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Coptic media: Expressing grievances, or sectarianism?
 
 
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Mona Mina, the renowned leader of the Doctors Syndicate, is back in the headlines as thousands of Egyptian doctors take action against increasing police intimidation at public hospitals — but the news coverage has also put the spotlight on Coptic media outlets.

A recent article published on the Coptic website the Voice of the Free Christian argued that the most interesting facet of this long-time advocate for health rights is the fact that she is a Coptic woman married to a Muslim man. The comments on the article featured hateful discourse against the syndicate leader, questioning her faith and belief. An editor working at the website declined to comment to Mada Masr.

While many of these private Coptic websites cover a wide range of topics apart from their main focus on sectarianism and discrimination against Copts, there is an obvious emphasis on issues concerning terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State.

In addition, many of these websites explicitly declare support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his administration. The banner on the Voice of the Free Christian’s homepage features an image from the inauguration of the Suez Canal extension showing Sisi with a young child, while to the side a man holds up a cross and Quran. Similarly, on the banner of website Al-Haq wal Dalal (Christian Dogma), there is a photo of Sisi to the side, while in the center an icon shows policemen, army officials and Egyptian citizens holding up a cross and Quran with the slogan, “The people, the general and the police are one hand.”

With the eruption of the January 25, 2011 revolution, a new movement within the Coptic community emerged to call for Coptic rights away from control of the church. The Maspero Youth Union and the momentum it gained following the deadly clashes that killed 23 Copts at the hands of military forces in October 2011 fueled the mainstream media’s interest in Coptic issues.

Mina Thabet — a researcher on minorities and religious freedoms at the Egyptian Commission of Rights and Freedoms who used to work for a Coptic website — says that at by late 2011, “mainstream newspapers started to develop a beat for the church and Coptic issues, and this is where the role of Coptic media, especially websites, started to diminish.”

But with coverage that has remained problematic, and the proliferation of Egypt’s media scene more broadly in the past few years, Coptic media does not appear to be on the way out.

A need for self-expression?

Thabet sees the emergence of Christian media within the context of the Coptic community’s need to express its grievances.

The late Pope Shenouda viewed the Coptic Orthodox Church as a “parallel society for Copts” that shielded them from discrimination and violence, “and the Coptic media became an integral part of this new reality,” Thabet contends.

This shift in the church’s role can be traced back to the 1970s, which saw a rising wave of sectarian violence against Copts coinciding with the strong influence of fundamentalist Islamist movements. The state’s concurrent withdrawal from providing public services at this time left the Church to take a greater role in the lives of its followers.

It is telling that this period saw a change in the direction of one of the country’s oldest Coptic newspapers. Established in 1958, the privately owned Watani never claimed the role of being the voice of the Coptic community, chief editor Youssef Sedhom explains, but rather was a “national newspaper” that highlights the normal daily flow of the news with a focus on the news of the church. Because of this focus, it was long seen as the premier Coptic newspaper, he says, but Watani only claimed that role for itself when discrimination and violence against Copts became systematic during the 1970s.

It was in this period that the newspaper started to openly call for the rights of the Coptic community, because Copts needed a voice to report on increasing incidents of sectarian violence and discrimination, issues that mainstream media declined to cover, Sedhom says. But in the early 2000s, there was another shift as “we realized our discourse was somehow sectarian, and we shifted to call for the rights of all Egyptians instead.”

But many Coptic websites followed a different trajectory. Thabet explains they mainly started as forums to support the Christian faith by comparing it to Islam, and then later developed into a form similar to that of a news website, where news of sectarian violence against Copts is systematically reported.

But “they lack the professionalism needed for news websites,” Thabet claimes. “Biased and sometimes inaccurate reporting is a known feature of these outlets.”

Ezzat Boules, the editor of the Copts United website, believes that it is unfair to judge such sites in this way, as they was never intended to function as news outlets.

Established in 2005 and financed by Coptic businessman Adel Abadair, Copts United was an outcome of a conference on Coptic issues that Abadair asked Boules to organize abroad, he explains.

