On October 28th, 1979, the CBS program 60 Minutes aired a segment on the “Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church.” Located on a sprawling estate in Star Island, Miami Beach the church was led by former Chicago native Thomas Riley, also known as Brother Louv. The host of the program, Dan Rather, introduced his audience to these “white Americans,” calling them “a group of rich dope-heads.” Families lived on a commune and the congregants were all encouraged to smoke marijuana. With roots in Jamaica, the “Coptics” and their “Coptic Church,” Rather stated, insist that “Ganja is their sacrament.” Their lifestyle, he continued, was a combination of “Billy Graham fundamentalism and Kosher law.”
“Marijuana and only Marijuana,” Dan Rather concluded, “is what the Coptics are about.” The leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt in Canada and the United States were outraged. A quick and definitive response followed the program’s airing to define and delimit what Egypt’s Copts were about.
Father Marcos A. Marcos, a teacher at the Clerical College in Cairo and the first priest ordained to serve immigrants across North America, arrived in Toronto in November 1964. His parish grew rapidly to number a few hundred families and by 1978 moved into St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Scarborough, the first church building constructed according to the Coptic rite. In September of 1970, Father Ghobrial Amin—an ecumenically-minded priest with graduate degrees in History and Theology in the US prior to his ordination—arrived in Jersey City to minister to the largest parish on the East Coast.
In Father Marcos’ autobiography, first published in Arabic in 2004 and later translated into English in 2014, he records this incident in explicit detail. On the night that the program aired, a member of the congregation in Toronto taped the broadcast and showed it to the priest. He was incensed. He could neither abide the use of the terms “Ethiopian” or “Coptic” in the group’s name nor the depiction of women and children using drugs in spiritual services. That same day, “very late at night,” he called the late Father Ghobrial in Jersey City and they agreed to each send a letter to CBS denouncing the program’s coverage. The letters were sent on October 30th on behalf of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Canada and the Coptic Orthodox Church in America, respectively. The hurried response was as much a result of moral outrage as the damage that could be done to the reputation of the Coptic Orthodox Church globally.
30 miles outside Kingston, Jamaica, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church operated a compound named Coptic Heights. Their “Mother Church,” which was led by Keith Gordon, held acres of land, a structured shipping infrastructure, and was akin to an international corporation profiting from the sale of marijuana. Jamaican journalist Dawn Ritch, interviewed on the program, explained that, “What they’re doing is, on an organized basis, exporting Marijuana to Miami…. The group in Miami, at Star Island, they are the backers. They are the people with the money…. It is no church. That is a factory.”
The Miami church published a Coptic Times newspaper, hired a production company to film their activities, and bought advertisement space in local newspapers to demand the legalization of marijuana. Although their organization was under investigation by US law enforcement, customs services and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), no charges had been laid against them. Rather explained that the group “Can’t be faulted on the sincerity of their religious views” because they had “never been linked in any way with the smuggling of hard drugs.”
Fathers Marcos and Ghobrial denounced any affiliation with a suspect group celebrating the use of marijuana in the sacraments. Father Marcos discounted the “extremist group in the Island of Jamaica” in his letter to the producers of 60 Minutes. He called the coverage of “this cult” an “unfortunate, despicable and misleading” act. He clarified both the history and rites of the Church of Ethiopia and the Church of Alexandria and stated explicitly that “the so called [sic.] Zionist Coptic Christian Church has no link in any form with the original Coptic Orthodox Church.”
Both priests insisted that the program apologize to the Coptic Orthodox Church, its members and all other Christian Churches “who look to the Coptic Church of Egypt with high regard and great admiration.” Although the clergy suggested that Coptologists and church leaders appear and have “an equal prime time” to educate the public, the producers never followed up. However, during a phone call with a CBS representative on October 31st, the priests detailed the history, heritage and rites of the Coptic Orthodox Church. A public apology was broadcast during the following episode in November that the priests hoped would “diminish the harm and correct the wrong impression created.” The message made clear that there was no affiliation between the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Today, there are rumors that Father Ghobrial pursued the matter further. Some have claimed that he filed a lawsuit against the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church. However, there does not seem to be any record of the lawsuit. Members of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church have nevertheless been embroiled in court battles and controversy since the mid-1970s. The group is still active and adheres to the belief that “Cannabis is the blood of Christ.”
This is just one example of the attentiveness and activism of the immigrants’ church. Coptic clergy and church board members across North America followed media coverage closely and many wrote in defense of a particular image of Egypt and its Copts. While we may think that diaspora activism often revolves around homeland politics, sometimes, it is also determined to disaffiliate from the ganja. As a new immigrant group, Copts worked to stake a claim to their distinct heritage as a model minority in North America.
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Michael Akladios is Founder and Project Manager of the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP). He earned his Ph.D. in History from York University, Toronto. His doctoral research was supported by several competitive scholarships, including the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Award and the Avie Bennett Historica Canada Dissertation Scholarship. His first book project is entitled Ordinary Copts: Ecumenism, Activism, and Belonging in North American Cities, 1954-1992.