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August 11, 2015

Have you ever imagined something like this: the Coptic Pope instructing all his clergy, inside Egypt and outside it, to stop praying the liturgy in Arabic, or any other language, and pray it only in Coptic? Can you think of a greater event to revive the Coptic language and nation and to fix the latter in its true identity once more? Nothing I can imagine could be more historical that that!

The creeping of Arabic into Coptic life and Church in the Middle Ages, in the 12th and 13th centuries, has been excused on the increasing illiteracy of Copts of that time in Coptic. Copts were said to attend the Church and yet not to understand what was being said or read in Mass. The reason for the adoption of Arabic by the Church then, we are told, was to teach the Copts, who now spoke Arabic and understood no Coptic, Christianity: had the Church not used the new language, the Copts would have forgotten their faith, and possibly got lost forever to Islam; so goes the argument of those who try to find an excuse for the use of Arabic in church services.

There are certain fallacies attached to that argument: first, not all Copts in the 12th and 13th centuries forgot Coptic and replaced it with Arabic: Coptic was not a lost cause then by any means – it did continue to survive strongly in the villages and small towns of Lower and Upper Egypt for many centuries to come. It was only the environs of Misr, Cairo, and Alexandria, and possibly a few other large towns, that were inhabited by many Coptic clerks and rich merchants, and who were in direct contact with the Muslim administrators and rulers, who replaced a tongue of Coptic by one of Arabic, and, training their children to follow in their jobs in the Muslim administration, stop teaching them Coptic and focused on them learning Arabic. Secondly, adoption of Arabic in that context was never the right response to the threat on the Coptic language or the Christian faith: the right response would have been the launching of an education campaign, organised by the Church in its schools across Egypt, to teach Coptic and to encourage Copts to learn it in preference for Arabic; and to ban the use of Arabic in Coptic churches. For such a campaign to succeed one would expect the Coptic patriarchs then to use their religious influence and to draft special ecclesiastical canons to ensure that all followed the initiative.

Sadly, the Coptic patriarchs and archons of the time preferred the easier, but very destructive, response: adoption of Arabic and abandonment of Coptic. No one expected the Copts, particularly the archons who wanted to ensure their social mobility by excelling in Arabic, not to learn Arabic: but, they could have done that without abandoning the Coptic language altogether. Other nations who faced similar situations like ours went for bilingualism, and while they learned the language of the dominant nationality to use at work, they continued to speak their national language at home and in the family and within their national group. By doing that, they ensured that they got jobs for their livelihood while they retained their national identity and culture.

But the opportunity is not gone, and Coptic is not beyond resuscitation. This can happen in many ways: and the leader in this great project can spring from the laity or the Church. But the Church, because of its extensive organisation and huge religious influence, can have the highest chances of success: and it does not take more than a brave Coptic Pope to ban the use of Arabic in Coptic liturgy and to use Coptic instead; and to launch a Coptic educational campaign amongst his followers highly developed and organised.

Who will be this Pope? Who will take the historical step? Who will do this service to the nation? Who will save our beautiful language? And who will receive the blessings of Samuel of Kalamoun?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Morris Girgis permalink
    November 12, 2016 7:03 pm

    Wonderful and bold article. Any follow up would be great.


    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      November 13, 2016 1:35 pm

      Thank you, Morris.

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