Messeh agrees. “This is about the Americans finding this faith for the first time, and there being a home for them. That’s all. We need all kinds of churches,” he said. “But you can have a Coptic Church without the Coptic, and I’ll go to my grave saying that.”
With the fresh need to look beyond language or ethnicity as the binding agents of Coptic identity, advocates for Americanized churches often emphasize a connection to historical Coptic persecution.
“When I bring visitors to church, I emphasize the bloodshed and the martyrs,” said Sandra Mathoslah, an advocate for Americanized churches who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. “That is the bread and butter of the Coptic Church—this perseverance,” she said. “It’s a church with a lot of suffering.”
“You are a Copt if you relate to that history,” Tadros, from the Hudson Institute, told me. In his view, there are enough people around the world who can relate that there’s potential for a global Church community. He recalled meeting the first ethnic Japanese priest at a church in Cairo a few years ago, and his surprise at hearing Coptic chants recited with a Japanese accent. “For 2,000 years, we were the official Church of Egypt,” Tadros said. “Today, we are in Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand, Sweden, Fiji, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Brazil, Ghana—we have invaded the world.”
Among some Copts, the Americanized churches are seen as less authentic. There’s a fear “that if we lose the culture, we lose the faith,” Messeh explained. There have also been charges of elitism, with the Americanized churches attracting wealthier and more highly educated Copts, who are sometimes perceived as looking down on their newly arrived counterparts.
Despite these concerns, or perhaps because of them, some worry the mission churches could break off from Egypt. “They took it very, very hard, out of their love and commitment to the Coptic Orthodox Church,” Bishop Youssef told me, referring to some congregants’ reactions to his 2015 announcement of an American branch of the Church. (Coptic bishops are known by their title and first name.) Nonetheless, he assured them that while “communication with the mother church is very important, our connection with the holy tradition is not with a geographical place.”
For Messeh, such concerns both misunderstand what is essential about the Church’s faith and ignore the benefits of embracing American culture. “In Egypt there is a lot of emphasis on emotions, on faith by any means, and on miracle stories,” he said. “But this emotional pull is less intriguing to Americans than the rich intellectual history of the Church, stretching back to Origen and St. Athanasius. As American Orthodox Copts, we have a chance to restore the balance and understand our historical roots. We can take the best of both cultures.”