“I started publishing the conference’s recommendations and participants’ contributions online. Later on, I felt like we needed to launch a website from Egypt to report on Coptic issues,” Boules recounts. In August 2005, the website started with 10 reporters working on the ground to report on incidents of sectarian violence.

“We are blamed for being sectarian and not objective just because we report on sectarianism and discrimination,” Boules says. “We follow all journalistic standards and ethics, but we see a need to focus on Copts’ grievances.”

William Weessa — former head the Arabic desk of Radio France and founder the Arabic desk for Euronews — had a different experience when he ran a platform for Coptic issues in Egypt and the region. In 2012, Weessa founded the MidEast Christian News (MCN), which he says is not a religious media outlet, as its name may indicate, but rather a vehicle for reporting on Coptic problems with a professional and objective eye.

Weessa felt that “Copts were talking to themselves” in Egypt’s Coptic media. “In addition, local mainstream media was never concerned with the reality that Copts live, and never reported objectively when they rarely covered Coptic issues. International media also focused on regional conflicts,” he explains.

The editor believes that Coptic media outlets failed to fill this vacuum as they lacked the tools for objective and professional reporting. “Other Christian outlets in the region are owned by political or religious leaders, so they were never independent,” Weessa contends.

Prior to his agency’s launch, Weessa worked on training a number of professional journalists from Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In March 2016, however, MidEast Christian News suspended its operations due to financial obstacles.

“I strongly believe that a fair and objective reporting of the atrocities faced by Copts in Egypt will definitely contribute to social peace among Muslims and Christians,” Weessa concludes.

Satellite channels and rhetoric from abroad

In addition to Coptic websites and newspapers, Coptic satellite channels have also been an important forum for self-expression — whether religious or political in nature — and are similarly subject to criticisms of lack of professionalism.

“Some of the Coptic channels enjoy a level of objectivity and professionalism. However, some of them tend to promote sectarian rhetoric, which is also part of the general nature of the unprofessional media in Egypt at large,” Thabet says.

Several prominent Coptic channels are directly owned or moderated by the Coptic Orthodox Church. Those include ME Sat and Aghaby, both moderated by church leaders, which only broadcast religious content; Logos channel, which is directed to Copts abroad; and CTV, the official Coptic channel, co-financed by Coptic businessman Tharwat Bassily and focusing on both religious and social issues.

Church-owned channels have long been criticized for presenting politicized content — such as endorsing certain political candidates or campaigning for a certain vote on the Constitution — and thus impacting the Coptic public opinion on such matters.

Many of the channels broadcasting from abroad and financed by Egyptian expatriates promote a more hardline stance against Islam, sometimes championing a hateful rhetoric, such as Al-Hayat Coptic Channel — headed by priest Zakarey Botrous, who is known for his anti-Islamist position — Al-Fady Channel, Al-Tariq, Al-Rajaa, Al-Karama and Al-Haqiqah, among others. They may be physically distant from unfolding political events in Egypt, but Coptic businessmen abroad also have a far-reaching impact on domestic Coptic public opinion through these satellite channels and websites.

An observatory by Al-Azhar tasked with monitoring sectarian and extremist terrorist rhetoric slammed Al-Hayat Channel for alleged incitement to violence in December 2015, and urged the church to “correct the path of the channel.” Coptic officials responded by explaining that Al-Hayat Channel is not owned by the church, which rejects extremist rhetoric.

Paul Sedra — an associate history professor at Simon Fraser University and a specialist in modern Egyptian history and Christian-Muslim relations — explains that the Coptic population abroad often adopts a strong anti-Muslim stance due to their views on sectarian problems in Egypt, as well as a lack of willingness to interact with Muslims in the communities they formed abroad.

“Without significant or meaningful relations with Egyptian Muslims,” Sedra says, “diaspora Copts will often attribute problems with sectarianism and discrimination in Egypt to what they perceive as a monolithic Islam that encroaches upon the citizenship rights of Copts in Egypt.”

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Mai Shams El-Din