The Coptic ghost in those potential flights from Egypt

Let’s start with a few journalistic questions.

Am I surprised that The New York Times has published a story on the possibility that freethinking Egyptians are beginning to flee their troubled nation or, at the very least, to debate whether it is time to do?

No. That’s a perfectly valid news story.

Am I surprised that the team at the world’s most influential newspaper elected to focus this story on political activists, intellectuals, urbanites and artists who fit into the progressive and rather secular mold so popular with journalists from the international press who are based in Cairo?

No. While this is a small percentage of the Egyptian population, this is an essential element in a story on this topic — in large part because of the leadership roles these people played in the secular wing of the Arab spring.

All that said, am I surprised that this timely Times story contains absolutely zero references to a large and imperiled minority in Egypt — 10 percent of the population — that, in the face of deadly violence, is facing a rising tide of questions about its survival after centuries of persecution?

(Cue: Audible sigh.)

Yes, I was surprised that they story does not contain a single reference to the plight of the Coptic Orthodox Christians, along with other members of abused religious minorities in Egypt. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was. (A potential follow-up story: Are Coptic leaders in North America preparing to help their sisters and brothers flee the old country?)

Here is a key chunk of this Times report, which includes a reference to dissident publisher Mohamed Hashem. Try to imagine taking on this topic and, after months of mob violence, not thinking about including the Copts.

Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life.

Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.

Others lamented Egypt’s narrowing political horizons and what seemed like the growing likelihood that a military officer will become Egypt’s next leader. Some people said they were shocked at how cavalier their friends and neighbors had become about the rising level of bloodshed. And for everyone, there was still no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life, the traffic, the rising prices, the multiplying mounds of trash in the streets.

There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.

Please understand. The potential exiles included in this report are interesting and their stories are poignant. They are valid sources.

But is there more to this story than a potential “brain drain” of poets, graphic artists and Internet-economy pioneers?

As GetReligion readers meditate on that question, it may help to ponder the top of this breaking USA Today story from Cairo. Tragically, a story of this kind can be written in Egypt every few days, if not more often.

CAIRO – Thousands of Christians turned out for the funerals of four members of a family gunned down as they waited outside a Coptic church for a wedding, in what the Christians said was the latest murder by Muslim terrorists.

Fahmy Azer Abboud, 75, sat … in the Church of the Virgin Mary, where gunmen the night before fired on a family wedding party with automatic weapons. His son, his wife’s sister and two granddaughters, ages 8 and 12, were killed.

“They were pure angels,” he said of his granddaughters, both named Mariam. “They had the world’s kindness inside them. They helped me and shared with me everything they had.”

The shooting has worsened the panic among Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians, who have been discriminated against for centuries by the Muslim majority. The Christians say things got worse under the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that was ousted from the government in July by the Egyptian military.

The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of Christianity’s earliest branches and it predates the creation of the Muslim faith by centuries.

“Panic” is a strong word, but appropriate in this case. And what happens when millions of oppressed people start to panic? Might they begin to think about fleeing?

The team at USA Today did not ask that question. But this story does end with language that shows the severity of the current situation.

Since August’s crackdown, Amnesty International says more than 40 churches have been seriously damaged, putting blame on security forces for failing to stop what it called “revenge attacks.”

Coptic leaders say the attacks are the worst in centuries.

“In the last few months, we’ve seen many more demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood outside the Church,” said Father Bishay Lofty, a priest.

While the current military leaders of Egypt have jailed many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Lofty says the government is doing little to protect Coptics.

“Only God can protect us, not the government.”

Stay tuned. I wonder if the U.S. State Department has reached a decision on whether Coptic believers fleeing Egypt will be treated as refugees of religious persecution.

IMAGE: A Coptic icon of the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt.

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.

  • helen

    The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service will be figuring out how to import more Muslims before it will think of helping the Christians who are being killed by them. Case in point: Somali’s settled in Minneapolis, whose children and grandchildren went back to Africa…to kill Christians!

    • tmatt

      What is your comment on the journalism in this post, the actual subject at hand?

  • RayIngles

    the possibility that freethinking Egyptians are beginning to flee their troubled nation

    In what sense was that adjective intended?


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