Yet another bloody puzzle in Egypt

Please let me make a few things clear before we look at a short, but very disturbing, Associated Press report out of Egypt.

First of all, it is clear that conditions in Egypt vary greatly from location to location. There continue to be positive signs of cooperation between various factions in negotiations in Cairo (although reports are mixed on that, too). Meanwhile, there are hot spots in other parts of the country.

Second, journalists face a special handicap right now — in the current state of confusion in the military and among police — because there is no safe, supposedly neutral, source to turn to for facts during violent conflicts. A report that merely quotes the authorities is, in effect, a biased report. The authorities are, in many parts of Egypt, almost certainly part of the conditions causing the conflicts.

Third, this means that when covering conflicts between the religious majority and various religious minorities, journalists simply have to quote multiple sources and then note the contrasts in the resulting information.

Now, with all of those journalistic factors in mind, let’s look at the following short AP report (which was sent to me by several readers and another GetReligionista, as well):

CAIRO (AP) – Egyptian security officials say Christian and Muslim families have clashed south of Cairo in a dispute over a romance between children from the two families. The fathers from both families have been killed and a crowd of Muslims has torched a church.

Mixed relationships are taboo in Egypt, where the Muslim majority and sizable Christian minority are both largely conservative. Such relationships are often the source of deadly clashes between the faiths. Christians also complain that they face discrimination.

Officials say a crowd of Muslims encircled the church in Soul on Saturday and set the building on fire after police and soldiers took those inside to safety. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

This is a pretty typical report from Egypt, at the moment. The point in this story is that there was a conflict between Muslims and Coptic Christians, a conflict sparked by tensions on both sides about an interfaith romance.

Both fathers died, as a result.

What does that fact imply? Well, it implies that the Muslims killed the Christian father and the Christians killed the Muslim father. In the midst of that bloodshed, Muslims burned the church in Soul.

However, there are other reports on these events that do not settle for quoting local officials. Some of these reports from Coptic sources say that the priest and other clergy are missing.

If most of the information in these reports is accurate, it also seems that the AP report failed to ask some crucial questions about the nature of this interfaith conflict. It appears that there were three groups of people in this drama — two groups of Muslims and then the Coptic Christians.

Here is the crucial question: Who killed each of the fathers?

Dig into this Google News search and, once again, you get into a puzzle of sources. It appears that the majority-voice authorities are working from one set of facts, or a set of facts with some interesting gaps, while the minority voices are reporting additional information from ground level. This creates another set of facts.

Consider this passage about this bloody puzzle drawn from an Assyrian International News Agency report:

This incident was triggered by a relationship between 40-year-old Copt Ashraf Iskander and a Muslim woman. Yesterday a “reconciliation” meeting was arranged between the relevant Coptic and Muslim families and together with the Muslim elders it was decided that Ashraf Iskander would have to leave the village because Muslims torched his house.

The father of the Muslim woman was killed by his cousin because he did not kill his daughter to preserve the family’s honor, which led the woman’s brother to avenge the death of his father by killing the cousin. The village Muslims blamed the Christians.

The Muslim mob attacked the church, exploding 5-6 gas cylinders inside the church, pulled down the cross and the domes and burnt everything inside. … Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub reported the mob has broken into Coptic homes and has called on Copts to leave the village. “Terrorized Copts have fled and some hid in homes of Muslim neighbors,” he added.

There is quite a bit of detail there. In particular, I find it interesting and totally believable that while some Muslims were attacking the church, others were helping to hide the Coptic believers who were said to be on the run from the mob.

This is, of course, a story drawn primarily from Coptic sources. It says that right in the text.

The point that I am trying to make is that the AP report is drawn only from official, majority-voice sources and, in Egypt right now, that tells us almost nothing about the quality of the information. This is a journalistic problem. It is a problem of balance. The story, I believe, should be drawing from sources on both sides of this fatal conflict. Journalistic problems demand journalistic solutions.

However, let’s start with a basic question about a pivotal fact in this report: Who killed the Muslim father? Who killed the Christian father (if, in fact, that happened)?

The AP story contains a gaping hole where it needs two crucial facts. Otherwise, it should openly say that its information is incomplete.

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Got news? Coptic monasteries under attack

As I have stated before, human-rights activists have long viewed the safety of Egypt’s ancient Coptic churches as a highly symbolic issue — the canary in the coal mine that is that complex land.

