Beyond any doubt, the Coptic Orthodox Church has opened up in an unprecedented way since Pope Shenouda III became pope in 1971. The Church has gone far beyond its conventional role as the spiritual umbrella sheltering the Coptic community, and has become a significant institution in the Egyptian society, with an undeniable impact on national, cultural, and educational fronts. This naturally places it under the direct eye of the media and the public.
What may be seen as a positive development naturally has a negative aspect; a price the Church has to pay. After centuries of being an almost closed, sacred institution in whose affairs no-one dared to intervene, it has today become open to scrutiny and intervention by whoever would wish to do so. The press has shown incredible interest in Church concerns, with journalists rushing to print its news. Insofar as the news printed is objective there can be no harm done. But it appears that, when there is a shortage of real news, some journalists have no qualms about spreading rumours that may occasionally arise or even fabricating stories to create a pseudo battle to attract readers.
It is the prerogative of every paper to adopt the policy which best fulfils its interests, conveys its message to readers, and raises circulation. But what if a paper—for the sake of raising circulation—prints material the veracity of which is questionable?
The recent attitude of the press vis-à-vis the Church calls for an answer. At the outset, the press was interested in the Church’s celebrations and feasts, the Pope’s travel and health conditions, as well as his views on contentious issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, normalisation with Israel, his ban on Coptic pilgrimage to Jerusalem, organ transplantation, women’s rights and the like. Under the guise of freedom of expression, the media then boldly moved onto the more thorny files of the Church’s right to guarantee the implementation of a family law for Christians independent of that of the Muslim majority, papal succession, the role of the Coptic Milli (Community) Council, the relationship between the Church leadership and opposition within the Church, and many others.
The last episode handled by the media was rather upsetting, however. When the fuss over who would succeed Pope Shenouda III lost its sparkle, the media fabricated a new story: an aide to the Pope said he saw St Mary in a dream and she told him he would be the next Pope. Not surprisingly, the bombshell of a news item hit the headlines and became the front page story of a host of papers over the past weeks. It was said that a conflict has erupted within the Church; an investigation was already underway; and accusations were levelled at some of the Pope’s associates. The story was attractive to scores of readers who scrambled to follow up. Verifying the ‘news’ or questioning their credibility appeared to be out of the question.
Yet those who possessed any degree of prudence found something odd in the confusion between religion and metaphysics and asked: is it common for those who supposedly see the holy Virgin to announce it in public?
It is sorrowful that we all stand helpless in the face of this clamour. Since I feel sorry for the public that fell prey to the recklessness of the press, I believe it is about time to open the file of the Church’s response to publicity, whether positive or adverse. Opening this file—placed on hold for a long time—would rein in the media and stand up to its adventurous practices. So far the church has traditionally kept quiet, with an uncanny conviction that the truth would ultimately come out. When push comes to shove, however, it should be imperative to issue some official public announcement regarding whatever issue aroused. Otherwise the Church would neither be able to protect its own people nor the entire public. The issue is pivotal and warrants real concern.