Egypt's Coptic Christians a Powerful Force

Egyptian Christians have developed a rich culture since Saint Mark brought the new faith to Egypt in Roman times. Today, Egypt is 90 percent Muslim, but the Copts are a powerful minority, says Father Mark Gruber, professor of anthropology and sociology at St. Vincent College in LaTrobe, Pa.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

When the followers of Jesus Christ began to spread their faith after the crucifixion in Roman times, St. Mark visited the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Egyptian Christians or Coptic Christians have since developed a rich culture. Today, they are only about 10 percent of the country's population but they remain a powerful and privileged minority, sometimes clashing with the overwhelming Muslim population.

In the antiquities room of the Alexandria Library, guide Rami Refat(ph) showed us a vivid painting of Jesus on a throne.

Mr. RAMI REFAT (Guide): This is the icon dating back to the 18th century, showing Jesus Christ having the red dress and he's sitting on (unintelligible). There are verses from the bible written around him in Coptic language and the name even of Jesus Christ is written over here in Coptic as well.

HANSEN: What do you know about the Coptic language. How does it differ from Egyptian, Arabic, Latin?

Mr. REFAT: Okay. So, the Coptic language is the fourth phase of the ancient Egyptian language. They started by hieroglyphics then became Heretic then become Demotic then became Coptic. Coptic is the letters of the Greek language or the Greek alphabet. Having (unintelligible) from the Demotic language.

Professor MARK GRUBER (Anthropology, Sociology, St. Vincent College, Benedictine Monk, Author, Sacrifice in the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism," "Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers"): That is right. Coptic is the linear descendant of the language of the hieroglyphs and that's the language they pray. The western church can boast that it sometimes prays in Latin but Latin is a newcomer. Hieroglyphs are thousands of years older than the oldest Latin.

HANSEN: That's Father Mark Gruber, a Benedictine monk and professor of anthropology and sociology at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He's the author of "Sacrifice in the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism," as well as "Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers."

Monasticism was born in Egypt in the third century when the monks established sanctuaries in the Egyptian desert. Father Mark Gruber visited several desert monasteries in the 1980s.

Prof. GRUBER: I was looking for the way that the Coptic monastery centralizes itself in the Coptic culture - the Coptic people, the Christian minority in Egypt are the people who first gave us Monasticism in the Christian faith in the third or fourth century. And they have always found their monks, their monasteries to be a critical center player in their worldview. There are not that many monks nowadays but there are quite a few monasteries which form the heart of the Coptic community.

HANSEN: Give us a brief but broad timeline of monastic life in the Egyptian desert as it bloomed with the Copts.

Prof. GRUBER: In the last years of the pre-Constantinian empire, the church in Egypt was part of an ethnic revival movement against imperial Roman occupation. So Christians in Egypt found in their faith a kind of countercultural counter-politick of the third and fourth century. There were, therefore, strongly persecuted by Rome. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds, were put to the sword in those days.

In those days then some of the Copts fled to the desert and a few of them who did turned virtue and necessity - I should say - into virtue. They found in their desert sojourn an opportunity to grow and spirituality to grow in wisdom and holiness and so they ended up staying there, even when Christianity became a legal religion and it was sanctioned and tolerated. Many of them remained and they became the basis for the first monastic impulse in the Christian church.

And then they grew in numbers very, very strongly in the fourth and fifth century. There were tens of thousands of monks in Egypt and they inspire the rest of Christianity to adopt, to follow the same pattern.

HANSEN: What is the relationship between the monastery and the surrounding communities, particularly with the lay Coptic people?

Prof. GRUBER: Lay Copts look to their monks for inspiration, they look for them for encouragement. They go on retreats to those monasteries in regular rotations. More and more the lake hops in these days have stresses of all kinds of politics. The east and west are both facing in terms of fundamentalist religious revivals.

The Copts find in their monks a kind of enthusiasm for their religion, which is once intense but at the same time remarkably peaceable.

HANSEN: Ninety percent of the country's population is Muslim. What position, what place do the Copts have in this society historically and actually in contemporary times?

Prof. GRUBER: They have occupied niches economically in the economy of Egypt, which granted them a certain - for lack of a better word - desirability. They would take over certain occupations, which would not have well received or well taken by the majority. Banking, for instance, because it involved taking interest and giving interest on loan a kind of usury, which was repulsed both by the Koran and by the bible.

But the Muslims of Egypt said, well, if we need to borrow money - and we do -then let the Copts be the money lenders. That became - so, in a way the Copts of Egypt occupied a very similar niche that the Jews of medieval Europe. And although that made them indispensable to the economy, it also kind of generated an ill well. Money lending is not something which ordinarily gains from us enthusiastic happiness.

And other kind of niches like that. All the way to the bottom of the barrel. So if you're going to be the garbage collectors of Cairo, a third world nightmare city to gather garbage, what good is that garbage except to feed to animals, which are indiscriminate in their eating habits, to swine. Muslims cannot eat the meat of the pig, they cannot eat pork, but Christians can. So the Christians are the garbage collectors of Egypt.

That's an indispensable part of the Egyptian life.

HANSEN: To what to attribute the decline in the number of Coptic monasteries over the country? Was it social conditions or physical conditions mostly?

Prof. GRUBER: I think that the monasteries declined from the late middle ages onward in significant part because the Coptic people, the Coptic society was able to make its peace with the Islamic world around it and to find its niche. And although there were bumps and scrapes here and there in the rough and tumble of, you know, social life, nevertheless the Copts were able to establish an equilibrium with the Islamic majority.

And that was sustained by the memory of the monks and the hagiography out there, holy literature of the monks. So the monks remain a vital part but abstract. The revival, I think, comes from because of the fact that now Christians in Egypt aren't clear about how to establish peaceable consistent relations with the Islamic majority. Now they have to call upon their monks in a more active way to help embody some kind of reconciliatory modus of life.

HANSEN: As a monk yourself as well as an anthropologist and an author, being a monk you've made this pilgrimage there for two reasons: spiritual and certainly for scientific reasons. Describe your first moment seeing a desert father.

Prof. GRUBER: I was educated in the desert fathers when I entered the (unintelligible) monastery in this country. And so the desert father's literature was always very attractive. But it was almost romantic literature of an abstract kind. To actually be in the desert and to see those ancient fortresses rise up from the sand, it was a spiritual shock. That there really is something to embody these romantic stories, these legends of which I had read and read with great enthusiasm.

It was as though I had been transported back to first century Galilee and were seeing apostolic scenery. It somehow was shocking to me how realistic suddenly all of that literature had become to me.

HANSEN: And to a certain extent nothing has changed.

Prof. GRUBER: You will see there is a tremendous love that the Coptic people generally have and their monks especially have for their traditions. And in many, many ways nothing has changed. In other ways, surface ways, there are very obvious changes. You will see hanging on walls the very worst of western Pious art that has found its way somehow into the Sahara desert and gifted to the monks.

And without discrimination they'll hang up anything and everything on their walls. And you can't believe bad Flemish piety suddenly makes its way into a Coptic desert. And you'll see that they're crazy about electronic equipment. They'll have every kind of loudspeaker and microphone and I assume now WP3 players and sound systems and CDs. And you'll say, well, this isn't congruent, a monk with a Bluetooth. And it is incongruent but it's the most surfacey kind of incongruity.

On any meaningful level there's nothing but consistency in their lives.

HANSEN: Father Mark Gruber is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent's Arch Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He's also a professor of anthropology and sociology at St. Vincent University and author of "Sacrificing the Desert: A Study of an Egyptian Minority Through the Prism of Coptic Monasticism," as well as "Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times Among the Desert Fathers."

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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