As astonishing as it is to believe Ancient Egyptian is not a dead language. While it is nobody still uses it as their main language, millions still hear it weekly as the language of the liturgy of the Coptic Church. The Coptic language is written in Ancient Greek script but takes its grammar and vocabulary from the Egyptian language spoken in the time of the pharaohs.
The Coptic Church is perhaps the oldest church still in existence; it traces its roots back to congregations that worshipped in Alexandria during the time of the Apostle Paul. It thus emerged in a time in which Egypt was ruled by the Romans but still retained its own unique culture, and the Church absorbed much of that culture including its language.
When the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th century, they introduced their language and their Islamic faith to the country. This left the Copts alienated from the majority of their countrymen: they were Christians in an Islamic nation, who continued speaking Coptic centuries after most Egyptians began using Arabic. Therefore, neither Pan-Arabism or Islamism – the two most powerful ideologies in modern Egypt – had much appeal to Copts. Instead they emphasised their Egyptianus and made their link to the nation’s ancient history a central part of their identity: they were the real Egyptians and the Islamic majority were imposters.
In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”
The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.
In 2008, anti-Copt sentiments spiked following the Bishop’s presentation because his main point—that the Copts are true Egyptians—had hit a nerve….The Bishop stated that the Coptic identity centers on Egypt, its land, language and culture, while Egyptians who converted to Islam shifted their cultural identity toward Arabia…For many in contemporary Egypt, the bishop’s assertion was heresy. Islamists—and those wanting their political support—view the Copts not as real Egyptians, but, because they are religious holdouts, as second-class citizens or even a fifth column within the state. They are treated accordingly. Copts are officially discriminated against by an Ottoman-era law that restricts their ability to build or even repair their ancient and crumbling churches and monasteries. When they suffer violent assaults by Muslims, they are typically denied justice, with trial judges instead presiding over “reconciliation” sessions, with the victimized Copt being forced to shake hands with his Muslim aggressor. As a rule, Copts have been excluded from government appointments and, in this spring’s recent referendum, the Muslim Brotherhood backed a successful constitutional amendment making it official that Copts (and women) are ineligible for the presidency.
Given all the human suffering in Egypt to worry about something as ephemeral links to the past is probably unforgivably sentimental. Yet were the Copts to be driven from Egypt and their traditions to disappear, this would not only cause great pain and wreck a community with a rich history of its own, but would also sever a living tie to the most venerable civilisation on earth.