Talking to the Copts – An Irishman’s Diary about a Dublin soup run with a guest from Egypt
Lessons in faith
“A small Coptic cross, not much more than a centimetre in diameter, but indelible.”
I made my annual visit to the accountant recently – a mission that involved taking the Luas Green Line out into darkest south Dublin. And after the usual business, and the banter about Ulster football (the accountant is a Tyrone GAA enthusiast, while I’m from Monaghan, so the issue of Tiernan McCann’s hair came up again), he offered me a lift back into town.
That was if I didn’t mind a couple of short stops on the way, he added.
So I told him I had a gym session at six, but that there was otherwise no rush.
And I took the lift.
It’s always impressive to see such philanthropy in action. But as well as being impressed, I was also pressed (into service, that is), however briefly. By the time we left the house, I was carrying a large Thermos flask and a duvet.
As we continued into town, I plied my driver with questions about the people he met on the streets, and he talked about other services the organisation he was working with provided. “We have a hostel called the Morning Star,” he said at one point. And that’s when I remembered that the “we” in his case was the Legion of Mary.
Nearer the city centre, he made his second stop, which was to pick up another member of the crew.
This man turned out to be Egyptian – a member of a religious community there, on a year’s retreat in Ireland.
So I did the classic Irish thing of asking him what part of Egypt he was from, as if it was Cavan or Tipperary we were talking about. And when he said it was the upper Nile, I had to admit lamely that, no, I didn’t know anyone from that parish.
Not only was he a Copt, he was a Coptic Catholic, a minority within the minority. There are only about 200,000 of them, he said (compared with maybe 10 million Orthodox Copts – themselves barely a tenth of the population in an overwhelmingly Muslim country).
The Egyptian man didn’t have much English, but what he did have he used very forcefully, so that when he was talking I felt I had to look directly at him, even though he was in the back seat.
When Muslims came to Egypt in the seventh century, he explained, “they first destroyed our churches”. So then the Copts put crosses on their homes and made churches there, “but they destroyed our homes too”. So finally – he tapped his wrist, his eyes burning – “we put the crosses here”.
In some churches, they won’t admit people without the tattoos, to minimise risk of terror attacks.
When the man asked me if I’d ever been to Egypt, I said no, but that it was near the top of my to-do list (this was before the latest events there, since when, alas, it has fallen a few places).
Then, as we parked in the city centre and got out, he asked if I was “in the Legion”. So I said no again. But I helped with the duvets as far as Trinity College, where the two men were meeting others. Then I left them there to perform their good works among the Dublin homeless. And feeling a bit guilty, I went off to spend an hour doing lunges, press-ups, and forward squats.