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.
Yes, let me concede that this matters to me as an Eastern Orthodox Christian (my own parish has direct ties to the now besieged Antiochian Orthodox patriarchate in Damascus, Syria). Thus, I find it strange that -- in most mainstream news coverage on this side of the Atlantic -- the term "Orthodox" is not being connected with these martyrs.
Take, for example, this passage from The Washington Post:
The brutal murders were portrayed as retaliation against what a masked fighter described as “the hostile Egyptian church.” Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of the Egyptian population and suffer widespread discrimination and persecution. ...
The footage -- titled “A Message Signed with Blood to the Nation of the Cross” -- was the first propaganda video from the Libyan branch of the Islamic State, which in Iraq and Syria has declared a caliphate over a wide swath of territory under its rule.
In two incidents, 21 Egyptian Copts were kidnapped in the coastal city of Sirte in December and January. The Coptic Church in Egypt announced Sunday that it had identified the men in the video as the missing Egyptians.
The vast majority of that 10 percent of the Egyptian population worships in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Why quote the leadership of the massive "Coptic Church in Egypt" and leave the word "Orthodox" out of this otherwise fine story?
The same Orthodox-free approach can be seen in the coverage in The New York Times.
Fighters under the banner of the Tripolitania Province of the Islamic State announced last month that they were holding about 20 Egyptian Christians, or Copts. A similar number of Egyptian Christians in Libya seeking work had disappeared in the mid-coastal city of Surt. Officials of both the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church confirmed that captives seen in a photograph with the announcement were the missing Egyptian Christians, and on Sunday confirmed that they were killed in the video. ...
The captives are made to kneel in the sand. Then they are simultaneously beheaded with the theatrical brutality that has become the trademark of Islamic State extremists. There was no indication in the video about when the beheadings took place.
The lead executioner speaks in fluent English with an American accent, and his words are translated in Arabic subtitles. Under the title “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross,” he emphasizes that the fighters are just one part of the broader Islamic State group.
Why quote the Coptic church leadership and not identify the church itself?
However, this was not the case over at CNN, which gave readers both detailed references to the church and a few words about its history.
Coptic Christians are part of the Orthodox Christian tradition, one of three main traditions under the Christian umbrella, alongside Catholicism and Protestantism. Copts split from other Christians in the fifth century over the definition of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Copts trace their history to the Apostle Mark, the New Testament figure who they say introduced Christianity to Egypt in A.D. 43. Egypt holds a special place for Coptic Christians because, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' family fled there shortly after his birth to escape King Herod, who was calling for the execution of all Jewish boys younger than 2.
The largest group of Copts in the world is still in Egypt, where they make up between 8% and 11% of the nation's 80 million citizens, most of whom are Sunni Muslims. In the United States, there are approximately 90,000 Copts organized under 170 parishes, according to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the United States.
Thank you. It's not all that hard to get these kinds of details right.
Orthodox readers: I have not seen this problem in previous mainstream-media news coverage of Coptic persecution in recent years. If you have a theory as to why this happened in this case, in so many news stories, please leave us a comment on that topic.
Question: Will this event lead to better treatment of Coptic believers IN EGYPT? And another question: Will Orthodox leaders in Egypt hail these men as martyrs?