The History of Race in Egypt

The narrative of race within the annals of the Coptic Orthodox Church unfolds as a rich anecdote, echoing the contours of its extensive history and in-depth interactions with diverse communities across time and space. Originating in Alexandria, Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church boasts a lineage that stretches back to the early Christian era, and its journey is marked by a nuanced engagement with the complex issue of race.

Established in the midst of cultural diversity, the Coptic Orthodox Church has been an integral component of the Egyptian societal mosaic, engaging with a spectrum of ethnicities, including Arabs, Nubians, Ethiopians, and various indigenous groups. The teachings of the Church underscore the universal tenets of the Christian faith, outlining unity among believers irrespective of racial or ethnic distinctions. Yet, akin to other religious institutions, the Coptic Church has encountered challenges related to race, both internally and externally, over its extensive history.

In the contemporary era, the Coptic Orthodox Church is confronted with the imperative of addressing issues associated with race and fostering inclusivity within its global community. As the Church extends its reach beyond traditional borders, it encounters an array of cultural contexts and racial dynamics, prompting a reevaluation of its approach to inviting believers into the sacramental and communal life of the Church. This exploration into the history of race within the Coptic Orthodox Church endeavors to illuminate the nuanced ways in which this venerable faith tradition has managed its relationship, or lack thereof, with Egyptian and non-Egyptian ethnic/racial backgrounds, contributing to a broader understanding and dialogue within the enduring spiritual legacy it upholds.

Christianity narrates a profound tale marked by sacrifice and unwavering devotion. The stories of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion under Roman rule and the enduring martyrdom of His followers echo through the annals of time, commemorated in our praises to the Holy Trinity. This legacy serves as a poignant reminder of shared persecution for all humanity, especially within the challenges faced by Christendom today, notably within the Coptic Orthodox Church. In response, we offer our worship to the Holy Trinity, recognizing it as a model of unity in diversity. Originating from diverse theological perspectives, it stands as a divine example of transformation—a journey from varied beliefs to a unified faith. Embracing diversity while remaining united, the Holy and Divine Trinity inspires us to navigate the complexities of our faith with a shared purpose.

As a misunderstood religious minority, the Coptic Orthodox community has endured the long-lasting impacts of conscientious and generational discrimination. This form of oppression positions the Copts to recognize religious and racial biases, prompting them to bravely confront these indisputable challenges both within and beyond the Church walls, drawing inspiration from the Holy Trinity.[1] The historical context reveals a tumultuous journey, with Egyptian Christians facing persecution during the Roman period under Emperor Diocletian in 284 A.D. Even after the Empire’s conversion to Christianity, the Copts continued to experience persecution, leading to a notable decline in their proportion relative to other Christian populations. This subjected them to severe discriminatory treatment. The pervasive negligence observed in the Church’s endorsement of self-supporting initiatives for successful integration into the Western world hints at a deep-seated desire for survival. This survival, however, seems to be achieved by meticulously preserving its Egyptian heritage, rather than fulfilling the Holy Trinity’s intended mission of messianic evangelism to both Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike. As J.D. Pennington notes in “The Copts in Modern Egypt,”[1] these challenges underscore the complex dynamics that the Coptic Orthodox community grapples with in its quest for cultural preservation and spiritual mission.

[1] Karen L. King. Beyond the Gnostic Gospels: Studies Building on the Work of Elaine H. Pagels. Mohr Siebeck, 2013, 60-78.


By the end of the ninth century, the Christians had ceased to be a majority and the decline in the proportion of Copts in the population continued in subsequent centuries. In accordance with Islamic law Copts were subject to special taxation. They suffered discrimination and, occasionally, violent persecution. They were compelled to wear distinctive clothing. Some rural communities lapsed partly though neglect by the Church.[2]

[2] Pennington, J. D. "The Copts in Modern Egypt." Middle Eastern Studies 18, no. 2 (1982): 158-179.

