As the Coptic Church has spread into the Diaspora of Western nations it has experienced an ever growing interaction with non-Copts. The sheer breadth of this interaction is rarely appreciated by Copts I think. To list just a few situations:
- Employees and clients in Coptic organisations like Child Care Centres, Vacation Care Centres, Coptic Schools, Aged Care Facilities and the Theological Colleges.
- Interested visitors to Coptic monasteries.
- Marriages of Copts to non-Copts, or rather to converts to Coptic Orthodoxy.
- Dialogues with other Churches and religions through organisations like the World Council of Churches and its branches and Interfaith events.
- Participation in Government sponsored initiatives as well as those organised by civil society to deal with various pressing social issues.
- Coptic sporting teams participating in local competitions.
- Copts who run for political office.
- Missionary and outreach services.
- Services for the homeless and those in prison.
- Apologetics dialogues with non-believers.
- Kimi radio program and the Coptic satellite TV channels.
- Visitors to Coptic websites of all kinds.
- FOCUS – university campus societies.
- Copts who volunteer to teach religion in public schools.
- Interest from the media following the many massacres of Copts in Egypt and regarding the future of Christians in the Egypt of the Arab Spring.
All of these of course are in addition to the many thousands of commonplace interactions that take place daily in schools, tertiary institutions, workplaces and over the back fence with the neighbours.
In majority Muslim Egypt, there has often been strife, but relatively little actual theological debate or dialogue between the two Abrahamic faiths. One of the rare records of such debates precedes the miracle of the mountain of Mukattum, and that debate ended with the Christians being threatened with harsh punishments if they could not fulfil the Bible’s promise and literally move a mountain (which thank God, they did). In recent times, Fr Zakaria Botros has been strident in his criticism of Muslim beliefs. Although he has reportedly won thousands of converts to Christ, he now lives his life in hiding for fear of assassination. It is not hard to understand why the Church in Egypt has tended to avoid direct debate or dialogue with Muslims on the pros and cons of our relevant beliefs!
For a Church that has spent most of its existence just struggling just to survive in an often hostile climate in Egypt, the opening up of the Coptic Church to the western world has brought with it both challenges and opportunities. There are no such hindrances in the tolerant and liberal west, and our ancient faith has been questioned like never before. Whereas the young Copt could fast all her life in Egypt without ever being questioned why (Muslims fast too) revealing one’s fast to one’s western friends often results in a polite interrogation as to why one would do that to oneself. Not to mention the many strident attacks on religious faith itself which have become fashionable in the last couple of decades. The Copts find themselves thrust unready into the marketplace of ideas that is modern liberal democratic society.
Yet I believe that we should not view this new challenge to our faith as a bad thing, but as a great opportunity. After all, to practice one’s faith with understanding and confidence is surely better than practicing it blindly, and ending up with deep subconscious doubts that it might all turn out to be wrong. I believe the right approach to one’s faith is fearless robust honesty. If our faith is true, then it will stand up to any and all scrutiny, and we will only hold it even more strongly for learning that. And if it is false, then surely it is better to know than to live a lie? So far, in this perilous journey of discovery I have found that our faith is far better founded and supported than most Christians realise.
It is also far more beautiful than most Christians realise. I wonder how many Copts are little more than ‘cultural Copts’, holding to the faith, attending Church, even praying and reading their Bibles just because they were told to, just because they were brought up that way. For them, practices that should be the very sweetness of life become boring and dull routines and duties to be performed to please an angry God or else suffer the consequences. It is these Copts who, when challenged seriously, run the risk of falling to pieces and perhaps even losing their faith. I have seen it happen all too often.
This is sad, and unnecessary. We need to revive the reality, the power and the beauty of Orthodox Christianity in the hearts of our own members before we can seriously share it with others or defend it against criticism. I am being perhaps a little too pessimistic in the picture I have painted, for there are indeed many shining examples in our parishes today who live the fullness of the life with Christ and have done wonderful things to share our precious faith with others. But such remain a minority, I fear, and I dream of the day when every member of the Church is a living, breathing, daily witness of the power of Christ to transform humans into heavenly creatures walking this earth.
I am in the process of writing a book to introduce the Coptic faith and church to non-Copts and hope to complete the manuscript by the end of February. I welcome any suggestions you might have from your own experiences as to what needs to be in such a book, what would make it useful for the non-Copts you have met. Feel free to make your suggestions publicly via a comment on this post, or privately by email via the “Contact Me” link at the top of this page. All suggestions will be much appreciated!