On February 6, a Coptic priest led a mass for Christians in Tahrir Square, joined by tens of thousands of Muslims. That might look commonplace to Americans who readily join friends of other faiths in celebrations of various lifecycle events, but let me assure you that here in Cairo, it’s rare for the two groups to be intertwined so deeply in a religious event. A lot of people are noticing that any sectarian tension at all between Muslims and Christians seems to have disappeared overnight. Coptic churches that two weeks ago were guarded by Egyptian security forces now stand alone. Yet there has been no aggression against Christians at all. None. Egyptians are loving that and praying that the unity continues.
There are many photos online that show the events of February 6, but this cartoon particularly caught my eye as capturing the intended spirit of the day…
…as did this photo of a Coptic priest and a Muslim Imam hoisted into the air by the protesters.
At the beginning of the demonstrations on January 25, the majority of Christians seemed a bit wary of participating. Now many of them are in Tahrir Square every day and are increasingly joined by their religious clergy, despite the fact that Baba Shenouda (Pope Shenouda III, head of the Egyptian Coptic community –baba is casual Arabic for “father”) early on expressed his support for Hosni Mubarak to continue until the end of his term and encouraged other Copts to do the same.
On February 6, the Coptic priest in Tahrir Square ended the service by saying (in Arabic), “In the name of Christ and Muhammad, we unite our ranks all together.” And the mixed Christian and Muslim crowd expressed their unity by roaring back, “One hand! One hand! One hand! One hand! One hand! One hand!” There were Coptic crosses side by side with crescent moons, Qurans and Egyptian flags.
Daily News Egypt, one of the English language papers, published this article hailing the day as one more unprecedented thing in a couple of weeks full of both positive and negative unprecedented events. Global Voices featured this story about the elderly father of one of the protesters, who had decided to come join the crowd.
As I mentioned in my last blog post, before I moved to Egypt 5-1/2 years ago, I didn’t know much about the Arabic language or about Islam. Well, even after 5-1/2 years here, I can say that I know even less about the Coptic Christians. It’s inevitable in a country of approximately 80 million people, where around 71 million of them are Muslim, that I wouldn’t be deeply exposed to Coptic Christians on an average day. So when I heard that they were going to have a Coptic mass in Tahrir Square yesterday, I set out to do some research to educate myself.
Several years ago on one of my many tourist visits to Egypt, I had the great pleasure to visit a thousand-year-old Coptic church in one of the small villages outside Giza. It’s well off the beaten tourist path – I was with only four other people and we were welcomed with open arms. The artwork and religious artifacts were beautifully preserved and still in regular use. The caretaker was blind, but told us (in Arabic, with a friend translating for us) that he knew the church so well that he could do everything even without his sight. Before he gave us a tour of the small structure, he described the history of the church, recited some of the Coptic scripture and sang a hymn or two. He had the most beautiful, lyrical voice that could almost put you into a trance.
Ignorantly (before I moved here), I’d always thought that Copts were a single unit, practicing their faith in exactly the same way. According to Wikipedia, the majority of Copts are members of the non-Chalcedonian Coptic Orthodox Church, but there are also Protestant (called Evangelicals in Arabic), Catholics and other Orthodox congregations.
Technically they’re all Copts, because the word “Copt” evolved from the ancient Greek word for Egypt. Copts were the original Egyptian Christians and have been here for thousands of years. In their everyday life, Egyptian Copts speak the native language – Arabic. However, in their religious services, they use the Coptic language. Obviously that’s been adapted by Copts in the Diaspora and services in other countries may use the language of wherever they are, interspersed with some Coptic. Diaspora services are very much like a Catholic church in the US that might do the service in English with a bit of Latin thrown in – or a Jewish service with mixed English and Hebrew.
Written, the Coptic language looks a bit like Greek. Many churches in the Diaspora have multimedia lessons to teach children Coptic. This presentation from the Coptic churches of Northern California, teaches the Lord’s Prayer.
Many of the Coptic hymns trace their origins to Pharaonic times. Obviously the words were different, but the melodies were the same. This is a version of Epouro, reportedly one of the melodies traced back to ancient times. The Library of Congress offers a few videos about the late Ragheb Moftah, a Coptic music historian, and the preeminent authority on the subject if you’d like to learn more.
I had planned to post this hours ago, but got lost in my research and thoroughly enjoyed watching the different videos and listening to the absolutely breathtaking sounds that emanate from the Coptic churches. A Google or YouTube search for “Coptic Hymns” or “Coptic Liturgy” will yield further results if you’re interested in hearing more.
If the protesters in Tahrir Square have their way, this week is just the beginning of a renewed national unity and the opportunity for all – including Coptic Christians – to have a strong voice in the future of Egypt.
On another note, there was a second celebration in Tahrir Square yesterday. Dr Ahmad Zaafan, a pharmacologist, and his fiancee, Oula Abdul Hamid, got married and plan to spend their honeymoon with the protesters.
UPDATE February 23: Love this video of an Egyptian flag connecting a mosque and a Coptic church.
Jan Diggs is Arabia Inform’s Global Business Development Manager and has been based in Cairo for more than 5 years. This article is not intended to promote any political or religious position, but is to encourage you to learn more for yourself.
Other posts about the Egyptian revolution: