“Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant media have for years been drawing public attention to the persecution of Christians in many countries,” says the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger. “Secular media have been less attentive; some have ascribed this to an anti-Christian bias; I rather doubt this—more likely it comes from the fact that many otherwise well-informed journalists are less informed on religious matters.”
Berger is probably right — which is cause for optimism. The condition of being “less informed on religious matters” is not only much easier to fix than anti-religious bias, it is often self-correcting. In my experience, when it’s pointed out to journalists that they are missing a “big story” they are quick to correct their oversight. Sometimes they have to be browbeaten into doing their jobs (e.g., Gosnell), but usually their natural curiosity about the world is enough to provoke them into seeking out what they’ve missed.
A prime example of this type of media self-correction can be found in recent articles about the Middle East. Many mainstream outlets that had previously missed or underplayed the persecution angle have, within the past few weeks, done a commendable job of reporting on the plight of Christians in Egypt. For example, the AP had a particularly good story yesterday titled, “Egypt’s Coup Puts Fearful Christians in a Corner.”
Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. “They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi’s name in our faces,” he said.
A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. They froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.
Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.
Nile-side Assiut, a city of one million people 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Cairo, dates back to the pharaohs. The New Testament says Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus passed through as they fled the infanticidal King Herod. Today, its Christian fears are compounded by the failure of authorities to curb the graffiti-spraying and the Islamists’ demonstrations, which have gone on almost nightly since the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi.
Did Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus pass through Assiut? Maybe, but the New Testament certainly doesn’t make that claim. The book of Matthew simply says Joseph “took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.” (Matt. 2:14)
It’s possible that such a story is part of Egyptian legend or found one of the apocryphal writings that are recognized by some Christian traditions. But those sources can’t be claimed as being in the “New Testament.” The AP’s own stylebook even lists which books are included in the Bible, so a reference to a non-canonical source should have been duly noted in the article.
By now you’d think reporters and their editors would learn not to rely on their own knowledge about Jewish and Christian scriputres. Fact-checking a claim about the the Bible should be rather easy since the books are widely available and accessible online. There’s even an app for that.
Nevertheless, while the Jesus-in-Assiut gaffe is distracting, it shouldn’t prevent you from reading the otherwise excellent article. We need more of such accurate reporting on persecution, even if it does come with some not-quite-so-accurate claims about the Bible.