This is especially important right now, as the fragile coalition that currently leads Egypt tries to find its way along the tricky road from what was to what is and on to what will be. Many people are overjoyed and elated. Others are being cautious and quiet — with good cause.

However, I think anyone who knows anything about Egypt would have to say that journalists should be keeping their eyes on the actions of the military.

After all, the army is in charge right now.

With that fact in mind, the following Assyrian International News Agency report is troubling, to say the least:

For the second time in as many days, Egyptian armed force stormed the 5th century old St. Bishoy monastery in Wadi el-Natroun, 110 kilometers from Cairo. Live ammunition was fired, wounding two monks and six Coptic monastery workers. Several sources confirmed the army’s use of RPG ammunition. Four people have been arrested including three monks and a Coptic lawyer who was at the monastery investigating yesterday’s army attack.

Monk Aksios Ava Bishoy told activist Nader Shoukry of Freecopts the armed forces stormed the main entrance gate to the monastery in the morning using five tanks, armored vehicles and a bulldozer to demolish the fence built by the monastery last month to protect themselves and the monastery from the lawlessness which prevailed in Egypt during the January 25 Uprising.

“When we tried to address them, the army fired live bullets, wounding Father Feltaows in the leg and Father Barnabas in the abdomen,” said Monk Ava Bishoy. “Six Coptic workers in the monastery were also injured, some with serious injuries to the chest.” …

Father Hemanot Ava Bishoy said the army fired live ammunition and RPGs continuously for 30 minutes, which hit part of the ancient fence inside the monastery. “The army was shocked to see the monks standing there praying ‘Lord have mercy’ without running away. This is what really upset them,” he said. “As the soldiers were demolishing the gate and the fence they were chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘Victory, Victory’.”

These are inflammatory and disturbing images, to say the least. The story includes similar reports from other monasteries, including more injuries from live ammunition and monks being beaten with batons by soldiers.

It is crucial, at this stage, to realize that there have been high-profile demonstrations in recent weeks in which many Muslims and Copts have stood together in calling for reform and for peace and cooperation between the vast majority of the nation that is Muslim and the 10 percent of the population that is Coptic, as well as members of Egypt’s other minority religions.

As always, however, it’s crucial to remember that there is no one Islam in this scene, including in the leadership of the nation’s army. That is a fact that is worthy of news coverage. Period.

One would hope that mainstream journalists would realize the intense symbolism of Egyptian soldiers attacking ancient monasteries that contain some of the land’s most treasured Christian icons, altars, relics and texts. Live ammunition used on monks who have attempted to guard the perimeter of their sanctuary? If there is another side to this report — and their might well be — journalists need to find it.

But here is the key: Let me know if you see a single mainstream news report that follows up on these attacks. Got news?

Alas, once again, these attacks seem to be material worthy of “Christian” or even “conservative” news, while mainstream journalists have not tuned in the reports. Here is a typical Google News search. Search around.

Well, there is this Associated Press report:

The deputy to Osama bin Laden issued al-Qaida’s second message since the Egyptian uprising, accusing the nation’s Christian leadership of inciting interfaith tensions and denying that the terror network was behind last month’s bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that killed 21 and sparked protests.

The message Friday from Ayman al-Zawahri, the No. 2 leader of the terror network, comes amid renewed Muslim-Christian tension over the slaying of a Coptic priest and a dispute involving a monastery.

As with his first message, delivered Feb. 18, al-Zawahri in his new, 35-minute videotape makes no mention of the protests or Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power. Al-Qaida had advocated for the destruction of Mubarak’s regime — and al-Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor, was part of a failed militant uprising against the former president in the 1990s.

But the pro-democracy tone of the protests, led by secular liberals, contrasted greatly with the Islamic state al-Qaida envisions. In the latest video, al-Zawahri devoted much of the time to the Muslim-Christian divide. But he denied that his group was behind the Alexandria bombing, according to a transcript by the SITE Intel group, a U.S. group that monitors militant messages.

Ahead of the bombing, extremist Islamic websites affiliated with al-Qaida circulated lists of Coptic churches in Egypt and Europe — including one that was hit on New Year’s — along with instructions on how to attack them.

Egypt is a complex and dangerous place at the moment, even as the celebrations continue. Journalists attempting to find their way deeper into this coal mind might want to keep an eye on the canaries.

