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?

[Read more...]

‘Moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian power grab

Protests broke out in Egypt in recent days over President Mohamed Morsi’s unilateral decree assuming widespread powers that may not be challenged or questioned. The Associated Press carried a list of some of those powers, beginning with:

- All laws and decisions by the president are final, cannot be appealed, overturned or halted by the courts or other bodies. This applies to decisions he has made since taking office in June and any he makes until a new constitution is approved and a new parliament is elected, expected in the spring at the earliest.

- No judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the assembly writing the new constitution. Both are dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists and several cases demanding their disbanding were before the courts, which previously dissolved the lower house of parliament.

Cairo’s English-language paper Al Ahram reports that “the decree also protects the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) and the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) against dissolution by court order.” Al Ahram is a great source for news right now if you’re interested in what’s going on in Egypt. It was there I learned that the chairman of the Shura Council said Morsi went too far with his declaration. He’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Faith and Justice Party, so his disagreement was something of a surprise.

Morsi, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood activist and the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state, says not to worry, that the decrees are totally temporary. Somehow the non-Islamists of Egypt aren’t convinced. I’m just wondering if dictators always insisted that their power-taking was temporary or if that’s just a 20th-century innovation.

Morsi’s timing for the power grab wasn’t totally off. He just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, leading to plaudits from a variety of leaders. Morsi has enjoyed significant support from the United States, ever since he ran against even stricter Islamists.

Which leads me a larger journalism question. I wonder if journalists have been led off their game a bit because Morsi is supported by the United States and/or because the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed less strict in tone an substance than certain Islamist elements in Egypt. I first noticed this earlier in the year when some media types described the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” I noticed that others were resisting that description, even while acknowledging that the Muslim Brotherhood was less strict.

The New York Times has covered the Egypt story thoroughly throughout the year and I appreciate the way reporter David Kirkpatrick has focused on specific examples to define the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular niche within Egyptian Islamism. I had wanted to highlight this Q&A the paper ran between readers and reporters after a brief interview of Morsi was published in September. Kirkpatrick’s answers really show his reportorial style. It’s clear he has a good grasp of the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, as evidenced in this weekend’s story about judge’s revolting:

What set off the battle was the year-end deadline for the Constitutional Assembly chosen last spring to draft a new constitution. There had been rumors that the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised to dissolve the assembly in a ruling next Sunday. Top courts had already dissolved both an earlier Constitutional Assembly and the Parliament. All three bodies were dominated by Islamists, who have prevailed in elections, and many of the top judges harbor deep fears of an Islamist takeover.

As the deadlines loomed in recent weeks, the assembly’s Islamist leaders began to rush the debates. The assembly had already beaten back the efforts of ultraconservative Salafis to significantly expand the role of Islam in government. But in the last two weeks, many members of the non-Islamist minority began complaining of strong-arming and quit the assembly, slowing its deliberations and hurting its credibility.

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he issued his decree to give the assembly a two-month extension and protect it from judicial dissolution, so that its members could work out compromises and avoid the formation of yet another assembly. His supporters accuse many in the assembly’s non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet in order to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat.

“They are afraid of democracy, really,” Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in an interview this month. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”

Mr. Morsi’s critics say he could have found a less confrontational tactic to achieve his goal. But in denouncing his decree on Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists.

If interested in an alternate view about which party has trouble with the difficulties of democracy, read this EUObserver analysis from Koert Debeuf. Reuters had more over a week ago about the Christian and liberal opposition within the Constitutional Assembly, leading to resignations. While only 10 percent of the population, stories this weekend seemed to give short shrift to the Copts in Egypt who have voiced significant concern about their fate under growing Islamist power.

What do you think about media coverage of the situation in Egypt, both from this weekend and throughout the year? Do you think media outlets have had blinders on about the Brotherhood or the ease with which Islamism blends with democracy? Have you seen any other good coverage worth highlighting?

And for the Copts, the winner is … the winner is?

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First things first: I would like to stress that, while I am a member of an Orthodox Christian parish with historic ties to Arab Christianity, I do not speak Arabic.

That said, I would think that this language deficit would make me a highly unlikely candidate to cover a major news event in which the climactic moment was going to hinge on an announcement in Arabic. At the very least, I would think that — if given this assignment anyway — I would certainly want to have someone seated right next to me who is fluent in Arabic.

What am I talking about? Since there was no embed code for the following BBC report, GetReligion readers will need to click here in order to see the influential global network’s coverage of the rite used to select the new leader of Egypt’s Coptic pope. So click on over and watch that video before continuing with this post.

Meanwhile, here is the top of the BBC online text:

Bishop Tawadros has been chosen as the new pope of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, becoming leader of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. His name was selected from a glass bowl by a blindfolded boy at a ceremony in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral. Three candidates had been shortlisted.

