Coptic Orthodox Church

Are conservative news media downplaying the brutal crackdown against Egyptian gays?

Are conservative news media downplaying the brutal crackdown against Egyptian gays?

Depending upon your point of view — and in their purist iterations — demands for equal rights for gay people are either about justly extending social and legal parity, or a moral struggle to uphold traditional religious doctrine and cultural ideas about sexuality and gender.

Either way, homosexuality is one of the three biggest culture war issues dividing Americans, along with questions about abortion and the legal parameters of religious freedom.

It's also a prime issue internationally. Globalization has fostered the spread of contemporary Western liberal values. That, in turn, has prompted push back in some non-Western nations enmeshed in the global market’s whirlwind of change.

Some of the more recent stories referencing the issue have come out of Egypt, where homosexuality, while not explicitly outlawed, is harshly condemned by the majority Muslim and minority Coptic Christian religious establishments.

Every so often Egypt’s authoritarian government, led by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, appears to use the issue as a political cudgel to bolster support among Muslim and Christian traditionalists, who together comprise the vast majority of the nation’s population.

Click here for a recent Washington Post piece summing up the situation.

The story begins thusly:

CAIRO -- A crackdown on gay people in Egypt intensified in recent days as security forces raided cafes in downtown Cairo and courts delivered harsh prison sentences, further driving the nation’s LGBT community underground.

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New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

Lots of news stories -- big ones and everyday ones -- are haunted by religious themes (and even factual material) that mainstream reporters skate right past. Here at GetReligion, we call these religion-shaped holes in stories "ghosts."

There are also news stories that, to be blunt, are haunted by questions and issues that can only be described in terms of theology, often requiring a willingness to dig into centuries of history and debates of a complex or even mysterious nature.

I sincerely appreciate attempts to write these theologically driven stories, because I know that they are (a) hard to get right, (b) hard to get approved by editors and (c) hard to write in words that work in a daily newspaper (think accuracy plus readability).

So I really want to cheer for a Religion News Service feature that came out with this headline: "Unrelenting killing of Coptic Christians intensifies debate over martyrdom."

This is a story about a very complex issue: Is there a point at which praising Christian believers who are killed by the Islamic State turns into a bad thing, when crying "martyrdom" begins to blur the lines between terrorism and the kinds of heroic witness honored by the church through the ages?

Before I mention my one question about this fine story, let's look at some crucial summary material near the top:

The 2,000-year-old Coptic Church of Egypt has a long tradition of hallowing those who died affirming their faith in the face of violence. But the group that calls itself the Islamic State has launched waves of attacks on the Coptic community in recent years -- claiming at least 70 lives and wounding scores of others -- an unrelenting assault that has opened a debate in the community about martyrdom.
The issue has been most recently punctuated by the deadly knifing of a Coptic priest in a poor Cairo neighborhood Thursday (Oct. 12). A suspect was arrested but his motive is still unknown.
Recently, another Coptic priest -- the well-known Rev. Boules George from the well-heeled Cairo suburb of Heliopolis -- took to the television airwaves to “thank” the Islamic State terrorists who launched the Palm Sunday church bombings that claimed 45 lives, saying they provided “a rocket” that delivered victims straight to heaven.

Here is the crucial question: Is being blown up by a bomb, or killed in random violence, truly an act of "witness" to the Christian faith delivered to the apostles?

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Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

What can we say? How long must we sing this song?

Once again there has been another attack in Egypt that has left scores of Coptic Christians dead and wounded. Currently, the death toll is at 26 or 28, depending on the source of the information.

Once again there are the same basic themes to cover. The ancient Copts -- the vast majority are part of Coptic Orthodoxy -- make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt. They are the largest body of Christian believers left in the Middle East, part of a religious tradition that emerged in the time of the first disciples of Jesus.

Once again, Egyptian officials have renewed their vows to help protect the Copts. Once again, reporters tried to find a way to list all of the recent terrorist attacks on the Copts -- a list so long that it threatens to dominate basic news reports.

So what now? Why now? Here is the top of the Reuters report -- circulated by Religion News Service, as well -- which caught my attention because of its early focus on what may, tragically, be a crucial fact.

