Rite to use Christians as targets

We’ve had quite a bit of very serious content lately about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and in lands nearby. The massacre in the cathedral in Iraq set off an important wave of new coverage.

The Christian Science Monitor was one of several mainstream newsrooms that covered an important, but not surprising, wrinkle in this story. Here’s the top of the report:

The Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group and Al Qaeda ally, … declared all the country’s Christians “legitimate targets.”

The group says it believes that Muslim women are being held against their will in Coptic churches in Egypt. The Egyptian state; the Coptic church; and Egypt’s leading Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, have all condemned the threats of violence against Christians. …

“All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahideen [holy warriors],” the Islamic State of Iraq said in a statement posted online late Tuesday.

Sunni militant chatrooms have been inflamed in recent weeks with claims that the Egyptian Coptic church is forcibly holding two women, wives of Coptic priests, who converted to Islam. “Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing,” the message continued.

All together now: The VATICAN?

Obviously, the people behind this sweeping threat need to read some church history. The Monitor, however, quickly steps in to make a crucial historic point — only to slip in a bizarre little mistake that somehow managed to sneak past the copy desk. Pay close attention:

The Coptic church is the Egyptian branch of the Eastern Orthodox right and as many as 10 percent of Egyptians claim the faith.

Uh, I think the word for which they were searching was “rite,” as in Eastern Rite, as opposed to “right,” as in the opposite of “left” — one would assume in a political context.

Once again, there are realities in this world that are not primarily political, even in Egypt.

The Monitor article — which is a strange mix of reporting and essay-style commentary — contains some useful information. However, it opened up a very complex subject without the room to deal with it adequately. I am referring to the complicated matter of conversions in Egypt.

Human rights activist and scholar Paul Marshall, one of the editors of the Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” volume, recently wrote a National Review Online essay about this very subject. Here is a piece of that text filling in some additional details, including rather crucial issue of fact about a monastery involved in this crisis. Read on:

On April 19, 2010, a bipartisan group of 18 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, director of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Office, about reports documenting that Coptic women and girls are increasingly subject to “fraud, physical and sexual violence, captivity, forced marriage and exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion.” They urged the TIP Office to investigate whether this should be covered in the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Islamist extremists responded by accusing the church of imprisoning two Christian women who had converted to Islam. One was Wafaa Constantine, wife of a Coptic priest, who disappeared in 2004 but then returned to the church. The other was Camilia Shehata, also a priest’s wife, who disappeared on July 19, 2010. Copts believed that she was abducted by Muslim extremists, and asked, without success, for the security services to investigate. There were then widespread Coptic demonstrations and, on July 23, security services returned Camilia to her husband.

In early September, rumors were spread, particularly by Sheikh Abu Yehya, that Camilia had converted to Islam and that, to hide this, the church was drugging her and hiding her in a monastery in Ain Shams. (There are no monasteries in that area.) Camilia announced on TV that she had not converted, but radical sheikhs said the person on TV was an imposter. Al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt, denied that she had ever converted to Islam.

And so forth and so on. The role of rumors in Egyptian culture is a huge subject in and of itself. Meanwhile, the wider story continues, by which I mean the persecution of religious minorities of all kinds in the region (including Islamist persecution of other Muslims with whom they disagree).

If you find solid, mainstream reports about these issues please let us know. Share the information, if it’s worth sharing.

PHOTO: The St. Bishoy Monastery in Egypt, posted at EgyptMyWay.com

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Of course, the Coptic “Monophysite” church is NOT “Eastern Orthodox” either, still refusing to accept the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. At St. Mark’s here, you can hear them every Saturday praying for the holy fathers of Nicaea, and the fathers of Constantinople, but NOT the fathers of Chalcedon.

  • James

    One must assume that a journalist on religion knows at least a modicum more about religion than that journalist’s reading public. And a journalist who supposes “rite” is simply “right” misspelled, should probably also understand that his or her public will not realize that simply stating that the Copts are a branch of “the Eastern Orthodox right” will not properly distinguish the Copts from “the Vatican” for many of their readers.

  • Hector

    1) Eastern Orthodoxy isn’t a ‘rite’ (that term refers to different liturgical traditions- Melkite, Latin, Chaldean- of churches in communion with Rome.)

    2) The Coptic Church isn’t ‘Orthodox’ (if that phrase is taken to mean ‘in communion with Constantinople’). They’re in communion with the churches of Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia, and the Jacobite church of India.

    I’m not going to get into whether or not the modern Coptic church is in fact Monophysite (though Daniel Larison has some interesting thoughts on the matter). I definitely respect the way that the various non-Chalcedonian churches have maintained their distinct identity for sixteen centuries surrounded by a Muslim (or Hindu, in the case of the Jacobites) sea. That said, Chalcedon is key to _my_ spirituality. I don’t worship a half-man, half-god demigod like the figures of Greek myth, I believe in the figure who is Two Natures in One Person.

  • Jon in the Nati

    Umm, any chance the article was referring to the Coptic Catholic Church, which is a sui juris church in full communion with the Pope? That would certainly explain the reference to the Vatican.

