Where are the Copts in this? (updated)

It goes without saying that — as an Eastern Orthodox Christian — I have been trying to keep up with the news coverage of the rapidly unfolding events in Egypt.

I fear, I think, what many people fear — a three-way conflict, in Cairo and the rest of the country, between (a) the current government of President Hosni Mubarak, (b) the surging tide of “reformers,” vaguely defined (can it be said they are those who seek to defend human rights, period?) and (c) the well organized ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood loyalists.

But there is a problem. To be blunt about it, what is happening with the 10 percent of Egypt that is part of the ancient Coptic Church, the church that has suffered so much in recent weeks and months and for ages and ages before that? Is there some chance that various camps of Islamists could find unity in opposition to a common enemy? Yes, I am well aware that many Muslims in Egypt understand the importance of the Copts to their land and want to protect them, at least in some kind of subservient cultural niche.

If you do a search in Google News, you find once again that most of the articles about the dangers facing the Copts are in “conservative” or even “Christian” media. Click here for an example from the Daily Caller.

But the article that disturbed me the most was the New York Times think piece that ran under the headline, “Egyptians’ Fury Has Smoldered Beneath the Surface for Decades.” How can one deal with the violence and the tensions in Egypt over recent decades without mentioning the plight of the Coptic Church?

Instead, here is a typical chunk of this article:

The litany of complaints against Mr. Mubarak is well known to anyone who has spent time in any coffee shop or on any corner chatting in any city in Egypt. The police are brutal. Elections are rigged. Corruption is rampant. Life gets harder for the masses as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. Even as Egypt’s economy enjoyed record growth in recent years, the number of people living in poverty actually grew. …

That is Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt, a place where about half the population lives on $2 a day or less, and walled compounds spring up outside cities with green lawns and swimming pools and names like Swan Lake. It is a place where those with money have built a parallel world of private schools and exclusive clubs, leaving the rundown cities to the poor.

“The whole system is seen as being his fault,” said Anne Mariel Peters, an assistant professor at Wesleyan University, who closely follows events in Egypt. “People do believe that Mubarak is the absolute dictator.”

But would things be worse for religious minorities and others if the force at the top fell (think about current conditions in Iraq)? Who would step into the void?

Once again, read the Times article and try to find even the slightest hint that the large Coptic minority even exists. Did I miss a separate article on this angle of the conflicts?

Meanwhile, consider this option for what lies ahead, published at the website of The New Republic. The headline fits the events of Friday, when the wider waves of protests began right after the Friday morning prayers in mosques across the city: “The first round of Egyptian protests was liberal. The second will be Islamist“. Here’s a key passage that rings true to me:

The actual involvement of Islamists … make the regime’s case more convincing to international and domestic audiences that fear Egypt becoming “another Iran.” Islamist groups seem to be aware of this. While expressing their support for the protests, they have insisted that their followers will be participating as citizens, rather than as members of specific Islamist organizations. “Muslim Brothers are among the people,” said Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi. “They will move with others to the mosque and make demonstrations with the others.”

Whatever happens, the linkage of prayer and protest — and the fact that the protests will originate from such a wide variety of locations — promises to make this the most consequential day of the current standoff. And if the regime prevents people from praying or interferes too overtly in their day of worship, the gloves will surely be off.

As a Muslim scholar once told me: When dramatic events unfold in a Muslim culture, Allah will always have the right to vote.

That’s true, but which body of Muslims will carry the day in Egypt? As you follow the drama, please help me watch for coverage of the Copts, Catholics, Protestants and other religious minorities, including Muslims who have backed reforms to protect minorities.

UPDATE: This Times sidebar this morning (“Egyptians Wonder What’s Next”) takes the same approach as yesterday’s story, with the same missing elements. However, the newspaper’s main story offers this quote that is ominous, to say the least.

… (Among) more affluent Egyptians, some said the country needed stability more than upheaval. After night when men took to the streets armed with broom sticks and kitchen knives to defend their home against looters in Heliopolis, one resident, Sarah Elyashy, 33, said: “It has been the longest night of my life.”

“I wish we could be like the United States with our own democracy, but we can’t,” she said. “We have to have a ruler with an iron hand.”

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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://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    And what have the Copts been saying and doing? Have they been taking part in the protests? Have Coptic leaders made any statements about it? Or are they just hunkering down and waiting for it to pass?

  • http://blog.echurchwebsites.org.uk/ Stuart

    @Steve They have begun joining in the protests against the wishes of their leaders:

    Christian Copts join Egptian protests against Mubarak

  • Barb

    Their are Copts living in Canada, whom I had the privilege of interviewing. Their’s has always been the challenge to survive, living in Moslem countries. Not an easy existence. They had always to walk on egg shells and be quite careful, even if they were members of professional classes , like dentists. It’s not easy here either, but for different reasons. They are usually in the minority in middle east countries and they can work etc but are not part of the ruling class, or culture , or religion.

  • Harold

    I guess I’m wondering about a different journalism question: why does the Copts story deserve coverage? As the chaos continues in the country and a government possibly teetering on collapse, why is the story of religious minorities something that needs to find its way into the first-day stories of the crisis. I understand why it’s important to the conservative and Christian media, but is it really a larger mainstream story at this point?

  • greggo

    Harold
    Minority religions reflect the society’s ability to accept others. The USA has thousands of little tiny religious bodies with only a few adherents but these add up to millions of people. There will continue to be unrest in Egypt until multiple points of view are allowed. Religion is just one area

  • Harold

    But minority religious rights aren’t what the current unrest is about. Mubarek isn’t viewed as tyrannical because of the Copts, he’s considered tyrannical because, well, he’s tyrannical. So at this moment in the story, why is the Copts question really important for readers who don’t already have an affinity for the Copts story?

