Do Journalists Know The Details? Egypt's Ancient Coptic Community Is Used To Being Attacked


Any list of the embattled Christian communities in the Middle East would start with the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate that is now based in Damascus.

It's valid to use the term "Orthodox" when describing those ancient churches, because that is part of their names. However, it is also important for reporters and editors to know that there are other small, but important, Christian communities in both Egypt and Syria, as well as in other lands in the region.

For example, when talking about Christians in Egypt, journalists often refer to all of them simply as "Copts." This is accurate, because the term "Coptic" can also be used to describe the entire ethnic group. So while the Coptic Orthodox are the largest flock, there are also Catholic Copts and various kinds of Protestant Copts.

So believers in all kinds of churches prayed with a great urgency on Palm Sunday when they heard about the latest deadly bombings targeting Christians in Egypt. Once again, the Islamic State is claiming responsibility. Obviously, this is going to be an unusually tense Holy Week and Pascha (the Orthodox term for Easter) in Egypt, Syria and across the Middle East.

The mainstream coverage of the latest attacks was extensive. However, in a few cases these stories were also somewhat confusing, in part because reporters and editors did not seem to realize that it was not enough to simply tell readers that "Copts" were targeted. To be blunt: Why not use the full names of the people and churches that were attacked? Why not be specific? Why minimize or completely avoid the use of the word "Orthodox"?

You can see exactly what I am talking about in the main Los Angeles Times story – "Egypt plunged into state of emergency as Palm Sunday church bombings kill at least 44" – which does not use the term "Orthodox" a single time. Here is the rather political overture:

Islamic State claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that hit Egyptian Coptic Christian churches in two cities Sunday, killing at least 44 people and wounding more than 100.
In response, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency in the country, which has already seen a major clampdown on dissent and political expression.
The claim of responsibility was published by Islamic State’s Amaq news agency after the attacks, which targeted large crowds gathered to celebrate Palm Sunday.
The twin bombings, the latest in a string of attacks against Christians in Egypt, came less than a week after Sisi and President Trump met at the White House and pledged to work together to fight radical groups such as Islamic State.

A few lines later in this story, there was this:

The first of the two bombings occurred about 9:30 a.m. at St. George’s Church in the Nile Delta town of Tanta, killing 27 people and wounding 78, according to Sharif Wadih, an aide to the country’s health minister. ...
The second explosion occurred Sunday afternoon at St. Mark’s Cathedral in the coastal city of Alexandria, where the patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, had earlier celebrated Palm Sunday. It killed 17 people and wounded at least 48 others, according to Wadih.
Tawadros was in the Alexandria church at the time of the bombing but was not injured, the Interior Ministry said.

Now, Pope Tawadros II is the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox See of St. Mark.

Yes, that detail matters because there are other churches with leaders who have similar titles, such as Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria, who the current Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa. Church history is complicated stuff and the details matter.

The Los Angeles Times piece never even attempts to clarify any of this for readers, even at the level of simply using the full names of the church bodies. At one point, there is this very confusing reference:

Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 85 million, and they are especially visible during Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, when they tote palms in the streets. They have repeatedly been targeted by Islamist extremists in recent years: Last week, local media reported another bomb was found at St. George’s Church and defused.
The Coptic Church is the dominant Christian denomination in Egypt, where it is said to have been established in the 1st century by the Apostle Mark.

Well, yes, and the Roman Catholic Church is said to have been started by St. Peter. Other than the drumbeat denials by Islamists, are there many significant doubts about the history of this church and St. Mark's role in Alexandria? Just asking.

Truth be told, this is a long, long story in the Los Angeles Times. I kept waiting for a few facts to show up, in terms of the specific identities of the attacked churches and their leaders. There was plenty of room, but apparently the various political complications were more important than actual details about the faith of those who were killed.

Meanwhile, the New York Times report also avoided specifics, in terms of the names of the names of the church sites that were attacked, but near the end did mention the existence of the Coptic Orthodox Church, as a whole.

CNN, on the other hand, did name the churches. BBC even offered a fact paragraph or too, such as:

The Coptic Orthodox Church is the main Christian Church in Egypt. While most Copts live in Egypt, the Church has about a million members outside the country.

The Washington Post team, to its credit, mentions Coptic Orthodoxy. However, the following passage is a classic example of a reference that – whenever I write about this topic at GetReligion – draws mild protests from Catholics and Protestants. Read carefully:

Sunday’s assaults threaten to further alienate the country’s Coptic Orthodox community, which makes up 10 percent of the population. For decades, Egypt’s Copts have felt discriminated against by the country’s Muslims, and assaults against them have intensified since the 2011 revolution – part of the Arab Spring uprisings – that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Christians largely supported the rise of Sissi, who came to power after the overthrow of elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

In other words, this kind of language makes it sound like the Coptic Orthodox community – in and of itself – is 10 percent of the population. This leaves the many other smaller Christian flocks completely out of the picture.

Yes, this is tricky material. But it only takes a few extra words to get the details right – details that may matter at great deal to many Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant readers. Once again, this is why news organizations need skilled, experienced religion writers.

IMAGE: So who knows why Coptic believers tattoo crosses on their wrists? Leave the answer in our comments pages.

Terry Mattingly