Who are those Coptic people anyway?

I don’t know about you, but the following paragraph from an Atlantic Monthly blog post by White House correspondent Marc Ambinder left me amazed, confused and then ticked off:

A number of White House officials were given an Encyclopedia Britannica-like briefing about the basics: how many U.S. citizens were inside the country and contingency plans to get them out; reminders that Egypt wasn’t a Muslim country; Hosni Mubarak was a Coptic Christian of a certain sect; the Muslim Brotherhood was at once an opposition political party and a co-opted part of the social system. …

Mubarak is a WHAT?!?!?!

Needless to say, Atlantic has printed a correction on that howler.

Oh, and needless to say, the embattled leader of Egypt is not a Coptic Christian of any kind. Thus, the essay now ends with this statement:

Correction: An early version of this story wrongly implied that the President’s foreign policy team thought Hosni Mubarak was a Coptic Christian.

That’s kind of comforting. However, it doesn’t tell us WHO made the mistake. In other words, who thought that Mubarak is a Copt? Was that twisted information from the State Department? Or was it Ambinder and/or someone at the copy desk of one of America’s most prestigious magazines (online or analog)?

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind (but thanks to human-rights scholar Paul Marshall for posting the original language from the article).

Right now, most of the mainstream coverage of the crisis in Egypt still has a Coptic-shaped hole in it, a hole that a few million news-media consumers might care about here in the United States of America (and there are plenty of Christians and human-rights activists in other parts of the world as well).

Let me stress: Yes, I know that Copts are only — only — somewhere between 8 and 12 percent of the Egyptian population and that there are significant other minorities there who also deserve coverage. I know that Islamists attack other Muslims as much as they attack “infidels” and “crusaders.” However, the Copts have long been the canary in the coalmine of human rights in Egypt. When things go crazy and the majority is tempted to lash out at the pesky minorities, the Copts are among the first people hit.

With that in mind, Marshall (who posts crisp reports at National Review Online) has just posted a link to a disturbing report from the Assyrian International News Agency. Here is the top of the story:

News of a massacre of two Christian Coptic families by Islamists just emerged from Upper Egypt with the return of the Internet connections after a week of Internet blackout by the Egyptian regime. The massacre took place on Sunday, January 30 at 3 PM in the village of Sharona near Maghagha, Minya province. Two Islamists groups, aided by the Muslim neighbors, descended on the roof of houses owned by Copts, killing eleven Copts, including children, and seriously injuring four others.

Anba Agathon, Bishop of Maghagha, told Coptic activist Dr. Mona Roman in a televised interview on Al-Karma TV that the killers are their neighbors, who seized the opportunity of the mayhem prevailing in Egypt and the absence of police protection to slaughter the Copts.

Note that the attack was not, it appears, directly linked to the current political upheaval. This reported attack appears to have taken place as police were occupied in the chaos.

In other words, attacks on Copts are semi-normal. Police protection is minimal. This was true under Mubarak and the future could be worse, under some form of pure majority rule. Thus, Reuters is reporting that Coptic leaders are debating precisely what to do.

Support the old? Gamble on the new? Here’s the lede:

(Reuters) – For Rafik, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, the myth that President Hosni Mubarak is the community’s best defense against Islamist militants was shattered by an Alexandria church bombing on New Year’s Day.

He and other Copts continued to demonstrate alongside at least 1 million Egyptians on Tuesday, saying their desire to end Mubarak’s three-decade rule was for now more pressing than any fears that a change of power might empower Islamist groups.

“After (the Alexandria) bombing the Copts for the first time started to demonstrate against Mubarak. He was telling us that ‘When I’m in power, you’re safe.’ Well, obviously, when he’s in power, we’re not safe,” the 33-year-old dentist said as he stood amid thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Mubarak, whose government battled a violent Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, has sold himself to Western allies as their safest bet against militancy. … The 82-year-old leader has sought to portray himself as defender of Egypt’s Copts, some 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people. Critics say that has included co-opting the centuries-old church to lend legitimacy to his rule.

Meanwhile, Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post is reporting that Coptic leaders, and their supporters, may be staying silent for a reason.

Some major U.S. Christian figures, including well-known evangelical leaders and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined to publicly discuss the situation in Egypt, saying they wanted to avoid bringing dangerous attention to the country’s Christians by appearing to complain or to advocate for some particular political outcome.