Despite enduring prolonged discriminatory treatments, the Coptic Egyptians’ compassionate and understanding disposition towards prejudice has not fully permeated all situations of racial biases, evident in the Church today, namely in the Western world. This oversight seems to miss the essence of Trinitarian doctrine, which forms the foundational principles of Christendom as a whole. Patterns as such are evident in the prevalence of ethnic insensitivities and the limited racial diversity observed within the episcopal leadership and Church membership, through the erroneous portrayal of the Church-recognized Saints in the Coptic iconography, a change for which we will argue for, and in worship practices that are often solely rooted in race and culture, lacking doctrinal significance. This is apparent in a noticeable display of neglect and racial favoritism. A response to prejudice as such is even further contradictory behavior to the Coptic experience as a minority group seeking religious asylum in recent years, as though individuals of the Egyptian Coptic community have been harboring their persecution as a branch to their religious identity and carrying that sense of identity into the Western world to validate a patterned demonstration of racial exclusivity.

With respect to years of persistent oppression, however, the Coptic Orthodox Church has remained a haven for immigrants of its kind. It is a self-sufficient support system that provides resources for successful acclimation into the Western world for the Egyptian community. These systematic channels for incidental support have evolved in the Los Angeles Coptic Orthodox Diocese, which has effectively developed a social ministry to address the challenges associated with Egyptian immigrants.

New Coptic immigrants flooded into the USA following the Arab Spring and its aftermath. The Los Angeles Diocese has evolved an elaborate system of support for the newly arrived immigrants, including linking them to public social services available from other sources (see Khalil 2008)[3]

Much effort has been placed towards initiatives alike for the Egyptian Coptic community that have the potential for great development by extending a ministerial arm to non-Egyptian religious believers who are also transitioning into the Western world seeking a conducive and hospitable environment in the Coptic Orthodox Church, as She continues to increase in racial diversity. The lack thereof concerning initiatives alike are not a product of malicious intent or even a neglectful eye, but rather it is attributed to a form of elitism that caters solely to members of its kind. The Coptic community may have a distorted perception of the Church’s role in bringing an ancient faith into a Western society, evident in its ministry for Egyptians and not American Westerners. Although a survivalist form of preservation fuels this behavior, its origins begin with an attempt to develop an African-Egyptian Orthodox presence to avoid Islamic apologists that attacked Christianity as a “white man’s” religion.

Among its many followers, the Coptic faith is adopted by a prolific number of sub-Saharan Africans, which can be ascribed to the Copts’ affluent, yet controversial, rapport with Ethiopia and the large embrace of African ethos that is now thoroughly entrenched into its worship practice as a product of evangelism; even following the departure of Pope Shenouda III, former Pope of the See of Alexandria, Bishop Antonious Marcos became the “leading exponent of the neo-Coptic missionary movement,” introducing the historical theology of the Church that is rooted in authentic African Christian traditions to independent parishes in Africa. The Organization of African Independent Churches was formed to inspire the teachings that Christianity was not a European import but rather was founded upon ancient African roots – a significant declaration within the Coptic missionary endeavor. Nonetheless, we continuously notice trends carried out by the Cradle Copts[4], primarily, but not limited, to Western civilization, which are suggestive of opposition to non-Egyptian races within the Church and an anti-black cultural preference outside of the Church. A product of this neglect has perpetuated a long-standing struggle for converts into Orthodoxy to distinguish between “what is sacred in the Tradition and what is purely ethnic.[5]”

[3] Khalil, E. (2008). The making of a diocese: The early years of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii. Los Angeles: Coptic Diocese of Los Angeles, Southern California, and Hawaii.

[4] The term “Cradle Copts” is a qualifying term that will represent Copts that were born and raised in Egypt throughout this website.

[5] Watson, John. Among the Copts: Sussex Academic Press, 2000: 75.

The adjoining relation and current state of affairs between the Christian leadership of Ethiopia and the Alexandrine Coptic Orthodox Church was introduced by the original consecration of a hierarchy in the Ethiopian Church. Maintaining the same theological conviction of the Copts, the Ethiopians adopted the miaphysite doctrine but incorporated several worship practices rooted in Ethiopian culture, thereby sanctioning their Church to maintain its individuality from the Coptic Orthodox Church while remaining united and dependent through their hierarchy. As a product of local legalities of the Fetha Nagast and religious tradition, the Ethiopian Church’s bishop was required to be of Egyptian heritage and delegated by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria.

