Who are those Coptic people anyway?

I don't know about you, but the following paragraph from an Atlantic Monthly blog post by White House correspondent Marc Ambinder left me amazed, confused and then ticked off:

A number of White House officials were given an Encyclopedia Britannica-like briefing about the basics: how many U.S. citizens were inside the country and contingency plans to get them out; reminders that Egypt wasn't a Muslim country; Hosni Mubarak was a Coptic Christian of a certain sect; the Muslim Brotherhood was at once an opposition political party and a co-opted part of the social system. ...

Mubarak is a WHAT?!?!?!

Needless to say, Atlantic has printed a correction on that howler.

Oh, and needless to say, the embattled leader of Egypt is not a Coptic Christian of any kind. Thus, the essay now ends with this statement:

Correction: An early version of this story wrongly implied that the President's foreign policy team thought Hosni Mubarak was a Coptic Christian.

That's kind of comforting. However, it doesn't tell us WHO made the mistake. In other words, who thought that Mubarak is a Copt? Was that twisted information from the State Department? Or was it Ambinder and/or someone at the copy desk of one of America's most prestigious magazines (online or analog)?

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind (but thanks to human-rights scholar Paul Marshall for posting the original language from the article).

Right now, most of the mainstream coverage of the crisis in Egypt still has a Coptic-shaped hole in it, a hole that a few million news-media consumers might care about here in the United States of America (and there are plenty of Christians and human-rights activists in other parts of the world as well).

Let me stress: Yes, I know that Copts are only -- only -- somewhere between 8 and 12 percent of the Egyptian population and that there are significant other minorities there who also deserve coverage. I know that Islamists attack other Muslims as much as they attack "infidels" and "crusaders." However, the Copts have long been the canary in the coalmine of human rights in Egypt. When things go crazy and the majority is tempted to lash out at the pesky minorities, the Copts are among the first people hit.

With that in mind, Marshall (who posts crisp reports at National Review Online) has just posted a link to a disturbing report from the Assyrian International News Agency. Here is the top of the story:

News of a massacre of two Christian Coptic families by Islamists just emerged from Upper Egypt with the return of the Internet connections after a week of Internet blackout by the Egyptian regime. The massacre took place on Sunday, January 30 at 3 PM in the village of Sharona near Maghagha, Minya province. Two Islamists groups, aided by the Muslim neighbors, descended on the roof of houses owned by Copts, killing eleven Copts, including children, and seriously injuring four others.

Anba Agathon, Bishop of Maghagha, told Coptic activist Dr. Mona Roman in a televised interview on Al-Karma TV that the killers are their neighbors, who seized the opportunity of the mayhem prevailing in Egypt and the absence of police protection to slaughter the Copts.

Note that the attack was not, it appears, directly linked to the current political upheaval. This reported attack appears to have taken place as police were occupied in the chaos.

In other words, attacks on Copts are semi-normal. Police protection is minimal. This was true under Mubarak and the future could be worse, under some form of pure majority rule. Thus, Reuters is reporting that Coptic leaders are debating precisely what to do.

Support the old? Gamble on the new? Here's the lede:

(Reuters) -- For Rafik, a member of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, the myth that President Hosni Mubarak is the community's best defense against Islamist militants was shattered by an Alexandria church bombing on New Year's Day.

He and other Copts continued to demonstrate alongside at least 1 million Egyptians on Tuesday, saying their desire to end Mubarak's three-decade rule was for now more pressing than any fears that a change of power might empower Islamist groups.

"After (the Alexandria) bombing the Copts for the first time started to demonstrate against Mubarak. He was telling us that 'When I'm in power, you're safe.' Well, obviously, when he's in power, we're not safe," the 33-year-old dentist said as he stood amid thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Mubarak, whose government battled a violent Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, has sold himself to Western allies as their safest bet against militancy. ... The 82-year-old leader has sought to portray himself as defender of Egypt's Copts, some 10 percent of the country's 80 million people. Critics say that has included co-opting the centuries-old church to lend legitimacy to his rule.

Meanwhile, Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein of the Washington Post is reporting that Coptic leaders, and their supporters, may be staying silent for a reason.

Some major U.S. Christian figures, including well-known evangelical leaders and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined to publicly discuss the situation in Egypt, saying they wanted to avoid bringing dangerous attention to the country's Christians by appearing to complain or to advocate for some particular political outcome.

Their trepidation stems from repeated attacks on churches in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled in recent years, and from the New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt that killed almost two dozen worshipers and wounded nearly 100. The Coptic church is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and is based in Egypt.

That is an excellent, it subtle, point. It appears that Coptic leaders are trapped between fear and hope. What is the safest public strategy? It's too early to know if there even is one.

That's a story that demands coverage -- careful, but accurate, coverage. Here's hoping that folks in the White House, the State Department and most of our nation's elite newsrooms know what's going on and have their facts straight.

PHOTO: Two of President Hosni Mubarak's sons were among the Muslims who served as "human shields" by taking part in recent Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve services.

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