    To recap: there is the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is ‘Oriental’ (non-Chalecedonian) Orthodox and accounts for the vast majority of Egyptian Christians. There is also the Coptic Catholic Church (about 150k strong) which was created in 1824. Because the Coptic Catholic Church is almost indistinguishable in doctrine and practice from the Coptic Orthodox Church, it is entirely possible that someone who doesn’t know much about the situation might confuse the two.

    Of course, that still doesn’t excuse the phrase “Eastern Orthodox right”.

  • Lynn

    Jon, an article in Time Magazine mentioned that Egyptian protests about the two women singled out Pope Shenouda III.

    Since he is the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, I am guessing that the women are married to priests of that church. On the other hand, the Egyptian protesters may be misinformed. Although, perhaps that possibility is less likely than the Iraqi organization being mistaken.

    Unfortunately, the Time article isn’t precise about which church is involved, simply referring to “the Coptic Church.” Perhaps the reporter was trying to avoid the sort of misstatement which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor?

  • http://augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com/ Irenicum

    Wow. This thread illustrates perfectly how religion reporting can get so complicated so fast.

  • David

    It is difficult to blame writers for a situation where the bad guys may be seriously confused. There is no dispute that their Iraqi faction attacked a sui iuris church in communion with Rome, but the beef of the Egyptian contingent may be with another local church that is part of the same sui iuris Catholic church, or an Oriental Orthodox church that is not Eastern Orthodox because it is not in communion with Constantinople. It seems the bad guys have no particular problem treating us as Jesus prayed we would be just before the Ascension: one. Apparently the blood of any dead Christian is good enough to be an attack on any Christian. Of course we can hardly blame the bad guys for not getting the differences between flavors of Christianity when not 1 in 100 non Muslims could differentiate between sunni, sufi and shiite.

  • bob

    Please, not another article about the vast rite wing conspiracy.

  • Julia

    Most Christians of the West, even apart from journalists, don’t have a clue about the allegiances of the Christians in the East. In fact, until recently, most don’t seem to have known about any Christians in the East who weren’t Orthodox. AND that they have been there since time immemorial.

    As a Catholic, I’m sorry to have to acknowledge my own co-religionists in this group.

    Under those circumstances it’s hard to disparage reporters.

  • Hector

    Re: Most Christians of the West, even apart from journalists, don’t have a clue about the allegiances of the Christians in the East. In fact, until recently, most don’t seem to have known about any Christians in the East who weren’t Orthodox. AND that they have been there since time immemorial.

    Well, there are non-Chalcedonian communities in the US, so we should probably know something about that branch of the faith. Massachusetts and California, for example, have large Armenian-American populations, and the DC area has a large Ethiopian-American community, both of which fall into the ‘non-Chalcedonian Christian’ category. Many, though not all, of the Indian Christians who have immigrated to the United States in the last few decades are also non-Chalcedonian. If you live in the Boston area, for example, you probably drive by an Armenian Apostolic church on occasion, so journalists should be aware what they are.

    I’d be interested, personally, to know what doctrinal differences exist between the Orthodox and the Oriental churches (besides the whole ‘two natures’ question).

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    It seems to me that if we acknowleged that most Americans have no clue about the various Eastern Christian Churches, this makes it all the more neccesary for the news media to get this right.

    It appears that the alleged people being held “captive” are not being held captize. That the alleged offenders are connected with the Coptic Orthodox Church, which is Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) and not Eastern Orthodox. Since Oriental technically means Eastern these two names are in and of themselves technically confusing.

    My best guess is that the group in Iraq either think all Christians follow the Pope, or they hust hate the Pope and figure that they can get more followers with extreme rhetoric.

    The argument that those in the west should be able to differenciate Sunni, Shiite and Sufi Muslims is a misleading way to frame the issue. There are Sunni Sufi, Shiite Sufi, and at least in theory Sufi who are neither. However Sufism is a mystical tradition that can be studied within the framework of either Shiite or Sunni teachings.

    Beyond this, while I know that the break between Sunni and Shiite Muslims relates to the leadership of the body of Islam, and whether it should have gone from Ali to his son Hussein, or as it actually did to the Abbasid dynasty, I am less sure how this differene on political questions from 1200 plus years ago matters in a real religious sense today.

  • http://csmonitor.com/world Ariel

    Thank you for pointing out the mistake in our article. We have now amended that sentence it in a way that we believe makes the sentence accurate. If you detect errors in the future, please feel free to contact us via our contact forms on the website so that we can make corrections quickly.

    Ariel Zirulnick
    The Christian Science Monitor

  • db

    ok, let me get this straight. Christian women are being kidnapped by Islamists in Egypt and forced to convert to Islam, then generally oppressed and mistreated by their captors?

    The Islamist version of the story is that 2 Christian priests’ wives converted to Islam voluntarily, and are now being held against their will in a Coptic church?

    Now, the Islamist Egyptian group has essentially issued a fatwah on all Christians?

    Why is the reaction to this startling, urgent crisis so intellectual here? Lots of quibbling about rite and right and sects. So what???

    It’s about advocacy. What happened to the bipartisan congressional call for an investigation into human trafficking in this case? Who is following up on the story, giving proof of abductions, keeping this atrocity in the public eye?