By the same tradition, Ethiopia was a bishopric of the central Egyptian Church, entitled in principle to have up to seven bishops. All of Ethiopia’s 111 abuns (bishops), from the first in the 4th century to the Baselyos of 1952 (the first Ethiopian), were Egyptian.[6]

[6] Haggai Erlich, "Identity and Church: Ethiopian-Egyptian Dialogue, 1924-59." International Journal of Middle East Studies 32, no. 1 (2000), 24.

Egyptian-Ethiopian affairs are contained through a series of historical disputes, all connected to heritage, identity, and the Church, that have perpetuated tensions among inter-personal relations. These issues include:

1. A bitter dispute over the Nile waters
2. The emergence of an Arab-inspired Eritrean movement
3. Egyptian support of Somali irredentism
4. The Ethiopian alliance with Israel
5. The future of Pan-African diplomacy
6. Soviet and American influences[7]

As a religiously observant Ethiopian community operating under the authority of Colonel Nasser, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s role within Egypt’s diplomatic jurisdiction became heavily disputed. During the ongoing Egyptian-Ethiopian tensions, Coptic patriarchate, Yusab II underwent institutional crises prior to his departure in November of 1956, thus prompting the election for a new Patriarch and provoking an Egyptian superiority complex leading into modern day culture. Throughout the election process, both the Ethiopians and the Egyptians within the Holy Synod received a similar number of votes, which prompted a panic by the Egyptians that the See of St. Mark could potentially be transferred to Addis Ababa, being that the Copts were already being mistreated by the Egyptian government. Simultaneously, the Ethiopians became suspicious of a potentially unfair election. Eventually, they were afforded the right to have their own Patriarch, and while the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church retains the right to consecrate the bishops of his choice, his appointment remains subject to the approval of the Coptic patriarch.

In an attempt to address these challenges of acute tactical prominence, in June of 1959, Emperor Haile Sellassie of Ethiopia and President Gamel Abdel Nasser of the United Arab Republic initiated a dialogue with regard to these matters. On the 28th of June, both leaders emphasized “a common policy of non-alignment”[8] in a joint announcement without overtly discussing the culmination of historical issues. On that same day, the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Pope Cyril VI, ritualistically selected the head of the Ethiopian Church, Father Baselyos, as the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church in the presence of Haile Sellassie and other Egyptian officials, thus affirming that the Orthodox Ethiopian Church, once joined to the Egyptian Church, is now autocephalous, marking a revolutionary event in the series of mutually meaningful historical events encompassing Egyptian-Ethiopian relations. Nonetheless, the separation of this ancient Christian bond occurred in the form of a subsequent process of adaptation, provoking the role and identity of the Copts, and resulting in a severed uniformity and distorted perception between the two Churches. and thus Haggai Erlich, scholar and Professor of Middle Eastern and African History articulates,

[7] Erlich, "Identity and Church: Ethiopian-Egyptian Dialogue, 1924-59, 23.

[8] Erlich, "Identity and Church: Ethiopian-Egyptian Dialogue, 1924-59, 23.

Studying the stages that led to the breaking of this ancient Christian bond in 1959 may shed some new light on the nature of the 20th-century transformations in both countries. Modern Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s redefinition of state and society reshaped their internal institutions as well as the nature of their international relations. The combined dynamism, reflected in our story of church, had much to do with the fundamental changes in their social and national identities. As we shall see, the emergence of modern nationalism in each country created new significance to the fact that Ethiopia was an old Egyptian bishopric. The ensuing process of adaptation and change affected both the role of the Copts and the pluralism of Egyptian society, as well as the pace of the centralization of government and culture in Ethiopia.[9]

[9] Erlich, "Identity and Church: Ethiopian-Egyptian Dialogue, 1924-59, 24.

