within One Body in Christ, whose Coptic roots come with their Egyptian heritage.

In short, we have a lot of thinking to do, together. It’s not an abstract conversation, though, because it has real-world consequences. We discovered this the other day when we posted the rules to an essay contest connected with Serve to Learn. Probably with much less thinking than was merited, we wrote: “To apply for one of these two free trips you must be of Coptic ancestry.”

“Coptic ancestry.”

Unclear.

So we’re going to have to revisit those two words, or at least better define what we were not talking about. With apologies to anyone who might have felt excluded. In using the words “Coptic ancestry, ” here’s what we, non-theologians and non-social scientists that we are, were trying to convey:

Would you call yourself a Copt?

If so, please take part in the essay contest. We’d love to have you enter.

That leaves the question of why we’d limit the contest to people who think of themselves as Copts. There are a few reasons.

The first is that the contest prizes — essentially, scholarships to take part in Serve to Learn for free — were donated by supporters who asked that they be designated as such, as tools to help tie future generations to Egypt.

The second is that we’re trying to make these scholarships accessible to young people whose families arrived not long ago from Egypt, and who may be facing the same financial challenges that most new immigrant families face.

And third, we’re looking to make the scholarships more accessible to people who already have a cultural or religious tie to Egypt that they’re trying to strengthen — because, let’s face it, there aren’t any other resources out there to help them connect with that heritage.

So, with that in mind, and in good faith that we’ve done a better job communicating this time, we’re looking forward to some amazing essays.

About Nermien Riad

Nermien Riad founded Coptic Orphans in 1988 after volunteering for an orphanage in Cairo. When she saw that most of the children had living widowed mothers who simply couldn’t afford to feed them, she gathered family and friends to sponsor children in Egypt. Today Coptic Orphans works through a network of 400+ church-based volunteers in Egypt, who visit fatherless families in their homes and make sure they get everything they need to unlock their full potential. That way, they don’t have to get married off as child brides, work as 10-year old family breadwinners, or go to live at an institutional orphanage.