The 60-year-old succeeds Pope Shenouda III, who died in March aged 88. He succeeds as attacks on Copts are on the increase, and many say they fear the country’s new Islamist leaders.

The other two candidates were Bishop Raphael and Father Raphael Ava Mina. They were chosen in a ballot by a council of some 2,400 Church and community officials in October. Their names were written on pieces of paper and put in crystal balls sealed with wax on the church altar.

Once the crystal ball had been selected and opened, a large scroll of paper was unrolled containing the name of the new pope — written in Arabic. The BBC announcer was placed in the awkward position, as the congregation applauded its approval, of not knowing who had been selected.

Did the executive producers expect the name to be written in English?

Clearly, the BBC crew was not having a good day. If you compare the BBC coverage with the Euronews clip attached to the top of this post, you will notice something else strange. Apparently, while Bishop Pachomius was showing the Arabic scroll to the congregation, a portrait of the monk selected — Bishop Tawadros — was shown on a large screen.

Either (a) the unlucky BBC announcer did not recognize the face of the winner or (b) the reporter was not on site for this event and the camera crew producing the live feed he was using framed their shot so narrowly, and held on to it, so that the large digital image of the new pope could not be seen. D’oh!

The story text is not bad, even if it is rather mildly worded. This passage struck me hard, as someone who has been following the plight of the Coptic believers for years.

The new pope has studied in Britain, and has also run a medicine factory, the BBC’s Jon Leyne in Cairo reports. He is a man of broad experience and with managerial skills, our correspondent says, adding that he will need all those talents to lead the Copts as they face an uncertain future in a country now debating the role of Islam following last year’s revolution. …

Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the Egyptian state and the country’s Muslim majority. But when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year and succeeded by the Muslim Brotherhood, their fears grew.

In October 2011, 25 people died in clashes with the security forces after a protest march in Cairo over the burning of a church.

Suffice it to say, there is much, much more that could be added at that point in the story, in an age in which the Muslim Brotherhood is now considered the moderate party in Egyptian life. To dig into the background material, try clicking here or here.

About the whole Jesus’ wife thing (Part 1)

Remember that front page New York Times story about Jesus’ wife? Yeah, about that …

Well, earlier this month we learned from WBRZ:

The Smithsonian Channel says the premiere of its documentary on a papyrus fragment that purports to show Jesus referring to his wife is being delayed until further tests can be done.

And another scholar has noted that the fragment that was the basis for the story somehow managed to replicate a typo from an internet site related to the Gospel of Thomas. Many folks had noted that the fragment seemed to borrow from the Gospel of Thomas but Michael Grondin noted the similarities a typo in his Interlinear Coptic-English Translation of the Gospel of Thomas.

In the first and third paragraphs of that New York Times story, we learned about the scholar who was making the claim about the Jesus’ fragment:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

So after the front-page treatment about Jesus’ wife, have you seen much coverage of the rest of the story? Of course not.

And yet all of the fallout has been more than a bit embarrassing for such an august scholar.

The Chronicle of Higher Education decided to ask her about it. That is a great idea for a story:

I talked to King recently about the reaction to the fragment. She said that while she was braced for some vigorous discussion, the avalanche of attention and criticism was much more than she expected. It has included angry, hateful e-mails (“pretty ugly and unprintable,” she says). The reaction from scholars has influenced her thinking, and she plans to incorporate some of their analyses into her paper on the fragment, which is slated to be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January, assuming that the ink test now being performed doesn’t reveal the fragment to be a modern forgery.

Sometimes I wish I could show people the contents of my email inbox. Anyway, he asks her why she didn’t wait for the ink test to be done. She gives a response. The article ends:

But how do you roll out a potential blockbuster discovery like this? King said she’s been asking colleagues how they would have handled it differently, and they’ve reassured her that they would have done what she did. And while she’s been dinged by some for jumping the gun, others would have attacked her for keeping it to herself. “The longer I held back, the more criticism there would have been,” she said.

One thing she would change? The title of the fragment. Calling it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” seemed natural. And for scholars like King, one of the authors of a book about The Gospel of Judas, alternative accounts of the Jesus story are not shocking. She misjudged just how inflammatory that title would turn out to be. She’s been asking around for ideas on a new, less exciting name.

Great idea for a follow-up but why rely on just King here? So a Harvard prof asked her Harvard colleagues and they all told her she was just fine? Is that really that interesting? And we’re not able to find any critics to add insight into how she messed up her big, splashy, New York Times, Smithsonian Channel reveal based around the title she chose? Really?

I mean, these regular “shake the foundations of Christianity” stories in the media are getting embarrassing. You’d think that there would be some much tougher questions of the scholars who were relied on, no? And on that note, come back later for a devastating look at what those early stories about this fragment missed.


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