Although the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains autocephalous, patterns of racial exclusivity in the Coptic Church suggest how the Copts might distinguish the Ethiopians as an inferior community within the Church’s liturgical life. Being that the Ethiopian Church is liturgically the most neighboring religiously observant community to the Egyptian Copts and with respect to their shared historical experiences, patterns as such might imply an outsized issue concerning the Egyptian community’s dealings with alternate races in the Church.

Territorial controversies, such as those amid the Egyptian-Ethiopian Church, solicit a question of why Egyptian Copts, or the Egyptian race in its entirety, desperately desire unreserved ownership in contexts that do not directly influence the Egyptian population, but rather a population that might benefit from functioning under a headship with a shared heritage. An Ethiopian Church operating under the leadership of an Egyptian hierarchy can evidently create a divide cultivated by an ignorance of the Ethiopian culture, therefore enabling a governance unable to provide dynamic leadership. Through scrutinizing this intricate transnational story, it is clear that the Coptic Church might be challenged with a supremacy complex connected to a form of racial identity in the Church and an unhealthy desire to nurture and protect its own community rather than fulfilling its mission in the modern world – to serve the children of God, not just the Egyptian children of God. In catering to the diverse world, the Coptic Christian community will, in parallel, grow in diversity and can begin to inherently evolve and successfully fulfill its mission. Throughout the progression of the Egyptian administration in the early nineteenth century, and upon the involvement of a more educated Coptic group, we are then introduced to modern community institutions which led “prominent Copts to be accepted as equal members of society” and infiltrated the superior echelon of Church politics. Nonetheless, Ethiopian-Egyptian tensions continue to embitter the path to racial inclusion, and thus, the Church remains a product of a colonized mind, perpetuating the Egyptian equivalent of European cultural supremacy by maintaining a protective hand on its ethno-racial experience.

European cultural supremacy is a concept that has long engrossed the philosophical realm in all of Western human society, beginning in the early nineteenth century, based on an underlying misconception concerning God’s divided love. As a Christian people, the Europeans supposed themselves superior in the eyes of the Lord based on the premise that “a Christian God must naturally favor His own followers,” specifically those who have inherited worship practices thoroughly aligned with the sacramental rights of the Church. Based on this premise, it was misunderstood that their transmissible traits were elevated to pave the way for worldly triumph in various capacities.

He will take care of such matters as hereditary abilities, thus making it easier for His followers to thrive, multiply, progress, conquer the world. He will even make certain that the physical environment in which Christians live is more favorable than the environment surrounding heathens: hence Europe’s climate is neither too hot nor too cold, not “torrid” nor “frigid” but nicely ‘temperate.’[10]

[10] Blaut, James M. Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography. Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Chicago. Volume 23 (1992) Pages 289-299

The European’s misguided conception concerning the religious theory of racism was based on a supernatural cause that manifested into a reality. It continues to be exploited for justification of both subliminal and apparent racist practices and philosophies upon the prospect of inclusion for non-Christian and non-white individuals.[11] This prejudice as it is developed through the early nineteenth century in European civilization, was an empirical argument which I believe translates – both the cause and effect – systematically within the Coptic Orthodox Church. Similar to how ‘European Christianity’ was founded on the supposition that the world around their inhabited grounds were becoming populated and further, becoming non-white, it then followed that the white race was and is established as ‘superior,’ I argue that the Coptic community has adopted a comparable perspective towards non-Egyptian believers and prospective believers that is founded on analogous grounds to that of the Europeans.

The exclusive nature embedded into religious practice since the nineteenth century is based on pre-Christian geographic Scriptural roots, for example, the grounds of the Garden of Eden and locations of many Biblical events which are assumed to have taken place between Rome and Mesopotamia. This inherent connection to an ancestral lineage amid the European people thus fosters a sense of identity and belonging among them and individuals like them, similar to the Egyptian and Coptic identity, thus provoking their biased perception of persons who engage and wish to share in their religious practice, but do not inherently share in their lineage or in the association to early historical or Biblical roots such as those offered in the Exodus narrative, or more recently, instances of aggregate religious intolerance in the form of violent persecution against the Coptic Christians. Violent persecutions in the form of blood shed continue to be committed in a centuries-long struggle for Coptic equality, so much so that the Church is acknowledged as the Church of martyrs, and even bonds its calendar to the violent experience of martyrdom against Egyptian Copts under the Emperor Diocletian. Just as persecution continues to persist against Egyptian Copts, the Egyptians continue to harbor their persecution as a branch of their religious identity, pervasively identifying their Orthodox faith with their Egyptian race, and thus protecting their faith by resisting racial and cultural change.

