With the recent tragedy in New Jersey—-the brutal slaying of Hossam Armanious, 47, his wife Amal Garas, 37, and their daughters Sylvia, 15, and Monica, 8-—a great many non-Arabs have been more than supportive, showing the very understandable feelings of outrage, sadness, and horror. Many of these same people, however, have no idea on earth who the Copts are, apart from the fact that we’re Egypt’s Christians. Others might know how the Coptic community in Egypt is persecuted on a professional, and sometimes personal, level. But I think it’s time people knew more about our community’s beginnings...
Copts are native Egyptians, the largest group of Christians in the Arab world, the most undiluted descendants of the pharaonic people. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the luxury of speaking Coptic (Qibti is the Arabic word for it) in everyday life—in fact, relatively few Copts can even read and write the language, and even fewer can speak it, though there has been an underground resurgence (of late) dedicated to bringing the language back, complete with newsgroups, mailing lists and websites. Rather, those of us who are Coptic Orthodox (or attend the Coptic Orthodox mass, anyway) get to hear this beautiful language in the liturgy.
Another thing that I mentioned a few minutes back is that modern-day Copts
are the most undiluted descendents of the pharaonic people, who were the original Copts. This refers to the fact that the Arab invaders who brought Islam to Egypt were obviously non-Egyptian and non-Coptic, and furthermore, to the fact that the subsequent intermarriage with their converts, and the settling of these interracial families into Egypt, made for increasingly thinned ties to Coptic forefathers as generations passed.
The first time I heard this, I theorized that there had to have been some further
intermarriage between the purer still-Copts and those who had converted to Islam, but a friend set me straight: “If that were the case, the family would automatically have had to become Moslem. Hence, those who remain Copts to this day refused to convert and thus have no Moslem ancestry or blood.” Dr. Edwin Wakin, author of A Lonely Minority: the Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts, concurs, estimating that up to 80 percent of the current Moslem population in Egypt carry the Coptic lineage in the beginnings of their family trees.
In terms of the Coptic Orthodox faith, it came into being as a result of St. Mark and his extensive teachings of Christianity in Egypt. Dr. Wakin further enlightens us about the ancient Egyptians, telling us how “Christianity…appealed to them with its clear-cut morality and assurance of life after death, with which Egyptians have always been preoccupied…The Coptic religion [Orthodoxy] has been diluted by heavy doses of superstition…the content of Coptic life has become part Pharaonic, part Christian, part oriental, part petit bourgeois.”
In terms of the origin of the word “Copt,” Christian Cannuyer, in the English
translation of his Coptic Egypt—The Christians of the Nile, has this to say about the Coptic name, among other things:
"The Copts are the Christians of Egypt. Theirs is among the most ancient
forms of Christianity, born in the time of Jesus. The name derives from the
Arabic Qibt, an abbreviation of the Greek name Aigyptios (Egyptian); this in
turn is a derivation of Hikuptah, House of the Energy of Ptah, the religious
name for Memphis, the capital city of ancient Egypt. Coptic Christianity
mingles remnants of pharaonic practices, elements of Hellenistic and Byzantine Egyptian culture, and the dynamism of Arab civilization."
Perhaps he should have said “Coptic Orthodoxy” rather than Christianity,
since there are now branches of Catholicism and Protestantism in Egypt.
as in Cannuyer’s words above, the term “Coptic” is, more often than not,
misused to denote those Egyptians of the Orthodox faith, though the most accurate
modern usage of the word would be “Egyptian Christians.” The aforementioned Dr. Wakin takes it a step further, stating that “in the Coptic language, “Copts” means “people of Egypt” and the Copts use the term literally, referring to themselves as the “true Egyptians.”
