Coptic Orthodox assimilate and coexist through “majority” status in Nashville

Nashville, Tennessee, has emerged as a center of Coptic Orthodox Christianity in the U.S. and also serves as a case study of Muslim-Coptic coexistence outside of a context of conflict and persecution, writes Lydia Yousief in the blog Public Orthodoxy (April 17). There are 10,000 to 20,000 Copts in Nashville, based on counts of worshippers at Coptic church services. Although Muslims overall outnumber Egyptian Christian Copts in the area, the latter represent the largest national Arab-speaking group, which (with Muslim Arab-speakers tending to identify with their home countries) gives them the sense of being a majority, a status they rarely experience outside of a few villages in Egypt. Aside from Coptic churches, Yousief finds a visible Coptic presence throughout the Nashville and neighboring Murfreesboro area, with an array of Coptic stores marked with the banners of saints, even as they sell halal meat, advertise Ramadan specials and Eastern European chocolates, and sell fresh produce from local farms. The Copts also run a wide range of establishments aside from grocery stores—from hookah bars to immigration firms. “The visual representation and interactive connections of these stores as non-exclusively Coptic and inclusive spaces highlight a working class, immigrant community that is thriving with little government incentive or support, with a diverse customer-base,” Yousief adds.

She goes on to write that, “Nashville provides an example of a community…assimilating—just not into [dominant] mainstream culture…[S]toreowners learn English…to cooperate with farming agencies. Salon owners provide secure sections of their store for Muslim clients who are veiled. Ethiopian coffee shops are better sites for connection than a Starbucks for some Copts.” The Coptic Orthodox “imagining” that they are a majority gives them a secure identity that is “a rebuttal against memories in Egypt, as minority and marginalized,” and an ambition for tomorrow. She concludes that it is “in Nashville…that we begin to see new emerging Coptic voices that are shifting the mainstream discourse from persecution to racism, Christianity to Orthodoxy specifically, indigeneity to foreigner—all while identifying, still, as a Copt.”

(Public Orthodoxy,