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The Muslim speed-dating scene

The latest trend in American Muslim matrimony? How about speed dating to find an arranged mate? Or something like that …

The New York Times highlights the religious and cultural issues involved when Muslim men and women — some with parents watching closely nearby — try to make a connection in a hotel ballroom. On the drink menu: hot tea or Kool-Aid.

The opening of the 2,400-word Sunday feature:

MUHAMMAD BAIG knows exactly what he wants in a son-in-law, but he is also willing to compromise.

Mr. Right would be Pakistani, though someone from India might do. Mr. Baig prefers a doctor or lawyer, yet will accept other professions. He brags about his ability to discern a United States citizen over an immigrant whose status is more precarious by the confidence in his walk. And how can Mr. Baig tell if a candidate comes from a good family — if he prays daily, does not drink, and would not marry outside Islam? Just look at how he dresses.

“I don’t like a hobo,” Mr. Baig said. Then, shrugging toward his 21-year-old daughter, a nursing student, he added, “But it’s her choice. She has to like him, too.”

As his daughter approached graduation, Mr. Baig, a Queens wholesaler whose thin black beard adorns a pudgy face, had been on the lookout, going to the mosque more often, asking more acquaintances about their unwed children. But he had had little luck, so one Sunday last fall, he sat on the perimeter of a hotel conference room in Bayside, Queens, and watched as bachelor after bachelor sat across from his daughter, a beige veil draped over her plump face, for a few minutes of stilted conversation.

Speed dating is always a bit awkward. Take away the alcohol, invite parents to watch from the sidelines, and the ritual takes on the excruciating air of a middle-school dance.

Overall, I enjoyed this piece. The writer has fun with the subject matter, and that’s imperative for a story headlined Speed-Dating, Muslim Style, right? In general, the story does a nice job of illustrating that not all Muslims believe the same thing or interact with culture in the same way.

This paragraph illustrates the diversity at the speed-dating event:

The women at Millanus events stay in the seats — stiff-backed, standard-issue seafoam-green upholstered hotel seats — while the men rotate among them. There are always more women: many Muslim men return to their ancestral villages to select a wife. On this Sunday, one bachelorette wore knee-high leather boots and purple eye shadow; another, a long, elegant white dress. Many were draped in traditional Islamic attire; about a third were veiled.

My major criticism of the story would be that it uses vague terms such as “conservative” and “liberal” and fails to fully explain what’s meant. For example, there’s this reference to critics of the event:

There has been some criticism from conservative religious leaders, who pleaded with Mr. Mohsin to use teleconferencing, so men and women would meet via video chat, not in person. One of his friends condemned his events, calling them “an American-style meat-market.”

In case you were wondering, no, the “conservative religious leaders” do not get a voice in the story. They are not identified by name. Neither is the reason why teleconferencing might be preferable to in-person chatting explained. The friend who condemned the speed dating also is not identified or given a voice. The full extent of Muslims with a problem with this approach is that single paragraph.

The story presents this picture of a “liberal” Muslim woman:

Amna, a 26-year-old graduate student in mental health who spoke on the condition her last name not be printed because she did not want people to know she had attended the event, said of her generation, “We are definitely torn between two worlds.”

“American culture, at times, clashes with Islam,” she said. “But the beauty is that as we are struggling to find our place, and we’re critically examining our parents’ cultural practices.”

For example, she says, her Muslim friends at college are now starting to meet each other, not through families, but directly. Still, she said, they always meet in public places to ensure “they don’t cross the line.”

Amna considers herself a liberal Muslim: she supports abortion rights, and same-sex marriage. But she wears a veil, which she fears deters liberal suitors.

Again, liberal is too vague to have any real meaning in this context. Is she liberal in a religious sense? A political sense?

On the opposite side, this is the portrait of a “conservative” Muslim woman:

Sadaf, a 33-year-old physician from Princeton, N.J., who also refused to have her full name published, has butterscotch skin and compact curls reminiscent of Bernadette Peters’s. “Guys at work are always hitting on me,” she said. “But they aren’t Muslims.”

Being a conservative Muslim woman with a successful career, she said, is challenging. There were two Muslim men in her medical school, and both were married. Men she meets at the mosque want wives who will stay at home, Sadaf said; the educated elite, she added, prefer Western women. “I am American and I am professional, and you get punished for that,” she said.