Perhaps it’s this fact that has made the Copts so persecuted, or maybe it’s their
tenacity in clinging to Christianity. Either way, the Copts are one of the most put-upon people of the Middle East. In yet another gem by the very perceptive and articulate Dr. Wakin, we see that in “any minority, its symbol is a badge in times of prosperity, a brand in times of trouble.” This may refer to the ever-present symbol of the cross, as in those that they imprint into the walls of their houses, as in the pendants that they always wear, the icons that they hang, the tattoos that they wear at their wrists, even the sign of the cross that they make when worried, scared or grateful.
It could also refer to the fact that Copts are forced to state their religious affiliation on all official documents—not unlike the Star of David during the Holocaust, or the Mark of the Beast/Seals of the Righteous in the book of Revelations. But despite the killing of 144,000 Copts (some purport that the figure’s actually well over 800,000) between 303 and 311—killing that was sanctioned by then-emperor Diocletian (interesting to note that the beginning of the Coptic Orthodox’s Year of the Martyrs falls on September 11th)—despite the 1320 razing of every Coptic church in Egypt by Moslem fanatics, despite the more recent
and gratuitous rash of murders (1200 Copts in Egypt have fallen since 1992, and now, four in Jersey City), despite persecution in the streets, in the workplace (Copts can almost never make it to the highest level of any job), by the government (the president himself must
issue a decree before a church can be built or even repaired) and all of the other travesties and tragedies that I don’t have the space to recount, the Copts live on—upwards of 10 million strong!—both ethnically and religiously.
It should be noted, by the way, that despite the escalating tension in the Middle East, and despite the suspicious nature of the recent Jersey City killings, not everyone is quick to point the finger of blame at Moslems; some of us are still praying (fervently) for peace. This is not to say that the Armanious family (God rest their souls) are not martyrs, because it certainly looks as though they were. It’s just to say that the actions of a few people do not an entire race (or religion) condemn. Should non-Moslems hate the entire Islamic population because of the actions of Mohammed Atta and his crew? No. Just as we shouldn’t hate all blondes/Americans/“McVeighs” for the Oklahoma City bombings. After all, with love in our hearts, there’s always the tiniest hope for growth and change, but with no love there’s no change and no hope for change. We love God not because He’s deserving of it (although He is—even when we’re not), but because He first loved us. How would we have known about Him, otherwise? So, too, then, must we first love “the Other” if we expect the slightest chance of reciprocity.
In Arabic, we have a phrase that says “Enta el Kebeer” ("you’re the old/big/mature one"), which many wise friends use to counsel chums who are in a tiff with others.
The Wise Guy:
“Are you and J. STILL in that argument?”
“Yeah... he refuses to go see the KISS reunion concert with me, and I’ve already gotten tickets!”
The Wise Guy:
“Akh! Go and make up with him. After all, you could die in a plane crash this week and then it would be on your hands!”
“Good point, but I don’t plan on traveling anywhere this week, and anyway, he started it!”
The Wise Guy:
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this. A helicopter could fall out of the sky and take you to the hereafter, and you’re being childish. He started it, but you finish it. Inta el kebeer!”
“Oh... well, when you put it like that, I guess....”
*(Enter J., The Wise Guy moves downstage to give them “privacy,” and then J. and the Dolt make up. Cut to the pair at the KISS reunion concert.)*
Anyway, now that I’ve finished the sermon and the Arabic lesson for the day, let’s get back to the Copts. In a final snippet by the informative and illustrious Dr. Wakin, we find a commentary on—and tribute to—the strength of the people that the Pharaohs and their kingdoms would have been more than proud to call their descendants:
"Unlike the American Indians, the Copts have not practically disappeared
under the sword of outsiders who conquered and settled; nor did they absorb
and assimilate the invaders as did the Chinese. Unlike Armenians and Jews,
the Copts have had little migration and no diaspora. It is both their burden
and their fortune to have had only one home—the Nile Valley."
Editor's note: This article is, in part, excerpted from Sally Bishai’s 2004 Mid-East Meets West: On Being and Becoming a Modern Arab American.