CAIRO — Tattoos have become commonplace in most of the Western world, with one in five American adults, for instance, supposedly sporting one. Yet for Egypt’s embattled Coptic Christian minority, tattoos aren’t a fashion statement but rather an indelible, and defiant, mark of their faith.
In effect, the small black cross tattoo that virtually every Copt wears is a visible reminder that in an overwhelmingly Muslim society, they represent the “other.”
They’re not just a symbol, but also a form of ID. For safety reasons, many churches station security personnel at their doors to check that those entering have the tattoo as a guarantee that they are in fact, Christians.
The tattoos are an especially bold sign in a country where Copts and other Christians routinely complain of persecution and harassment both from radical Islamic movements and also elements within the police and security forces.
Cairo tattoo artist Mina Gerges is just 15, and began etching tattoos for Christian customers, often as young as two months, at the tender age of 12. It’s more or less the family business, since his father’s been plying the same trade for 27 years.
Unless one can prove his Christian faith, he says, he won’t make the distinctive tattoo of the Coptic cross.
“We use this cross to go into Church, and someone could use it to go in and do something bad,” Gerges told Crux on June 26 in an interview at his booth outside the famed “Cave Church” on the eastern edge of the city.
That policy, directed mostly at Egyptians, is written in bold red letters in a sign hung in a tree that provides shade to his simple wood-and-metal booth. It informs customers that they must display their ID card before getting the tattoo.
As in many Islamic countries, the Egyptian ID card identifies one’s faith.
The “Cave Church,” formally known as the Church of St. Simon the Tanner, is located in the Mokattam hills. To get to this seven-church complex, one has to ascend through a community of Coptic Christians known has the Zabbaleen, or “garbage people.”
The neighborhood is home to an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people who spend their days collecting the trash produced by Cairo’s 9 million inhabitants, recycling 80 percent of the waste.
Gerges said that for him, tattooing the small Coptic crosses in his customers’ wrists is “more than a business; it’s a service to my people.”
For his customers, he said, having the tattoos carved into their wrists or hands is also “a way of feeling the pain Jesus felt when he was crucified.”
That’s at least for the 10 to 15 seconds that it takes him to make the small ink marks, usually on the inside of the right wrists, although some have them in even more visible places, like on the hand, in the space between their thumbs and forefingers.
The Gerges’ business began three decades ago, but for Egyptians Copts, it’s a tradition that dates back several centuries, although its origins are somewhat obscure.
Some claim it dates to the 8th century, when monks begun adorning their arms with Christian symbols. However, others claim it was 7th-century Arab conquerors who started enforcing the practice when a Christian refused to convert to Islam.
Christians have had a strong presence in this country since the first centuries after Christ, and the Coptic Church assumed a position of leadership in the late Roman Empire.
The city of Alexandria held center stage in many early Christian debates, including Christ’s divinity, and monastic life began in the nation’s deserts around the 5th century.
Yet when Arab Muslims invaded Egypt in the 7th century, the situation rapidly changed for the local population.
The term “Copt” is derived from the Greek designation for the native Egyptian population in Roman Egypt, qubṭ, but Arab conquerors used the term to refer both to the Gerges’ ancestors and their religion.
To this day, a Copt is a Christian — whether Catholic, Orthodox, or some other denomination — of Egyptian descent living in Egypt or abroad, but the tattoos are common only throughout Egypt.
To the Copts of both the past and present, cross tattoos were never a sign of teenage rebellion or a fashion statement. Instead, they have been permanent reminders of their Christian faith, either as a symbol of ostracism or as a proud reminder of what they’ve endured to survive.
Andraous Oweida, a 44-year-old Copt construction worker and father of two, survived a notorious 2011 assault by military police on a Coptic demonstration known as the “Maspero Massacre.”
Yet he told Crux that he’s never considered hiding his tattoo with a shirtsleeve if he fears he’s about to run into trouble.
“When you’re in the streets, you can’t always say who’s a fundamentalist or not,” Oweida said. “Anyway, I can’t deny Jesus.”