CAIRO: Considering the recent upheaval in Egypt between Muslim and Coptic communities it is not surprising that the Coptic language is experiencing a resurgence throughout the globe. In the United States and Europe, people of Egyptian origin are beginning to move toward implementing a strategy to reclaim their native tongue.
Sally Bishai, editor-in-chief at X Culture Magazine and author of Mid-East Meets West: On Being and Becoming a Modern Arab American, is one of those new age Copts. She believes that the original language of her ancestors is vital to all Copts understanding of the religion and where they come from.
There are families within Egypt, and some in Europe that I know of, who only speak Coptic at home, Bishai says. While there are only a handful of Egyptian families that still use the language in their day to day activities, Bishai believes that number may be growing, especially outside Egypt.
Bishai is the host to a web show entitle Sally Bishai s 30 Minutes With. The show largely focuses on Coptic, civil and human rights issues. It is considered by most to be conservative oriented political commentary and opinion. She is a prolific writer who has worked extensively on assimilation and Coptic issues and is founder and president of Copt X Fellowship. Bishai is also the author of Date Like an Egyptian: A Guide for Women and Girls.
Several priests I have heard of also claim to speak the language at home, Bishai believes. All Coptic priests must learn the language and coptic Deacons must also be able to chant in the language.
Bishai, an Egyptian-American, is able to read and write in Coptic. I can speak one of the three dialects, Bohairic, but do not understand the language when it is spoken, unfortunately.
The main force of the resurrection of the ancient language is coming from the Internet, where blog and online groups are creating a medium for dialogue between Coptic communities throughout the planet.
A final snippet I can offer right now is that there are yahoo groups and online sites dedicated to learning our poor, forgotten language, Bishai says. In Egypt, one of those organizations is the Masr El Oum, which is a grassroots organization founded in 2003 aimed at developing a means of transmitting and learning the ancient language. Coptic Christians account for approximately 10 percent of Egypt s population. Bishai believes that Copts are the most undiluted descendents of the Pharaonic people, who were the original Copts.
This refers to the fact that the Arab invaders who brought Islam to Egypt were obviously non-Egyptian and non-Coptic and, furthermore, to the fact that the subsequent intermarriage with their converts, and the settling of these interracial families into Egypt, made for increasingly thinned ties to Coptic forefathers as generations passed, Bishai argues.
She believes that all Copts throughout the globe are without Muslim heritage. This, she argues, is because if a Copt were to have married a Muslim, they would have become Muslim. Therefore, Bishai says that those Copts, who have remained Coptic throughout the years and today, are descendents of Copts that refused to convert to Islam.
Some have countered Bishai s argument by claiming that Copts are descendents of Greek settlers and Roman invaders. However, scientists concur that modern Egyptian Copts, as well as Muslims, are descendents of the original Egyptians, genetically and culturally.
Coptic Christians are the largest group of Arab Christians. By some accounts there are approximately 60 million Coptic Christians throughout the world. The majority of Copts live in Egypt (15 million), Ethiopia (38 million) and Eritrea (2 million). There are significant numbers in North America, Australia, Israel and Sudan, as well as in Diaspora throughout the globe accounting for around four million.
Bishai comments that it is possible that the Coptic language itself may be partly responsible for the persecution and mistrust between the main religious groups. “In the Coptic language, Copts means people of Egypt and the Copts use the term literally, referring to themselves as the true Egyptians, she says.
Last fall and just this past month saw an increase in Muslim-Coptic violence in Alexandria. Bishai believes that the actions of a few people cannot account for the group as a whole. She hopes that there will be continued efforts to put the disagreements behind the two religious communities and strive for a better Egypt.