Again, conservative is too vague to have any real meaning in this context. Is she conservative in a religious sense? A political sense?

Finally, a religion ghost in the story stood out to me: Jamal Molsin, the event organizer, says the motto is “Muslims marry Muslims.” Yet he married an Orthodox Jew, according to the story. I would love to know more about his own religious beliefs and how the mixed marriage has affected his faith and family.

Despite my specific criticisms, it’s a fascinating story.

Be sure and read the whole thing.

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Pro-Palestinian protestor writes for NYT

The New York Times ran a story this month that I had been planning to blog about. The title was “A Jewish Group Makes Waves, Locally and Abroad,” and it was about Jewish Voice for Peace, a pretty well-known liberal Jewish advocacy group (whose PR rep is coincidentally named Bacon). But then I saw this news brief from JTA explaining that the NYT had to apologize for the way that story was reported. And that warranted a different kind of blog post.

Here’s what the editor’s note, added Friday to the Times’ story, said:

An article last Friday described the group Jewish Voice for Peace, whose support for antigovernment protests in Egypt has led to tensions among some Jews in the Bay Area. After the article was published, editors learned that one of the two writers, Daniel Ming, had been active in pro-Palestinian rallies. Such involvement in a public cause related to The Times’s news coverage is at odds with the paper’s journalistic standards; if editors had known of Mr. Ming’s activities, he would not have been allowed to write the article.

Whoops. Now why is this a problem? Well, for two primary reasons.

First, as the note said, the paper’s journalist standards prohibit reporters from participating in political advocacy. This is a pretty common rule — common from college papers on up — and it makes sense for the exact reasons that Keith Olbermann’s suspension didn’t. Newspaper reporters are called to be unbiased in their reporting. Subjective influences are a given, but the call is to be as objective as possible and to avoid behavior appropriate for citizens, even behavior expected of citizens, if it would call into question your ability to report the news accurately and fairly.

Some have take this to an extreme. Len Downie famously refrained from voting for some three decades. I think that’s a bit unnecessary, kind of like saying that religion reporters should have no religion of their own. (Hmmm … Washington Post connection?) But I think we can agree that daily newspaper reporters shouldn’t be out there leading political protests.

A second related reason is that The New York Times would have a real PR problem on its hands if it didn’t publicly apologize for allowing Ming to write this story. Why? Because, believe it or not, there is a perception in many American Jewish circles that The New York Times is antagonistic towards Israel in its coverage of Israeli political and military affairs. Here’s a small sampling from Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in Amerca, Yid With Lid and American Thinker.

This news story and the editor’s note also raise an interesting question about editorial control for the The New York Times in its new venture with partnering news organizations that provide local news. The Times has a few of these partnership — I know of at least two, the Chicago News Cooperative and The Bay Citizen. NYTimes.com bills the latter as “A nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization providing local coverage of the San Francisco Bay Area for The New York Times.”

Partnerships for local news have been billed by some experts as a future for journalism, and other papers have forged their own. but they do decentralize editorial control and likely raises challenges when seeking uniformity for journalistic standards and policies. I wonder if this incident will leave a sour taste in the minds of editors at the Times. Then again, this could have happened just as easily on the NYT city desk.

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Religion’s role in the revolution

I spent much of the week on a reporting trip to Sin City. When my wife and 11-year-old daughter picked me up at the Oklahoma City airport Friday, my little girl wanted to talk about the big news of the day.

Regrettably, her first piece of big news did not surprise me: The opening of tween evangelist Justin Bieber’s film/documentary “Never Say Never,” for which my daughter and a friend had tickets. (Thankfully, my wife — not me — endured this cinematic masterpiece with the girls.)

I wasn’t expecting my daughter’s other big news, however.

“Hey Dad, did you hear that Mubarak stepped down in Egypt?” she said.

As a matter of fact, I had heard that news. But the fact that an international headline broke through “Bieber Fever” testified to its magnitude.

Now, I am no expert on the situation in Egypt. Like many Americans, I have been following the news in the Middle East and trying to make sense of it. I appreciate the high level of understanding that my GetReligion colleagues have helped bring to the recent events.

In reviewing some of the news coverage today, I enjoyed a CNN Belief Blog piece by co-editor Dan Gilgoff headlined Friday prayers helped feed Egyptian revolution:

It was fitting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak chose to step down on a Friday, hours after Egypt’s Muslims had observed afternoon prayers.