[11] Blaut, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography. Volume 23 (1992) Pages 289-299

By the time of the next wave of persecution under emperor Diocletian, a great number of the martyrs were native Egyptians. The present day Copts have linked their calendar, which is a solar calendar derived from the pharaonic one and using the pharaonic names for the various months, to their experience of persecution and martyrdom under Diocletian. Thus, the first year of the martyrs, begins with 284 AD, the year of Diocletian’s accession to the throne of Rome.[12]

[12] Hasan, Sana S. Christians versus Muslims in modern Egypt: The century-long struggle for Coptic equality. Oxford University Press, 2003: 24

As a product of the tyrannical behavior placed forth against Egyptian Christians even today, the Coptic faith has been challenged to either follow in the evangelical legacy of the early church fathers as they transition into the Western world, or rather continue practicing an ancient faith while harboring a now redundant fear of persecution by preserving Egyptian heritage through the exclusion of all non-Egyptians in the liturgical life of the Church. The Church’s mission has been suppressed beneath a need for survival that is no longer relevant, and consequently it might inadvertently neglect to extend its messianic arm towards non-Egyptians. The body of the Church, therefore, fails to cultivate diversity in its own community. In doing so, a desire for leadership that shares in the same heritage as the community he serves will be preserved systemically, enabling a failure in cultivating diversity in its leadership because, naturally, an Egyptian community warrants an Egyptian leader. As a faith founded on a diverse Trinity, by rejecting diversity, we are rejecting the Trinity.

This unconscious racial bias can likely be attributed to acculturate stressors derivative of the characteristics associated with the social boundaries amid the Coptic diaspora and the American mainstream – an impression of heritage identity – exhibited from having familial ties to both Biblical and Papal figures recognized in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and with the sharing in tyrannical involvements as a minority group. Even as Egyptian refugees transition into Western society, first-generation individuals carry a reservation for preserving and retaining their heritage culture through the Church, even while desiring to successfully enable positive assimilation into the Western world. J. M. Brinkerhoff maintains the prevalence of this concern in faith-centered diasporas in her research entitled, Assimilation and Heritage Identity, arguing that as forthcoming generations of immigrant parents living in diaspora fully assimilate to mainstream culture, the heritage culture amid the Coptic Orthodox faith may not survive.[13]

One of the serious challenges has been the age-old tension facing immigrant communities: maintaining a strong communal identity while dealing with the pressures of ‘compromise’ associated with assimilating into a new society. An associated challenge is keeping most if not all second and third generations within the church (Saad 2010, p. 220).[14]

[13] Brinkerhoff, Jennifer M. "Assimilation and heritage identity: lessons from the Coptic diaspora." Journal of International Migration and Integration 17, no. 2 (2016): 467-485.

The Coptic diaspora thus experiences a selective form of acculturation, having recent generations “selectively retain cultural practices from their heritage as they assimilate in the country of residence.[15]” In their attempt to preserve cultural practice, the Church continues transnational connections and immigrant replenishment. I argue then that the desire, to maintain a cultural relevance in the Church is a matter which holds a potential to influence prejudices rooted in racial/ethnic/cultural differences and diaspora identity, with emphasis on the concept that the Egyptian race in the Coptic Orthodox Church is superior to others.

[14] Saad, S. M. (2010). The contemporary life of the Coptic orthodox church in the United States. Studies in World Christianity, 16(3), 207–225.

[15] J.M Brinkerhoff, "Assimilation and heritage identity: lessons from the Coptic diaspora." 17, no. 2 (2016), 467-485.

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