I've met Coptic Christians. I've heard stories of their suffering before fleeing their native Egypt. Like a man with a scar down the left side of his face, including his eyelid -- which he said was split open by in an attack by young men shouting "Allahu Akbar!"
So the New York Times' account of Copts in Egypt at a "breaking point" is all too believable, and a vital account to keep in the public eye. This is why its few reporting flaws need attention.
The fair-minded article starts with Imam Mahmoud Gomaa's appointment to keep the peace between Copts and Muslims in the upper Nile region. The newspaper also reports the support from Copts for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who seized the governmental reins in 2013.
Then it reports the widespread persecution of the Copts:
Yet the limits of that support have became evident in Minya, where Christians continue to suffer violence and humiliation. Houses have been burned, Copts attacked on the streets and hate graffiti written on the walls of some churches. In all, Coptic officials have counted 37 attacks in the past three years, not including some 300 others right after Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted from power in 2013.
The turning point for local Copts came in May when an older Christian woman was stripped naked by a mob, which had been incited by reports that the woman’s son was having an affair with a Muslim.
“After that woman was stripped, we couldn’t be quiet, not after that,” Bishop Makarios said. What especially angered Copts, he added, “is that officials came out denying the incident.”
The Times places itself well with a dateline out of the Minya district, in the upper Nile Valley. That's where some of the worst attacks have happened, according to the Copts I know in South Florida. The further one gets from the major urban areas, where there are international media and other observers, the more trouble there is for religious minorities, such as the Copts.
Religious freedom is especially important in Egypt, which has a comparatively large Christian community -- 10 percent of its 88.5 million people. If the government and society have trouble tolerating Christians and other religious minorities there, what signal will that send to other Muslim lands?
The Times tells of pressure on Coptic churches, such as the 76 that were burned down by extremists during the 2013 military coup. The Copts also have trouble getting permits to build anew; in one town, they had to pray in a tent outside a church -- and the tent itself was burned down.
Worse yet was the aftermath, the Times says:
Two young men accused of setting the fire were immediately released, returning to a hero’s welcome in the community, Christians from the village said in interviews here.
“The police say they can’t open because of security concerns?” said Abram Samir, a lay church official. “It’s their responsibility to protect me and let me have my rights.”
The newspaper adroitly notes a complication: a rift in Coptic circles, at the very top.
It says that Tawadros II, the Coptic pope, has tried hard to keep things quiet and "present an image of unity and calm" along with the national government. In contrast, Bishop Makarios, based in the Upper Nile, has criticized the government -- including Imam Gomaa -- for doing little to stop the persecution. Makarios is the one quoted for saying, “We are at a breaking point. People can’t put up with any more of this.”
But I think the Times article relies a little too much on the word of Makarios and other Copts. It cites him, for instance, telling of a local Christian stabbed to death and the murder of a priest in the Sinai. You can read just as bad in an article in an Egyptian newspaper, to which the Times linked.
Take that incident of a crowd stripping a woman. The event itself was reported in more than one place; but the Times adds: "Not only was the Muslim woman not having an affair with the son, the bishop said, but she is suing her husband for libel for having started a false rumor." Did the reporter try to get feedback from the woman or her husband? Is that possible in the current environment in Egypt? If that is the case, then say so.
When the lay leader says that attackers are always released without punishment, Gomaa should have been asked to respond. The accusation speaks directly to his assertion that the attacks are isolated exceptions to a peaceful trend.
The Times deserves high praise for keeping the public eye on dangers to Christians in the Middle East. I applauded its fine report on the jihadi attacks against Al Qaa, a Christian border town in Lebanon. And given the appalling history of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt, I don’t doubt that most or all of the details in the Times story are true.
Still, it's best to be bulletproof. The more you can armor a story from questions, the more it can inform and influence.
Thumb: Coptic Pope Tawadros II. Photographer: Pepo 2013, via Wikimedia. Used by permission (CC BY-SA 3.0).