Attacks on Egypt's Coptic churches: AP focuses on politics, more than suffering people

Readers who know their history realize that the Coptic believers in Egypt are the largest surviving body of Christians in the Middle East, making up about 10 percent of the population of the land that has been their home since the birth of Christianity.

As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, I have never understood why the plight of the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as other religious minorities in Egypt, has not received more mainstream press attention in America. I realize that we are talking about a somewhat mysterious church, for many news consumers, but I think most people know where Egypt is located and grasp that it's a major player in that troubled region.

Thus, I want to thank the Associated Press for its unusually long -- more than 1,000 words -- news report on the passage of a glass-half-full piece of legislation in Egypt that may, repeat MAY, help the Coptic Orthodox and others build churches and repair the ones that they have.

I do have a complaint, however, which I will explain in a moment. Basically, I think the editors who sent this out buried the lede, in part because they saw this as a political-process story rather than a story about human rights and the harsh realities of life in Egypt. Here is the overture:

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's lawmakers on Tuesday passed the country's first law spelling out the rules for building a church, a step Christians have long hoped would free up construction that was often blocked by authorities. But angry critics in the community say the law will only enshrine the restrictions.
Church building has for decades been one of the most sensitive sectarian issues in Egypt, where 10 percent of the population of 90 million are Christians but where Muslim hardliners sharply oppose anything they see as undermining what they call the country's "Islamic character."
Local authorities often refuse to give building permits for new churches, fearing protests by Muslim ultraconservatives. Faced with refusals, Christians turned to building illegally or setting up churches in other buildings, which in many cases prompted riots and attacks by ultraconservatives. In contrast, building a mosque faces few restrictions.

You can tell that the AP team felt it needed tons of background right up front, for readers who don't know the basic facts. Thus, the lede is that this bill passed. Period.

But key elements of this story are briefly mentioned in that chunk of material. Note the emphasis on the power of "local authorities." Note the fear that, when push comes to shove, local mobs will be able to shut down the legal process that leads to new, or improved, sanctuaries.

If you know any Coptic believers (or members of persecuted minorities elsewhere in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia), they will tell you this simple truth: It does not matter what the law of the land says if your local police will not stop a mob and local legal officials will not bring criminals to justice.

Think about it. Does it really matter who is right and who is wrong, under the law, when your church has already been trashed or burned and members of your flock are dead or severely injured, with their homes and businesses in ruins?

This AP report gets to that near the end of this long, detailed feature. Alas, will many readers wade through all of the politics -- about 80 percent of this text -- to learn about that this bitter reality?

Near the end there is this:

The law passed with support of two-thirds of the lawmakers, according to Egypt's state agency. Eleven members of the Salafi Nour Party boycotted the vote, saying the law gives Christians too much freedom to build and will anger Muslims.
"May God protect us from the backlash in the streets," said Mohammed Ubaidi, a Nour lawmaker.
Christian activist and researcher Nader Shukry said the security and order provisions connected to the law still mean authorities can still use threats of mob violence as an excuse to ban church construction.
"What if Salafis protest against the construction of a church, would this prompt the governor to turn down the request, for fear of national security?" he said.

In short, everything depends on the willingness of regional authorities to deal with these issues at street level.

Truth be told, that's the way things have been run in the past -- with Coptic believers having more freedom in and around major urban cities (perhaps where media coverage helped protect them) and almost no freedom at all elsewhere. The main thing Egyptian Christians gained from this law, it appears, is formal recognition that the problem exists. Some believe this law is actually a step backward.

Father Abdel-Masseh Basit, head of the Church's Bible Studies Center, said the law was a grudging compromise. "We are no longer talking about a constitutional right but about negotiations," he said. "The church couldn't reject the law because it will put the state in a bad spot."
He said the law means church-building will now depend on the flexibility of each governor. "In the cities, the governors are already flexible but in southern Egypt and in the villages, it is a different story." There, governors are more vulnerable to demands by Salafis, the ultraconservative Muslim movement. ..."

So what did this story need? How about less political lingo, replacing some of that material with one or two paragraphs illustrating the level of persecution the Coptic Christians have faced in the past decade or so? Even the past year?

How would this change the lede? Under this new law, angry mobs (or the threats to form mobs) still have the power to control when and where churches are built in Egypt.

I think readers would be more interested in that fact than in the political chess game that led to this law. Cover the mobs first, then get to the politics.

Please respect our Commenting Policy