Coptic Christians are the closest direct descendants of Ancient Egypt. The Coptic language that we use today was derived from Hieroglyphics, to Hieratic, to Demotic then finally, into Coptic. The early Church suffered persecution under the Roman Empire and this persecution continued under Islamic rule. The Arabic language then gradually replaced Coptic as Egypt’s national language after the Muslim conquests. In spite of many changes, the Coptic language managed to survive in our churches over the years.
With the Arab invasion came greater difficulties for Christians in the country; Copts now had to endure major language and cultural changes, as well as converting to the Islamic faith. Religious persecution persisted throughout Egypt and heavy taxes were imposed on families who wanted to remain Christian. In some cases where the family was unable to pay these taxes, the empire would forcefully take away young Christian boys, convert them to Islam and transform them into state soldiers. This is often why parents tattooed the Coptic cross on their kids’ wrists, so that when they grew up, they will remember their true origins and where they came from. In other cases where Christians were unable to pay this tax, they would be forced to convert or die. Even though we know many stories about saints and martyrs who died for their faith, unfortunately, many Copts did convert to Islam. On the other hand, those Christians that were able to pay these taxes still had to get this tattoo as an identification. They faced major persecution, discrimination, and restrictions — which continues to this day.
Astoundingly, the Christian community’s reactions are rooted in prayer, forgiveness, and adherence to their faith. Now, the cross tattoo on everyone’s right wrist is a testimony to their strong Coptic faith. Even though having this tattoo makes it easier for those you meet to identify you as a Christian, the Copts carry it with pride. People of all ages are persecuted and killed over this cross, and yet the tradition lives on. During protests and funeral chants, this phrase is often repeated: “With our souls and our blood, we will protect the cross”. It is unreal the amount of faith these individuals have to be able to forgive their attackers and those that discriminate them.
Jesus had warned his disciples: “They will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name” (Matthew 24:9). Remember to thank your parents, grandparents, and those before them for staying true to their faith when the odds were stacked against them. Realize how privileged you are today, living in a place where you can practice your beliefs freely. Remember to pray for our brothers and sisters that are less fortunate than we are. Remember to use your opportunities to your full advantage. Every time we question our faith, may we remember those that handle discrimination and persecution on its behalf.
Let us remember the power of prayer. Let us remember to ask the Lord for wisdom and strength so that we can spread goodness in the world. “Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” (Luke 21:17). The discrimination and persecution we fear now only affects our physical bodies. Our Coptic church has managed to survive over the years because we realize that what truly matters is our goal of eternal life. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The Coptic cross on the wrist is more than just a tattoo. It’s an identification. It’s a symbol of resistance and perseverance. It’s to remind us of our faith. It’s to remind us of where we come from and where we should be going.