In this case, the "when" and the "why" factors in that old journalism formula -- "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" -- may be one in the same. Read carefully.

CAIRO (Reuters) -- Gunmen attacked a group of Coptic Christians traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt on Friday, killing 28 people and wounding 25 others, and many children were among the victims, Health Ministry officials said.
Eyewitnesses said masked men opened fire after stopping the Christians, who were traveling in a bus and other vehicles. Local television channels showed a bus apparently raked by gunfire and smeared with blood. Clothes and shoes could be seen lying in and around the bus.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which came on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. It followed a series of church bombings claimed by Islamic State.

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A powerful, important read: Wall Street Journal on the 'epochal shift' of Christians from the Middle East

A powerful, important read: Wall Street Journal on the 'epochal shift' of Christians from the Middle East

I'm no expert on Christians in the Middle East, but this strikes me as a powerful, important read.

It's an in-depth report from the Wall Street Journal on the "epochal shift" of Christians from the Middle East.

TANTA, Egypt — Like the Jews before them, Christians are fleeing the Middle East, emptying what was once one of the world’s most-diverse regions of its ancient religions.
They’re being driven away not only by Islamic State, but by governments the U.S. counts as allies in the fight against extremism.
When suicide bomb attacks ripped through two separate Palm Sunday services in Egypt last month, parishioners responded with rage at Islamic State, which claimed the blasts, and at Egyptian state security.
Government forces assigned to the Mar Girgis church in Tanta, north of Cairo, neglected to fix a faulty metal detector at the entrance after church guards found a bomb on the grounds just a week before. The double bombing killed at least 45 people, and came despite promises from the Egyptian government to protect its Christian minority.

This story is packed with hard data and gripping detail such as this:

In northern Iraq, blue and white charter buses crisscross neighborhoods of recently liberated Mosul, returning Muslim families displaced by Islamic State. They drive through Christian areas without stopping. For the first time in nearly two millennia, Iraq’s second-largest city, once a melting pot of ancient religions, lacks a Christian population to speak of.
The Al-Aswad family, a clan of masons who built the city’s houses, churches and mosques and trace their lineage back to the 19th century, vow never to return. They’ve opted to live in the rat-infested refugee camps of Erbil in northern Iraq, where they await updates on their asylum application to Australia.
A Christian charity has given them a small apartment until June, at which point they will have to return to the refugee camps to live in a converted cargo shipping container.
“We call it the cemetery,” said Raghd Al-Aswad, describing how the cargo containers are covered with dark blue tarps to protect against the rain. “It looks like dead bodies stacked side by side with a giant hospital sheet on top of them.”

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Stopping short of Pascha: The New York Times did cover the quiet courage of the Copts

Stopping short of Pascha: The New York Times did cover the quiet courage of the Copts

I guess the big news this Easter is that there isn't any really big news at Easter. Yet.

Obviously, there was big news during Holy Week -- as in the lockdown in Egypt and in other Christian communities across the Middle East in the trembling aftermath of the hellish Palm Sunday bombings. That led to this somber New York Times feature that ran with the headline, "After Church Bombings, Egyptian Christians Are Resigned but Resolute."

It's a fine feature, one that -- as it must -- focuses on the political framework that surrounds the latest wave of persecution of Coptic Christians. After all, this is a tense land in which a near totalitarian Egyptian government that helps lock Christians in their place is also the only force strong enough to weakly protect them from the Islamic State and other truly radicalized forms of Islam.

Orthodox Christians who read this piece may not make it to the end, growing tired of the politics and violence. Where is the ultimate message of Pascha? Where are the voices of those who still believe, who continue to keep the faith despite all the suffering? Aren't they part of the story?

They are. And that theme emerges at the end of the piece -- so wait for it.

The veneration of Christian martyrs is felt most keenly at the monastery of St. Mina, an hour’s drive from Alexandria. There, barren desert has been transformed into a lush compound of gardens and monastic cells around a soaring cathedral. The seven Christians killed in last Sunday’s bombing were taken there for entombment in a martyr’s church under construction for the 2011 bombing’s 23 victims.
“The new martyrs will be buried beside the old ones,” Bishop Kyrillos Ava Mina, leader of the monastery, said as he walked around the site, weaving through a maze of wooden beams. “It is a gift for them to be buried here.” ... 
Many Coptic clerics are careful of engaging in public debate. Asked what was driving the Islamic State attacks, the monastery’s spokesman, Father Elijah Ava Mina, chuckled dryly. “I don’t know,” he said. “Ask them.”

