Missing the point of Coptic tattoos

WristCopticCross-1When my family made the decision to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, we helped start a tiny mission in the Tennessee mountains -- in Johnson City, to be precise. In the early days, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission included a family in with very recent roots in Egypt and its Coptic Orthodox traditions. We learned all kinds of things, including some insider tips on making falafel and tahini and other traditional foods that come in handy during fasting seasons.

But we also learned about the often dangerous lives of Christians in the Middle East and, especially, Egypt. For example, why do Coptic Christians have those small crosses tattooed on their wrists? Our friends answered that question, the mother with tears in her eyes.

But if readers want to know the most painful answer to that question -- this is a question, I admit, with several possible answers -- they will not find it in a recent Global Post story that focuses on that topic.

The headline hints, in its second line: "Egypt's Christians uphold tattoo tradition -- Never mind the children's screams: For Cairo's Copts, tattoos are a mark of pride -- and of protection."

The story does not deliver, when it comes to information that backs that loaded word, "protection." That makes the reader want to know, "Protection from what?" Here's a sample of what you learn, in this case about the work of a tattoo artist named Girgis Gabriel Girgis:

Regardless the age of his human canvas, Girgis went to work -- inscribing not fire-breathing dragons, fierce skulls or the gestures of star-crossed lovers, but rather simple blue-green crosses on the inside of his subjects' wrists. The crosses are small, but they symbolize community in a country that Copts often view as hostile towards them.

Girgis' open-air stand, just outside the church gates, has been his studio for almost two decades. For that long, he has been among the small ranks of Coptic tattooists, marking his subjects with symbols that identify Egypt's Christian minority.

"When God chooses you for something, what you can do is just to obey his calls and do exactly what he wants you to do," Girgis said.

Toward the end of the story, this hint of a hostile environment is repeated.

The Copts have long felt themselves a repressed minority -- they are thought to make up about 10 percent of the country's population, or 8 million people -- and their tattoos can serve as a means of communal identity in a country that has a history of sectarian friction.

But note that the Copts merely "view" the Egyptian establishment as hostile and the have "long felt" that they are repressed. This is a matter of feelings and their point of view, not facts that can be reported by journalists.

Really? I realize that this is a controversial subject and that people disagree on some of the facts, but click here and explore some of the terrain covered by human-rights activists and others. Is there any real doubt that the Copts suffer from overt and covert persecution in modern Egypt?

And what does this have to do with those tattoos? Yes, they help build a sense of community in this ancient and highly symbolic flock. The Copts are, literally, the oldest Egyptian surviving community in that ancient land. On one level, the tattoo tradition must single them out for special, and often unwanted, attention in a land that in recent decades has veered closer to more radical forms of Islam.

But as our Coptic friends explained to us, those tattoos serve another purpose. They make it harder for Muslim extremists to kidnap their children and force them to convert to Islam, including forced marriages of young Christian girls to Muslim men. It's hard to cut those crosses out of the thin skin over the veins in a human wrist. Click here for additional information on this controversial subject.

Yes, the tattoos serve as a form of identity and protection. But to fully understand this Coptic tradition, it helps to know a few of the painful details.

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