For three weeks, Friday afternoon prayers — the most significant prayers of the week for Muslims — have served as catalysts for the biggest anti-government demonstrations of the Egyptian uprising.

Known as Juma’ah Salat, Friday prayers are Islam’s sole weekly communal prayers. Observant Muslims pray five times a day, but other prayers can be performed individually.

What I like about Gilgoff’s post: It takes the big news of the day and — in simple, precise terms — explains the role of Friday prayers in what occurred. CNN interviews leading experts and reports a key religion angle that easily could have been missed.

Another story that caught my attention was a Los Angeles Times piece reporting on the reactions of Coptic Christians in Los Angeles to Mubarak’s departure. To its credit, that story contains crucial background such as this:

The Coptic Church dates to the time of the Apostles, according to church tradition.

Copts, who make up about 10% to 12% of Egypt’s population of more than 80 million, have faced discrimination and rising attacks there in recent years, including a suicide bombing in the northern city of Alexandria last month that killed 24 worshipers and injured scores of others outside a church.

But members of Los Angeles’ Coptic community expressed cautious optimism Friday that the popular uprising and military takeover that swept Mubarak from power may bring positive change for Egypt’s religious minorities, including Copts.

They pointed to encouraging signs, including the scene this week of Egyptian Muslims and Christians praying alongside one another in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

For readers interested in more detailed, nuanced information concerning Christians in Egypt, Christianity Today has a must-read, 2,000-word report posted Friday from Cairo. In a blog post, USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman highlights CT’s coverage of the issue:

A Christianity Today guest columnist has a surprising take on Egypt’s future and how the nation’s Christians might be better off if the Muslim Brotherhood takes a major role in the next government.

That seems unexpected in the same online CT edition that features a different article on Copts, the major Christian group and victims of recent deadly attacks, who are watching developments with fear. Their reporter in Cairo thinks lovely pictures of last week of Copts and Muslims arm in arm are an anomaly.

Another story worth a read is this Christian Science Monitor report from Los Angeles on the concerns and hopes of U.S. Jews watching the events in Egypt. That report was published just before Mubarak’s exit.

In the comments section, please feel free to provide links to other stories or point out religion ghosts you’re seeing in coverage of Friday’s big news.

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Get Egypt: Vague, vaguer, vaguest

Events in Egypt roll on and, of course, journalists and diplomats are all trying to figure out what is up with the Muslim Brotherhood and it’s potential role in the new secular or Islamic state of Egypt. In other words, will a democratic process lead to an Islamic republic?

Thus, we have the following story in the Washington Post, which ran under the headline, “Muslim Brotherhood eyes comeback in Egypt.” Let’s start at the beginning and walk through parts of this piece in sequence.

Hint: Look for labels, not information.

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT – Hamdi Hassan, a senior member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood party, was jailed by Egyptian authorities Jan. 28 during the tensest days of anti-government protests in this coastal city.

But Hassan walked out of jail two days later after protesters commandeered the facility and freed all the inmates. By this weekend, the 51-year-old physician sounded exultant as he held court in a main square, mobbed by his supporters in what has long been a Brotherhood stronghold.

“This is a defining and historic moment because Egyptians from all walks of life are finally free,” Hassan said. He made clear that he had no fear of being arrested again, even as charred police vehicles in the background offered evidence of the turmoil that spread from Cairo to Alexandria at the height of the violence.

Hassan’s own turnabout reflects a reversal that has left the Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic party, poised for the first time to claim a real stake in Egyptian politics in whatever follows three decades of rule by President Hosni Mubarak.

OK, so we have the dreaded f-word used again in a context in which it is, historically speaking, meaningless.

Sadly, the rest of the Post article will be based on this meaningless, vague f-word as a starting point, defining other Egyptians in relationship to the Brotherhood. In reality, we have been told nothing about the Brotherhood and what it believes about the crucial issues facing this diverse land and its cultures (plural).

So, all together now, let’s chant the relevant passage from the Associated Press Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Do leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood use this term from American Protestantism to describe their group and its work? I would assume that the answer is “no.”

Moving on.