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Do journalists know the details? Egypt's ancient Coptic community is used to being attacked

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:

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Byzantine details: How are the Orthodox Christian churches organized, and why?

Byzantine details: How are the Orthodox Christian churches organized, and why?

DAVID ASKS:

Most of us in the U.S. are aware of Orthodox Christians but don’t really understand their organization. Can you expand on their split around the world?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Our previous Q and A about Islam’s founding Sunni-Shi’a split mentioned divisions within Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy, which means “correct teaching,” sees itself as preserving Christianity’s earliest and most authentic form. This faith is in the spotlight what with (1) history’s first meeting between a Catholic pope and a patriarch of Russia’s massive Orthodox church, and (2) the June 16-27 “Holy and Great Council” of all bishops in Crete, potentially (if it is held) Eastern Orthodoxy’s most consequential event in more than 12 centuries.

Writing online Feb. 10, sociologist Peter Berger (a Lutheran) said through recent centuries this faith has existed mostly in three contexts: as a state religion, as a “persecuted or barely tolerated” church under Islamic or Communist rule or in the diaspora outside its heartland (e.g. in the United States) where separate and competing churches under foreign hierarchies generate “ethnic cacophony.”

The ancient churches of Eastern Orthodoxy -- Orthodoxy dates its birth at Pentecost -- are organized into three branches that stem from the 5th Century debate on how to define the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ.

Caution: This gets technical.

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Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

This week's "Crossroads" podcast focuses on the Frankenstein question in American public life that has left journalists shaking their heads and muttering, "It's alive, it's alive!"

I am referring, of course, to the whole Gov. Scott Walker and the "Is President Barack Obama a Christian?" thing. Then that media storm -- click here for my previous post -- led into the silly "Does Scott Walker really think that he talks with God?" episode.

Then again, am I alone in thinking that some rather cynical political reporters are creating these monsters and trying to keep them alive? Whatever. I remain convinced that Obama is what he says he is: A liberal Christian who made a profession of faith and joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has long represented the left edge of free-church Protestantism.

Anyway, host Todd Wilken and I ended up spending most of our time talking about the subject that I am convinced is looming behind the whole "Is Obama a Christian" phenomenon, especially this latest flap with Walker. Click here to listen in on the discussion.

Believe it or not, this brings us to a discussion of a question that quietly rumbled through the Southern Baptist blogosphere the other day: Forget the question of whether the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State should be declared as Christian martyrs? Were they actually Christians in the first place?"

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The 21 beheadings in Libya: Why edit 'Orthodox' from name of the Coptic Orthodox Church?

The 21 beheadings in Libya: Why edit 'Orthodox' from name of the Coptic Orthodox Church?

What can be said about the images that are coming out of Libya, in that hellish Islamic State video showing the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians -- explicitly for their faith and their connection to "crusaders"? This is a story with so much religious imagery and language in it that there is no way for journalists to avoid the ghosts.

Religion News Service, and some other news outlets, are using a very important quote from Pope Francis:

“The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out,” Francis said in off-the-cuff remarks during an audience with an ecumenical delegation from the Church of Scotland. The pope, switching to his native Spanish, noted that those killed only said “Jesus help me.”
“Be they Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it doesn’t matter: They’re Christian! The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ,” Francis said. He said their deaths bore witness to “an ecumenism of blood” that should unite Christians, a phrase he has used repeatedly as the Islamic State continues its bloody march.

The radicals hailed Jesus as a prophet respected in their Muslim faith, then beheaded followers of Jesus.

Now, who -- precisely -- were the victims?

Let me stress that it's true that, in Egypt (and in Libya), Christians of all kinds are often simply known as "Copts," because of a similar ancient heritage. So there are, for example, small numbers of Protestant Copts and Catholic Copts. However, the vast majority of Coptic Christians are Orthodox Christians.

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