Their trepidation stems from repeated attacks on churches in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled in recent years, and from the New Year’s Day bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt that killed almost two dozen worshipers and wounded nearly 100. The Coptic church is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and is based in Egypt.

That is an excellent, it subtle, point. It appears that Coptic leaders are trapped between fear and hope. What is the safest public strategy? It’s too early to know if there even is one.

That’s a story that demands coverage — careful, but accurate, coverage. Here’s hoping that folks in the White House, the State Department and most of our nation’s elite newsrooms know what’s going on and have their facts straight.

PHOTO: Two of President Hosni Mubarak’s sons were among the Muslims who served as “human shields” by taking part in recent Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve services.

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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.

  • Salaam Yitbarek

    I haven’t so far seen any deep and honest coverage of the basic question for Americans: whether propping up such repressive regimes keeps the non-democratic Islamists at bay or keeps on increasing their support, to the extent that one day they will no longer remain at bay.

    I believe the trends show that the latter is true, and that supporting such regimes ends up becoming like an ever-worsening drug addiction. It appears that the consequence of withdrawal will get worse and worse, so keep taking the drug. In the end, something’s got to give.

    The better option would be to do no harm and stop such support.

  • george

    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!

  • http://www.religital.com wandrew

    There’s sometimes more to it than just “Coptic Christian”, as well. I assumed my Coptic Arabic tutor was Orthodox when he said he was Christian, but he was actually a Presbyterian minister.

  • kristy

    Yes, the Coptic Evangelicals (many of Presbyterian roots) are also doing a balancing act, I’m sure. There is an even stronger connection with ‘The West’ in that tradition, since it does come from the Protestant mission work of 100 to 140 years ago. They are an even smaller ‘minority of a minority’, but I would like to hear more about those other small but important Christian groups if the information is available.

    Unfortunately, The slaying of a Coptic family by their Muslim neighbors in upper(Southern)Egypt has a dismayingly familiar ring to it. It is something that has been happening for dozens if not hundreds of years.

  • Julia

    Just finished a book From the Holy Mountain; A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East by William Dalrymple; 1997 Harper Collins.

    The last chapter or so deals with the Copts of Egypt. Among other things that I didn’t know, the Ottoman Hamayonic Laws are still in effect in Egypt. If a Christian group wishes to build or even repair a church, it requires a special decree from the President, Mubarak.

    There’s a thousand-plus-year history of the Christians of Egypt getting the short end of the stick and nothing happens to the Muslim perpetrators.

    The writer started at Mt Athos and made his way around the Levant visiting what’s left of the Christian communities that used to be the majority before the Islamic invasions.
    The writer was inspired by the book, The Spiritual Meadow, about a similar journey made by two Orthodox monks in the years just before Islam took over the region. It tells a really fascinating and complex story.

    Highly recommended to get an understanding of the back story of the last of the Orthodox in Turkey, the Maronites in Lebanon, the Christian Armenians, Assyrians, Syrians, Palestinians, Copts, etc. etc.


  • Julia

    A story about another murderous attack on Copts at the end of January that didn’t make the MSM coverage:


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Another excellent book about the plight of Christians in the Middle East today–especially in the Holy Land– is “The Body And The Blood” by Charles M. Sennott. It makes one wonder why the American media never refers to what is being done to Christians—mostly the native peoples of the Middle East– as “ethnic cleansing.”

  • Chip

    Terry et alia,

    In all the discussion about the Egyptian Coptic Church a major ghost is what is that church and how does it fit into the array of churches most of us know.

    The Coptic Churches in this country self identify as the Coptic Orthodox Church, but as this succinct explanation from one parish’s web site the term orthodox does not mean the same as the term means in the names of the various Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Antiochian, Russian, etc.) Churches.

    For the Copts orthodox means not accepting the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon which the Greek and Latin churches (and their various descendants) accept.

    No one is making this distinction in anything I have read about the Coptic Church.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I agree. Only once or twice have I seen mention in the media of the distinction Chip makes.
    However, virtually every Christian Church recognizes their baptism so they are our brothers and sisters in Christ deserving our interest and support.
    Also, many historians argue that at heart the Coptic Church and the other orthodox churches, East and West, have the same Faith though there is dispute over the creedal wording. And much of that dispute was caused more by ethnic friction between native Egyptian Copts and Greek Byzantines.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald


    “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.”

    Point of fact, the Egyptian Muslims are the indigenous people of Egypt, too. Certainly they’re descended from Coptic converts to Christianity, after all!