Praying with the Coptic people

It is very ironic that one of the only mainstream news-media reports I have read about the plight of Coptic believers in Egypt was in the Baltimore Sun and it centered on the insights of people in -- wait for it -- Baltimore. So it seems that the Copts are news in Baltimore, but not in Cairo. Go figure.

Yes, I know that all news is local. However, we are talking about a highly symbolic group in the history and life of Egypt -- that's what Muslim reformers were saying only a few weeks ago when they served as "human shields" at the Coptic Christmas rites. Remember that? So where are the sidebars in the daily coverage out of Egypt?

Meanwhile, the Sun report has a few problems, all linked to a lack of understanding of just how ancient the Coptic Orthodox Church (yes, and other branches from those historic roots) really is. Consider one quick detail in the opening of the story:

As they have done for nearly 20 years, members of the close-knit and expanding community of Coptic Christians in Maryland prayed Sunday morning at a church in Savage, the red-brick building thick with incense and echoing with the sound of religious recitations sung in Arabic and English.

On this particular Sunday, as massive protests aimed at unseating President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime gripped Egypt, the congregation at St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church prayed not just for the safety of family members there but also for a resolution to the unrest -- one that would put in power a moderate government friendly to religious diversity.

Now, it is possible that the service was in Arabic and English -- alone.

However, it's more likely that the liturgy and the hymns were offered in three of four languages, including Greek and, most symbolically, the truly ancient Coptic language. This is a tongue that is linked directly into the life of Egypt before Islam and, thus, before the common use of Arabic in the land of the pharaohs.

In other words, the Coptic people -- when possible -- strive to keep alive their own language. It is likely that the Sun reporter heard passages in Coptic and did not know it.

Later in the story, there is this passage:

While they fret from hour to hour about family members' safety and stay alert for any bit of news from their home country, Copts here also worry about who will eventually take up the reins of power after the dust from the protests settles.

The Christian denomination makes up about 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million or so people, and in recent years their churches have been the targets of suicide bombers and gunmen -- attacks the minority group sees as attempts by extremists to make Egypt a universally Islamic state.

A "denomination"?

Now wait a minute. This is something like saying that the Catholic Church is a "denomination" and that the pope of Rome is the leader of another mere "denomination." Instead, it must be stressed that this is a truly ancient "church" and that no other term can accurately be fixed to it. It's another subtle sign of not knowing the true significance of the Coptic people.

Toward the end of the piece, this report does offer a glimpse behind the scenes in Egypt, through the eyes of family members here in Maryland. I am sure that there are similar stories in newspapers elsewhere.

"They say it's horrible there, a mess everywhere," said George Mekhail, a Columbia resident with family in Cairo, Egypt's capital city and the site of the largest and most violent demonstrations against Mubarak's government. "The men are coming out to protect" their neighborhoods against looters who are taking advantage of the chaos in the country, Mekhail said. ...

Their families, they said, have largely barricaded themselves in their homes, with doormen staying on guard around the clock inside apartment buildings. Mona Gobrial, whose husband, the Rev. Guirguis Gobrial, has served as the Savage congregation's priest since 1995, said Saturday was the first time since the large-scale protests began on Jan. 25 that her sisters in Cairo could go out to get food for their families.

"Nobody's sleeping," she said. "They don't know how it went from peaceful to that chaotic."

The Copts in Maryland are fasting and praying -- for Egypt and for their loved ones. I cannot imagine that this is not happening in Cairo and across Egypt. Prayers and gunshots often go together.

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