Officially banned since 1954, the Brotherhood has long been the target of vicious government crackdowns. But as the oldest, largest and best-organized group in Egypt, the Brotherhood could conceivably become the largest bloc in parliament whenever new elections are held.

Though it was not a driving force behind the demonstrations that began Jan. 25 and grew into a popular uprising, the Brotherhood has wasted no time setting the groundwork for a political resurgence. Its leaders have now claimed their place among those who met Sunday with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s newly appointed vice president, to discuss constitutional reforms and a transition plan.

The development has left some of the more liberal, secular protesters visibly unnerved.

So, what are the policy ideas that drive the “liberal, secular” protesters? Also, does the word “secular” mean that these protesters are not Muslims or are we dealing with the uniquely “secular” approach used in, oh, Turkey?

Most of all, what is the information that we need to know about these liberals and secularists to understand their take on Egypt’s future? Could we pick one issue and compare these labeled people? How about free speech? Religious liberty? Should Egypt have a blasphemy law?

Moving on.

Some members of the Brotherhood have long aspired to transform Egypt into an Islamic state. But the message that Hassan was delivering Sunday was more moderate, reflecting the group’s vow to cooperate with secular and more-moderate Islamic politicians when Mubarak’s regime ends.

“One of our demands is free and fair elections that really demonstrate the will of the Egyptian people,” Hassan said.

There are members of the Brotherhood who do not want Egypt to be an Islamic state? Tell us more. Now that is news. Meanwhile, what is the best guess — based on history and polling — of the meaning of the phrase “the will of the Egyptian people”?

Moving on.

Just how much power the Brotherhood could attain has been on the minds of U.S. officials in recent days as they have calibrated their policy on transition in Egypt. Israeli leaders and analysts have warned that the Brotherhood could hijack the reformist agenda and emerge as a major force that could seek to undermine the long peace between Egypt and Israel.

Now we have “reformist.” Might we know what elements of Egyptian society need to be reformed? Surely the protesters have some ideas.

Meanwhile, I should not that mentioning the fragile peace between Egypt and Israel is a practical detail. Bravo.

Looking ahead, surely there will be some additional facts in the article’s background materials on the Brotherhood. You think?

The Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to promote Islamic values. It became politically influential in Egypt the following decade as it sought to end British colonial rule. Since Egypt’s independence in 1948, a succession of Egyptian rulers have outlawed and suppressed the group.

Mubarak’s government banned it as a party but allowed its members to run for office as independents. When leaders in the West prodded Mubarak to allow greater democratic freedoms, he repeatedly warned that doing so would only empower the likes of the Brotherhood.

Then again, maybe not.

What, pray tell, are “Islamic values”? Is the goal here to avoid mentioning a single specific issue of any kind?

Anyway, you get the idea. Did I miss something specific in the article that tells readers what any of these vague labels actually mean?

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Pod people: Good news or bad for Copts?

For more than a week now, the mainstream press has been wrestling with the events in Egypt. It’s safe to say that this is the biggest news story, period, on planet Earth right now. I mean, other than Super Bowl XLV.

However, when we were taping this week’s GetReligion podcast — click here to listen to that or to download it — Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc., asked me a really interesting question. He asked if what’s going on is really “new” from the perspective of the Coptic Christians who are the most ancient people group in the truly ancient land of Egypt.

My brain went spinning in circles when he asked that as I tried to figure out an answer.

I mean, yes, what is happening is “new” because the fall of the government of President Hosni Mubarak would certainly be “news” in the sense that it would have to impact the Copts in some new ways different — good or bad — in comparison to recent decades.

Then again, if these events lead to even more persecution than normal, then the proper answer would be to say “no,” because the Coptic Orthodox Church and other smaller groups of Coptic Christians have been undergoing waves of persecution, some worse than others, for centuries. I mean, what’s “new” in that? Tragically, that would be pretty ordinary.

But wait a minute, you could also say that the best answer is “maybe” or “we don’t know.”

It’s possible that Egypt could develop some form of Islamic majority government that actually guards the rights of religious minorities, rights as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I mean, Egypt is in the United Nations, correct?

However, how can a new government emerge from these remarkable protests that truly protects the rights of the Copts and other religious minorities in the sense defined under Article 18 of that document? That’s the one that says:

* Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

However, what if the Gallup people are right, and 88 percent of Egyptians really do want Sharia law (of some form or another) to be the land’s only law or a major source of its law (one that cannot be contradicted)? If that’s the case, and Egypt trades it’s current flawed semi-secularism for some form of Islamist republic, how can religious liberty be preserved for those who blaspheme and insult Mohammad?

