At the high point of the Christian year, Easter, the bombings of two churches in Tanta and Alexandria in Egypt are a sombre reminder that there are places in the world where simply being Christian and practising your faith means risking death and displacement.
This was a phenomenon all too familiar to Irish Catholics in centuries past. Our landscape is dotted with Mass rocks where people risked death or imprisonment in order to celebrate the eucharist.
But however ancient our Irish Christian heritage is, the Egyptian Coptic church is one of the oldest in the world. It can credibly trace its development to St Mark, who was one of St Peter’s closest companions.The word “Copt” is thought to be simply a distortion of the word for “Egyptian”. There have been persistent rumours of links between the ancient Irish and Egyptian churches.
When a priceless artefact dating from the early ninth century, the Fadden More psalter, was found in a Tipperary bog in 2006, the leather cover was lined with Egyptian papyrus, a tantalising hint of contact between ancient Egyptian and Irish monastics.
Christianity predates Islam in Egypt by centuries. The advent of Islam in Egypt did not immediately result in persecution. Muhammad had a particular fondness for Maria the Copt (Maria al-Qibtiyya) who gave birth to his son, Ibrahim.
As a result, Coptic Christianity was allowed to exist unhindered for centuries, provided Christians could pay the jizyah, or tax that gave them protection from the Muslim ruler.