Every now and then, your GetReligionistas receive emails from readers who are infuriated by the headline on a particular story, as opposed to the contents of the actual story. Why, they ask, do reporters write terrible headlines like that?
This provides another chance to let readers know a basic newsroom fact: Reporters rarely, if ever, write the headlines that go over their stories. They are written by copy editors.
(It’s possible that this fact has changed in the digital age. Maybe, as economic woes shrink news teams, reporters are asked to submit headlines with their stories. Young journalists can drop me notes telling me to get a clue.)
All of this is a set-up to discuss a double-decker New York Times headline that recently caused me to do a near spit take while drinking my morning cold-caffeine beverage. See if you can spot the offending phrase:
A Boom, a Fire and a Stampede: Dozens Die at a Coptic Church in Egypt
A blaze that killed at least 41 at a church in greater Cairo caused anguish among a religious minority that has long felt itself oppressed in Egypt
The key words, for this Orthodox believer, were these (with an added dose of italics — “a religious minority that has long felt itself oppressed.”
Whoa. The Copts feel that they are oppressed? This is a matter of emotions or their own opinions of what is happening to them?
In short, are there any experts who study global religious-freedom issues who do not accept, as a reality — demonstrated for centuries — that Coptic believers are persecuted or at least “oppressed” in Egypt? If readers question that statement, I would suggest a quick scan through this U.S. State Department report — “2021 Report on International Religious Freedom: Egypt.”
Now, the good news is that the actual Times report eventually offers quite a bit of information about the plight of Coptic believers. But first, here is the overture that helps set up the implied question in this tragedy: When is a church fire more than a simple church fire? This long, but essential (and, yes, the lede’s “Mass” reference should have said “Divine Liturgy”):
GIZA, Egypt — The worshipers had gathered on a hot, bright Sunday morning for Mass in a small room at a Coptic Orthodox church in greater Cairo when they heard a boom. The power had been out earlier, and the generator and electrical outlets were running at the same time — a fatal miscalculation.
As the power came back on, witnesses said, the generator exploded, followed by an air-conditioning unit. It set off a blaze that tore through the four-story building housing Abu Sefein Church in Giza. The fire led to a stampede of churchgoers, the government said.
Some fled to the windows. Rescuers hauled some up to the roof. Footage shared on social media and verified by The New York Times showed worshipers screaming for help as smoke poured from the building. Others were seen on the roof as flames spread around them.
By day’s end, at least 41 bodies had been counted, including those of children and the church’s bishop, Abdul Masih Bakhit. At least a dozen other people had been injured. The majority of the deaths and injuries were the result of smoke inhalation and the stampede, Egypt’s Health Ministry said.
The blaze added to the trauma of the beleaguered Coptic Christian minority and raised questions in a country whose government has long been criticized over its lax safety standards and poor oversight.
Egyptian officials are investigating the cause of the blaze, which may not comfort Copts who are used to seeing police looking the other way when crimes involve matters of faith are involved. There are also questions about how quickly emergency teams arrived on the scene.
Top of the story is packed with horrifying details about a tragedy that took the lives of many trapped children. Eventually, there is this background material:
Egypt has been plagued in recent years by fires that spiral into mass casualty events.
In 2002, at least 370 people were killed when a fire broke out on an overnight train speeding through the expanse of upper Egypt as flames spread from car to car. In 2005, at least 31 people died in a blaze at a state-owned theater in the city of Beni Suef after a candle fell during a production of “Hamlet.”
In 2008, a fire gutted the Upper House of Egypt’s Parliament, injuring at least 10 people. A blaze at a garment factory near Cairo killed at least 20 people in March 2021. And two separate hospital fires — in 2020 and 2021 — killed a total of nine coronavirus patients in the cities of Alexandria and Giza.
What does this have to do with the land’s history of oppression? Here is where the story does suggest a link:
For decades, Christians in Egypt have complained that government restrictions on the construction, renovation and repair of churches have been part of a larger pattern of discrimination that has relegated them to second-class citizenship and left many of their houses of worship in disrepair. Legislation dating to 1934 prohibits churches from being built near schools and government buildings, and permits have traditionally been issued by presidential decree.
The government has viewed church projects as a potential security issue that must be tightly managed, in part because of the country’s history of sectarian clashes, according to a 2018 report by the Project for Middle East Democracy, a U.S.-based research institute.
As a result, thousands of churches, fearful of drawing attention to themselves, have built places of worship without official authorization, often ignoring fire-safety standards.
If you follow coverage of religious persecution issues, you know that the phrase “sectarian clashes” can cover many sins. The Times story does add this final reference:
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 100 million population, which is mostly Sunni Muslim. The minority group had been the target of violent attacks, including by the Islamic State’s branch in Egypt’s Sinai Province.
The bottom line: The cause of the fire may be a complex matter, combining a history of oppression with believers who took a dangerous risk in order to have a church in which to worship.
My question is whether readers needed a few lines of background to flesh out that “target of violent attacks” reference — especially since some of the more recent symbolic attacks on Coptic Orthodox believers have received global coverage.
Like what? Here are some big-headline items from a Catholic World Report feature linked to the fire:
In Feb. 2015, the Islamic State released a video online showing masked fighters beheading 21 men as they knelt on a Libyan beach wearing prison-style orange jumpsuits. The Egyptian government and the Coptic Orthodox Church later confirmed the video’s authenticity, and the men are now honored as saints in the Coptic church.
Twenty-nine people were killed in a bombing at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo in December 2016. The Islamic State took credit for the bombing and released a video threatening to target Christian “crusaders” in Egypt. And on Palm Sunday in 2017, two Islamic State suicide bombings at Coptic churches in Egypt claimed the lives of 47 people.
In Nov. 2018, Islamic militants ambushed a bus carrying Coptic Christian pilgrims to a desert monastery south of Cairo, killing seven and leaving 19 injured.
Also, in a recent twist a common form of persecution over the centuries:
During the pandemic, Coptic Christian women and girls have reportedly been abducted and forcefully converted to Islam, and some Christian communities have experienced deprivation of resources.
The end result is a strange headline on top of a news report that offers many gripping details about a tragic event, while, perhaps, leaving many readers in the dark as to why Copts believe that this fire was more than a simple fire.
Am I, as an Orthodox churchman, overreacting in this case? Was the background material, way down in this story, enough for readers to see the big picture?