We've had quite a bit of very serious content lately about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and in lands nearby. The massacre in the cathedral in Iraq set off an important wave of new coverage. The Christian Science Monitor was one of several mainstream newsrooms that covered an important, but not surprising, wrinkle in this story. Here's the top of the report:
The Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group and Al Qaeda ally, ... declared all the country's Christians "legitimate targets."
The group says it believes that Muslim women are being held against their will in Coptic churches in Egypt. The Egyptian state; the Coptic church; and Egypt's leading Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, have all condemned the threats of violence against Christians. ...
"All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahideen [holy warriors]," the Islamic State of Iraq said in a statement posted online late Tuesday.
Sunni militant chatrooms have been inflamed in recent weeks with claims that the Egyptian Coptic church is forcibly holding two women, wives of Coptic priests, who converted to Islam. "Let these idolaters, and at their forefront, the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican, know that the killing sword will not be lifted from the necks of their followers until they declare their innocence from what the dog of the Egyptian Church is doing," the message continued.
All together now: The VATICAN?
Obviously, the people behind this sweeping threat need to read some church history. The Monitor, however, quickly steps in to make a crucial historic point -- only to slip in a bizarre little mistake that somehow managed to sneak past the copy desk. Pay close attention:
The Coptic church is the Egyptian branch of the Eastern Orthodox right and as many as 10 percent of Egyptians claim the faith.
Uh, I think the word for which they were searching was "rite," as in Eastern Rite, as opposed to "right," as in the opposite of "left" -- one would assume in a political context.
Once again, there are realities in this world that are not primarily political, even in Egypt.
The Monitor article -- which is a strange mix of reporting and essay-style commentary -- contains some useful information. However, it opened up a very complex subject without the room to deal with it adequately. I am referring to the complicated matter of conversions in Egypt.
Human rights activist and scholar Paul Marshall, one of the editors of the Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion" volume, recently wrote a National Review Online essay about this very subject. Here is a piece of that text filling in some additional details, including rather crucial issue of fact about a monastery involved in this crisis. Read on:
On April 19, 2010, a bipartisan group of 18 members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, director of the State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Office, about reports documenting that Coptic women and girls are increasingly subject to "fraud, physical and sexual violence, captivity, forced marriage and exploitation in forced domestic servitude or commercial sexual exploitation, and financial benefit to the individuals who secure the forced conversion." They urged the TIP Office to investigate whether this should be covered in the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Islamist extremists responded by accusing the church of imprisoning two Christian women who had converted to Islam. One was Wafaa Constantine, wife of a Coptic priest, who disappeared in 2004 but then returned to the church. The other was Camilia Shehata, also a priest's wife, who disappeared on July 19, 2010. Copts believed that she was abducted by Muslim extremists, and asked, without success, for the security services to investigate. There were then widespread Coptic demonstrations and, on July 23, security services returned Camilia to her husband.
In early September, rumors were spread, particularly by Sheikh Abu Yehya, that Camilia had converted to Islam and that, to hide this, the church was drugging her and hiding her in a monastery in Ain Shams. (There are no monasteries in that area.) Camilia announced on TV that she had not converted, but radical sheikhs said the person on TV was an imposter. Al-Azhar, the leading Islamic institution in Egypt, denied that she had ever converted to Islam.
And so forth and so on. The role of rumors in Egyptian culture is a huge subject in and of itself. Meanwhile, the wider story continues, by which I mean the persecution of religious minorities of all kinds in the region (including Islamist persecution of other Muslims with whom they disagree).
If you find solid, mainstream reports about these issues please let us know. Share the information, if it's worth sharing.
PHOTO: The St. Bishoy Monastery in Egypt, posted at EgyptMyWay.com