You can’t tell the difference between an Egyptian Muslim and an Egyptian Orthodox Christian. They might be dark with curly hair, or fair with straight hair and a narrow or a broad nose. The only visible sign you might encounter is a little blue cross furtively tattooed on the bottom of the wrist.
Tattooing emblems of faith has roots in Africa and Ancient Egypt. Many Egyptian Christians or Copts, as they are usually known, believe it is part and parcel of a long history of persecution that goes back to the time Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. The early Copts apparently tattooed the cross on the arms of their children in case the parents were killed by their tormentors to ensure that the Christian faith lived on. Others say it was imposed much later by a maverick Muslim ruler to ostracize and stigmatize them.
These days, among the urban middle classes the cross tattoo has gone out of fashion. That’s why I was surprised when Hanan Aguib, a simultaneous translator from Cairo, proudly displayed hers which she acquired 20 years ago, despite her husband’s initial ridicule.
“I wanted to make sure that if things ever got really bad in Egypt one day and my tongue was forced to deny my faith, my body would testify against me in the eyes of God.” she tells me when I met her outside her congregation’s church in the affluent district of Heliopolis, a tall modern compound rising between higgledy-piggledy apartment blocks and double-parked cars.
Christian in Egypt
The Copts celebrate Christmas this weekend at a time of unprecedented political upheaval. First the overthrow of Mubarak and now an Islamist landslide in parliamentary elections. That is not to say that the community wasn’t alienated before the Arab Spring. Despite representing 10 per cent of the Egyptian population of 81 million the Copts have long felt discriminated against.
It was on New Year’s Eve last year that 23 people were killed in the bombing of the Qedeseen Church in Alexandria. The building still bears the scars of the attack. Furious Christian protestors fought with Mubarak’s security forces. Writing in the church magazine one of the priests commented: “Everything Egypt is currently experiencing is a result of the explosion that took place in our church … it was the first spark that set off the 25 January 2011 explosion” – and, by implication, the revolution that followed.
But one year on the rift between the Coptic community and the authorities has reached an all time low.
Churches have been attacked as well as businesses and homes belonging to Christians. Some Islamist politicians have come out in favor of re-introducing the old system of jizzya, a poll tax that was once imposed on non-Muslims. In October a military crackdown on a demonstration in Cairo resulted in the deaths of 27 people, most of whom were Christian. Three soldiers have been put on trial for involuntary manslaughter. No commander has been charged.
Protests and checkpoints on Christmas
Friday night – Christmas Eve – a group of Coptic youths protested a the Abbassia Cathedral where the Copt leader, Pope Shenouda, welcomed government officials and state dignitaries and – for the first time – members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Video of the service and the moment protesters shouted “down with the military” inside the Cathedral:
As for ordinary church goers, they attended Christmas services after going through an army or police check point. Or perhaps one manned by Muslim Brotherhood volunteers. Reports say the security was so tight around the Cairo cathedral that it felt like the area had been turned into a military barracks.
But despite the need to have troops and volunteers protect her in her own homeland Hanan Aguib is optimistic about Egypt’s future. “Jesus fled not from but to Egypt” says Hanan emphatically. “This is a land of peace, sacred precisely like Jerusalem”. She is adamant that faith can conquer fear, anything.
As we stand outside the church, the sound of the congregation chanting the evening prayer wafts through the gate of the hall. She suddenly bursts out, “listen, listen to what they say ‘aali, aali “ or “God is higher than the highest”.
Fleeing the Muslim Brothers
But that fearless faith and attachment to “sacred land” is not what I encountered when I met a young couple who have already made up their mind — they are heading to Canada. They didn’t want to be identified.
Like many other young Egyptians, they had explored the possibility of immigration long before the elections. Human rights groups in Egypt estimate that 100,000 Copts have left the country since the revolution. Thousands of them have come to the U.S.
“By the time the Muslim Brothers come to power, we will have left the country” says the five-month pregnant wife laughing, her boney cheeks revealing deep dimples in her small face.
“There’s discrimination already, so you can imagine how much worse it will get with the Islamists in power; it will become official” she adds.
“Every Christmas we don’t know whether we will come back home from the church,” she said referring to last year’s fatal attacks.
Her husband, an IT engineer, says he really didn’t want to leave Egypt. He took part in the revolution in Tahrir Square. His wife, who teaches pharmacology at university, was helping with the makeshift hospital set up there to deal with the injured. But now that she is pregnant, he said, he has to think about the future of his child too.
“I want him to grow up in a society where there are no Muslim-Christian tags”, she chips in.
The chain smoking husband, who’s constantly fiddling with his smartphone, suddenly rises up and leaves us briefly to point his gadget a the loudspeakers of the café. His wife explains that he has a new app that recognizes melodies.
The song, appropriately enough, was “A New Society.”
Faith in the future in Egypt
Those who are leaving have given up. Those who are staying are too poor even to think about it or simply passionate, like Hanan Aguib, about their attachment to Egypt.
“Faith can move mountains”, Hanan says. She tells me the miracle story of how Copt devotion moved Muqattam hills from one side of city of Cairo to another. I say surely this must be a parable about strong faith. But she is adamant it actually happened.
Hanan has been up all night, every night praying at the church of Virgin Mary during the month leading up to the Coptic Christmas. “Its’ a storm in a teacup”, she tells me repeatedly in her reassuringly sonorous tones, referring to the political earthquake that has shaken Egypt.
Yet, I wonder whether invoking the stories of early Coptic martyrs and how they insisted their children have tattoos on their arms during our conversation may have inadvertently betrayed a degree of anxiety, subconsciously at least.