Praying with the Coptic people

It is very ironic that one of the only mainstream news-media reports I have read about the plight of Coptic believers in Egypt was in the Baltimore Sun and it centered on the insights of people in — wait for it — Baltimore.

So it seems that the Copts are news in Baltimore, but not in Cairo. Go figure.

Yes, I know that all news is local. However, we are talking about a highly symbolic group in the history and life of Egypt — that’s what Muslim reformers were saying only a few weeks ago when they served as “human shields” at the Coptic Christmas rites. Remember that? So where are the sidebars in the daily coverage out of Egypt?

Meanwhile, the Sun report has a few problems, all linked to a lack of understanding of just how ancient the Coptic Orthodox Church (yes, and other branches from those historic roots) really is. Consider one quick detail in the opening of the story:

As they have done for nearly 20 years, members of the close-knit and expanding community of Coptic Christians in Maryland prayed Sunday morning at a church in Savage, the red-brick building thick with incense and echoing with the sound of religious recitations sung in Arabic and English.

On this particular Sunday, as massive protests aimed at unseating President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime gripped Egypt, the congregation at St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church prayed not just for the safety of family members there but also for a resolution to the unrest — one that would put in power a moderate government friendly to religious diversity.

Now, it is possible that the service was in Arabic and English — alone.

However, it’s more likely that the liturgy and the hymns were offered in three of four languages, including Greek and, most symbolically, the truly ancient Coptic language. This is a tongue that is linked directly into the life of Egypt before Islam and, thus, before the common use of Arabic in the land of the pharaohs.

In other words, the Coptic people — when possible — strive to keep alive their own language. It is likely that the Sun reporter heard passages in Coptic and did not know it.

Later in the story, there is this passage:

While they fret from hour to hour about family members’ safety and stay alert for any bit of news from their home country, Copts here also worry about who will eventually take up the reins of power after the dust from the protests settles.

The Christian denomination makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million or so people, and in recent years their churches have been the targets of suicide bombers and gunmen — attacks the minority group sees as attempts by extremists to make Egypt a universally Islamic state.

A “denomination”?

Now wait a minute. This is something like saying that the Catholic Church is a “denomination” and that the pope of Rome is the leader of another mere “denomination.” Instead, it must be stressed that this is a truly ancient “church” and that no other term can accurately be fixed to it. It’s another subtle sign of not knowing the true significance of the Coptic people.

Toward the end of the piece, this report does offer a glimpse behind the scenes in Egypt, through the eyes of family members here in Maryland. I am sure that there are similar stories in newspapers elsewhere.

“They say it’s horrible there, a mess everywhere,” said George Mekhail, a Columbia resident with family in Cairo, Egypt’s capital city and the site of the largest and most violent demonstrations against Mubarak’s government. “The men are coming out to protect” their neighborhoods against looters who are taking advantage of the chaos in the country, Mekhail said. …

Their families, they said, have largely barricaded themselves in their homes, with doormen staying on guard around the clock inside apartment buildings. Mona Gobrial, whose husband, the Rev. Guirguis Gobrial, has served as the Savage congregation’s priest since 1995, said Saturday was the first time since the large-scale protests began on Jan. 25 that her sisters in Cairo could go out to get food for their families.

“Nobody’s sleeping,” she said. “They don’t know how it went from peaceful to that chaotic.”

The Copts in Maryland are fasting and praying — for Egypt and for their loved ones. I cannot imagine that this is not happening in Cairo and across Egypt. Prayers and gunshots often go together.

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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.

  • Melissa

    Do the Copts trace their lineage back to one of Christ’s disciples? Which one?

  • tmatt

    Yes, St. Mark.

    See lots of info in this search.

  • Matt

    I think the use of “denomination” rather than “church” traces to the largely Protestant readership in the U.S. The use of “church” to refer to a particular group of Christians, rather than either a single congregation or all Christians worldwide, sounds strange to Protestants, even though it is the preferred usage of Catholics and Orthodox. I’m sorry, but yes, many Protestants do consider the Catholic Church to be a denomination.

    Finally, I thought you were going to flag this:

    As they have done for nearly 20 years…

    That number is missing a couple zeros, no?

  • Marie

    I think the use of denomination, rather than minimizing the history of the Copts, seeks to recognize it. The dictionary calls a denomination “A recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church” it then goes on to recognize other definitions not relevant in this context. The truth is the average American knows very little about the Copts. The first article I read about the situation in Egypt made it sound like a single congregation. I thought they were Roman Catholic or perhaps Eastern Orthodox. Something along the lines of an Egyptian diocese of one of these “denominations.” It took further articles, including those here, to bring forward the fact that while perhaps in communion with Rome, I am still a little fuzzy on that concept, they are an independent branch. The use of the word “denomination ” in this article makes that very clear. Perhaps calling them an “ancient denomination” would have given more recognition to their history. The term “church” does not carry the same weight of autonomy that “denomination” does.
    I agree that a reporter should use the terms preferred by various groups, but there is also an obligation to provide clarity to the audience. Think of the “Female Catholic Priest” stories that fail to mention that the women are not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church or any Orthodox Church that the public usually associates with the name Catholic. Or perhaps the “Mormon Polygamist” stories that don’t mention that the people involved are not connected with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the group most people recognize as the Mormons. This is an example of the same situation, only in reverse. Rather than sticking to the usage preferred by the unit highlighted at the expense of clarity, this reporter deviated from the preference in the interest of clarity.

  • David Palmer

    Excellent post to highlight the plight of the Copts in Egypt.

    The Barnabas Fund is an excellent source of news and prayer points for the persecuted church as well as a vehicle for targetted aid.

    In Australia we (I’m Presbyterian and thoroughly confessional in the Reformed sense, Calvin and all the rest of it) have very warm relationship with Copts, mainly at leadership level, Antiochian Orthodox, Serbian, Syrian, Russian, the only group that stands apart are the Greek Orthodox.

    Contra the Catholics, the Orthodox allow their priest to marry (very good!), have no magisterium – all doctrine back to Bible and early church fathers and no further messing around (good), lots of scripture in the divine liturgy (very good).

    I love all my Orthodox friends and enjoy praying with them.

  • Chip

    The Wall Street Journal has the story of the Copts and the protests.

  • JWB

    Here’s a story from today’s edition of my local suburban paper with the “reactions of area Egyptian-Americans” angle, where the reporting consisted primarily of going to two local Coptic parishes (with nice bonus picture of priests in front of the iconostasis or whatever the Coptic name for that might be). Not sure if there just aren’t many Muslim Egyptian-Americans in the area or if they’re mixed in with the larger Arab/Muslim community so that they would take more effort to find.

  • Julia

    “A recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church”

    That’s a Protestant dictionary you are using.

    Neither Catholics nor the Orthodox recognize the Christian Church as used in the cited definition. That’s a Protestant concept.

    It would be interesting to know when the word was first used, it’s first use in a sentence and who coined it. Anybody have access to the OED?

  • Julia

    Very cool to hear the Coptic language -it must be similar to how the Pharaohs spoke.