Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Tuesday 24 October 2006
The meaning of the cross for non-Western Christians
In the light of the recently publicised case of the British Airways employee who was suspended for refusing to remove or cover the cross she wears on a chain around her neck, this communique looks at the meaning of the cross for Christian communities in the Muslim world.
In the West women often wear a cross simply as a fashionable jewelry item, but for Christians in the Middle East, who have endured fourteen centuries of Islamic pressure, the cross has deep symbolic meaning of identification with their faith, church and community.
While for Muslims the cross is a hated symbol of the "false" religion which the Muslim armies targeted in the first Islamic onslaught and which later responded militarily in the Crusades under this sign, for the long-suffering Christians of the ancient churches in the Middle East the cross has come to signify their identity as a Christian community. For these Christians the cross symbolises the long centuries of persecution and martyrdom, and their loyalty to their Church in the face of Muslim persecution. The cross has come to symbolise the essence of their Christianity and to be the outward identifying mark that distinguishes them from the generally hostile majority.
Muslim hatred for the cross is evident in the hadith (traditions) that foretell the Muslim belief that, in the End Times, Jesus will reappear as a Muslim and will break all crosses. In history for example, Caliph al-Mansur (754-775) forbade the public display of the cross and destroyed the crosses on top of many churches. Forbidding the public display of crosses continues to be the case in modern day Saudi Arabia. Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021) forced Christians to wear a five-pound cross around their necks as a sign of humiliation.
Coptic Christians in Egypt see their cross as the greatest glory of their church and as a symbol of their long martyrdom. They tattoo it in pride and defiance on the inside of their right wrist as an indelible mark of their identification with their church and community, although they know that this visible mark might bring them scorn and discrimination in their Muslim-majority society. An Egyptian Christian woman explained it like this:
"Many of us have these [crosses on their wrist]. We feel certain that severe persecution is coming to Egypt, and we are not sure we will be able to stand up to it. We have chosen to have ourselves indelibly marked as followers of Christ so that we can never renounce Him, not even in our weakest moments."
Physical attacks on Christians in Egypt sometimes focus on the tattooed cross on their wrist. For example, in April 2004 a 17-year-old Coptic girl was kidnapped by an extremist Islamic group. (The abduction and forced conversion of young Coptic women is a serious problem in Egypt.) For 27 hours she was drugged, raped and scissors were used to try to remove the tattoo from her wrist.
Whilst it is true that for Protestant Christians the physical symbol of the cross is not an essential matter of faith, for many Christians in the non-Western world it remains a potent symbol of Christ's death and resurrection, the heart of their faith. By wearing it they identify with him, and with his shame and suffering.