AQABA, Jordan (BP)–Nabil* stretches out his calloused hand and points to the green cross tattooed into his olive skin near his wrist. It’s tiny, and barely noticeable, but it causes problems. Sometimes, a lot of problems.
Nabil is a Coptic Christian from a land dominated by Muslims, living in a land dominated by Muslims. He can see his Egyptian homeland across the Red Sea from Jordan, where he’s one of thousands of Egyptians looking for work as a day laborer. Fellow Egyptians would see him as fortunate since he makes about $14 (U.S.) per day, especially when daily work is no guarantee. He is considered one of the lowly here in Jordan but swallows his pride to earn money to help a distant family survive.
The tattoo, however, he wears with honor.
“I would not change it,” he said of the tattoo he’s had since he was three years old. “I am proud to be a Christian. It is who I am.”
The Coptic Church is a Christian sect in Egypt. (“Coptic” means “Egyptian.”) Although there is no official government bent favoring Muslims over Christians, the reality is that Christians are persecuted for their faith. The persecution may be subtle, like being denied a job; or it may be violent such as the bombing that killed 21 people in January in a church in Alexandria. According to Operation World, Egypt’s population is 86 percent Muslim.
Copts date their heritage back to A.D. 43 when the Gospel spread from Jerusalem and across North Africa by Mark, the Gospel writer. According to tradition, the first convert Mark saw in Alexandria was Ananias, a shoemaker. Alexandria eventually became a great Christian city and Mark later made Ananias the bishop of Alexandria. Ananias is said to be the first bishop of the Coptic Church, which today is one of the oldest churches in Christianity.
Alexandria remained an important Christian city for nearly 600 years until A.D. 639 when invading Muslim Arabs absorbed Egypt into the Islamic Caliphate (political system). Muslims forced Copts to wear a heavy, dangling cross around their necks and bear a tattoo to identify themselves apart from Muslims. A small segment of the Coptic Church continued throughout this reign and still exists today, but Egypt has been predominantly Muslim since.
Nabil’s tattoo, and those of the four day laborers sitting with him, is a reminder of the persecution Coptics have borne through the ages. However, Copts are not the only Christians in the country. The numbers of people embracing Christianity are increasing, albeit slowly, and they still represent a significant minority. Even if the government changes, Nabil says, it doesn’t mean the people change.
Recent reports from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of where protesters eventually unseated Mubarak, show Copts holding hands circled around Muslims while they pray. Other photos depict Muslims and Christians — arms locked, protesting in unison. Graffiti also has communicated the togetherness showing a Muslim crescent and Christian cross in an embrace. It is a sentiment Hossam,* one of the four men with Nabil, hopes will continue.
“From the government we’d like equality with Muslims and equality in being hired for jobs,” he says. “But we do not hate Muslims. We hate the injustice committed by Muslim people. When we pray, we pray for peace. We want there to be peace in Egypt. Our hope is in Christ.”
*Names changed. Reed Flannigan and Trent Parker are IMB writers based in Europe.