  • Barb

    Ok Harold, is the rising opposition leader less tyrannical? Show me why I should accept that he is a better choice. Aside from more demonstrators at the moment.

  • Passing By

    Were it not for the New Year’s attack in Alexandria, I would agree with Harold. It’s natural to wonder, however, about links between that violence and the current violence.

  • fr john w fenton

    Harold,

    I think one journalistic reason why the Copt question, in particular, should be part of the story is because, until the past few days, the only front-page news out of Egypt had to do with attacks on Coptic Christians; for example, the bombing which occurred less than one month ago at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The protest began as a call for democratic reform and an emphasis on economic justice and human rights.

    The coalition included the kinds of changes requested by the US, the Copts and others (including, of course, Muslims who lean toward the west).

    How a nation treats its minorities — especially one that is 10 percent of the population and whose existence there predates Islam — is a symbolic issue. I’ll admit that. It’s also one that would concern millions of American readers.

    Interesting, now it is conservative and Christian to be concerned about essential human rights.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The strongest point –journalistically speaking–for covering the situation of the Copts in Egypt is this that t.matt wrote: “It’s also one that would concern millions of American readers.” After all, something like70-80% of Americans are one sort of Christian or another. And the media certainly spends a lot of time and ink on the trials and tribulations world-wide of many very much smaller groups or fractions thereof.
    It makes you wonder if the media is still in the business of trying to “sell newspapers.”

  • MJBubba

    The reason the media should be monitoring the Copts is that they are vulnerable and there is a precedent. When strongman Saddam Hussein of Iraq was toppled, Muslim extremists used the cover of uncertainty and chaos to attack the Christians, killing many and driving a majority of Iraqi Christians out; there are now three times as many Christian refugees living outside Iraq as the number of Christians that remain. With the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not too difficult to predict horrors if Egypt experiences a period of chaos and uncertainty.

  • Julia

    One thing needs to be clarified.

    Copts are a group of people.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copts

    The Christians among them are of three types: Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants. The vast majority are Oriental Orthodox which are not part of the group associated with the Patriarch of Constantinople. There are 100 or so parishes of Catholic Copts. I don’t know anything about the Protestants.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coptic_Catholic_Church

  • Passing By

    There is also a Calcedonian Church of Alexandria in Communion with Constantinople. From the Wiki article:

    The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, also known as the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa (Greek: ???????????? ???????????? ??? ????? ???????, Patriarcheîon Alexandreías kaì pás?s Aphrikês) is an autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church within the wider communion of Orthodox Christianity. Officially, it is called the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria to distinguish it from the non-Chalcedonian Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. Members of the church were once known as Melkites, because they remained in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople after the schism that followed the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

  • Lazarus

    I hate to say this, however, Democracy in a Muslim country will never work! If the Muslim Brotherhood get into power, realize a Christian genocide will occur, war against Israel will be declared, 8% of all world trade will be affected, Gasoline prices will spike to record highs, and an eventual World War would erupt.

    As a Copt, we suffered so much under Mubarak, I have had several family members killed, wounded, beaten and persecuted, however, I believe is the least of the evils, and would gladly keep him over any person that truly follows the Koran.

  • Julia

    Passing By:

    There are also Melkite Greek Catholics, with a patriarchate in Alexandria which is currently vacant.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melkite_Greek_Catholic_Church

  • Lazarus

    Harold,

    I respect your comments however I will tell you why reporting about the Copts is relevant to what is going on in Egypt now.

    First off the Copts are the indigenous people of Egypt, which currently make up between 10-15% of the population. We are not just talking about religion here but the original people of Egypt, that alone should have some significance.

    With the threat of an Islamic regime taking over, the number one easy target are the non-Muslims in the country. See what is happening in Sudan, Iraq, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Somalia, etc. The list can go and and on. There is a pattern. Where there are Muslims who follow the Koran there will be bloodshed of anyone who isn’t Muslim. Simple as that.

    It was bad enough under Mubarak, churches could not be built, anyone who killed a Christian would face years of freedom as the case gets delayed and usually the accused is eventually labeled as “insane and unfit for trial” so they are let go. On top of all that, there are hundreds of bombings and attacks on Christian Churches.

    One must also speak of the kidnappings, rapes and forced marriages of thousands and thousands of innocent Christian girls, who are forced to decide whether to accept Islam and marriage to Muslim men much older than them never seeing their families again or to die.

    Then you have the run of the mill stuff that happens daily like calling of ethnic slurs, being spat upon and beatings a Christian can get just for walking the street.

    Can’t forget, if you are a Christian, forget trying to apply to a position while thinking you will be treated with equal dignity to any Muslim in the same workplace. Realize you will not get as much pay, you will be always considered less, and if anything goes wrong, guess who gets the blame?

    For Christian students, some teachers get a kick out of failing anyone not named Mohammed, Ahmad, etc. It’s odd, that no matter how bright some Christian students are, there’s always that one teacher that they can’t get past, and it is usually a teacher that has much clout and can decide whether a person can finish High School with honors or not even passing at all.

    Ten to 15% is a lot of people, just about the percentage of African Americans in the United States. Imagine if the KKK has a legitimate chance of running the U.S. Can you imagine some of the laws that would be in place and who exactly would have bulls-eye on their chest? Well this is a real possibility in Egypt for us that is already going on throughout the rest of the Islamic world!


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