So is the right answer to Todd’s question “yes,” “no” or “we don’t know”? What think thee, readers and listeners? How does this uncertainty affect the news coverage?

One other point: Todd also asked me if many or most mainstream journalists have the background knowledge in terms of history and, especially, church history, to cover this story. Ouch.

Perhaps that is one reason that the Copts — 10 percent or so of the Egyptian population and the largest Christian minority left in the Muslim world — remain off so many MSM radar screens. Feel free to listen to the podcast the weigh in on that one, too.

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How not to write a paragraph about Egypt

The drama in Egypt is rolling on and on, which means that journalists in local newsrooms across America are doing that thing that we do — we search for local angles on the stories.

Everybody say it together: All news is local. Actually, all news is becoming hyper-local, but that’s another issue.

So what are the obvious local stories linked to Egypt?

Several leap to mind. Are there any local citizens, businesspeople and or study-abroad students who are in Egypt? Are they trapped? The other natural story is the flip side of that coin: Does our city or region include institutions that primarily appeal to Egyptians? The other day, the Baltimore Sun did the logical thing and sent a reporter out to a Coptic Orthodox parish. After all, it’s not that hard to find Coptic believers of various kinds in major American cities.

Now, the Washington Post has served up another story linked to the events in Egypt, one with a solid and logical local news hook. Here’s the top of the story:

For days, people have been congratulating Eman Lotfy, a 24-year-old immigrant from Egypt, on her homeland’s uprising.

“I hope your revolution never ends,” declared a Sudanese woman who came in to Lotfy’s family-owned establishment, the Cairo Cafe, in Alexandria (Virginia, not Egypt).

The cafe’s television has been on constantly, flipping between Arabic-language news stations as rapt patrons from across the Arab world sucked on hookahs and excitedly debated whether their own country would be next. … But it’s one thing to cheer a revolution from the sidelines. It’s something else to have the flames licking at your front door.

For Lotfy, whose family moved here from Egypt more than a decade ago, the chaos has been more frightening than inspiring.

“Everyone’s depressed. People are crying, seeing Cairo on fire,” she said. “Alexandria is a disaster. … I have people saying ‘Congratulations on your country,’ which really amazes me. What are you congratulating me on? My country’s on fire, and you come to congratulate me?”

As you can see, this is the kind of local story — it ran on the Metro front — that quite naturally pulls in a variety of voices from Egypt and from other nations and cultures in and around the Middle East. It’s like a sports bar in the Washington, D.C., area that caters to Green Bay Packer fans. It’s a point of contact, a bridge back to the old country.

As you would expect, this cafe appeals both to Muslims from Egypt and to Copts. This leads us to the only snippet of this fine story that gave me pause — a grammatical pause.

Read this carefully:

Although no Egyptians at the cafe expressed sympathy for longtime President Hosni Mubarak, many said they feared that the instability could bring harder times for the country. Coptic Christians said their families are planning to leave if Islamists take control of the government. Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.

Once again, it’s crucial for journalists to stress that Muslims in Egypt do not fall into one simple camp. Clarity is essential.

So what about that paragraph? Note that the Copts (I would ask, “All of them?”) say that their families back home are planning to leave Egypt if Islamists take over. Then we are told that, at this cafe, “Muslims, too, said they were concerned about that possibility.”

OK, I’ll ask: This surprisingly united crowd of Muslims are concerned about WHAT possibility?

The way this is set up, this unusually united group of Muslims are either concerned (a) about the possibility that Islamists could take over, or (b) they were concerned that the Copts could be forced to flee Egypt, or (c) that one thing could lead to another so that both things happened. So how are we supposed to read that? There is no way, grammatically, to tell precisely what is being said and this is a very important human-rights issue.

Meanwhile, I do find it hard to believe that there is total agreement among Muslims in the greater DC area over those issues or even total agreement between Muslims who frequent this cafe. Total agreement on such sensitive and culture-shaping decisions and events? Really?

And one more thing. Were readers ever told whether the folks who operate the cafe are Coptic Christians or Muslims? That might subtly affect the balance of who frequents the establishment, especially among Muslims. For example, is the food halal?

Just asking.

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