An elderly man lays bedridden in his lower middle-class home in Shoubra, a largely Christian neighborhood near the heart of Cairo. Paralyzed for some 14 years following an injury to his spine, the man rarely leaves his home, as doing so has become an unbearable hassle. Until recently, this misfortunate Egyptian has been isolated from many of the experiences in life he once cherished: going to work, driving a car, praying at church. Then, he received word that his dreams would soon be realized.
“My prayers have been answered,” the man wrote in a letter sent to Father Bishoy El-Antony, director of the new Aghapy Coptic television network, which launched in October 2005. “For the first time in years, I will see my church, hear its liturgy, feel its blessing--everything but smell the incense.”
For millions of Coptic Christians around the world, their own television network represents a major milestone. Copts, considered the largest religious minority in Egypt, make up approximately 12.5 percent of the country’s 72 million inhabitants. Another two million live in diaspora throughout the world. Two new Coptic channels will target both of these groups, marking an important step for a minority denomination which prides itself on its orthodox ways.
“We need to identify ourselves,” El-Antony explains. “We need to spread our feeling, to identify the problems of the country, our problems as Copts. We have to have a voice.”
Currently broadcasting out of Egypt on secondary satellite networks are a number of Islamic programs, which generally revolve around the teachings of the Qu’ran, stories about the Prophet Mohammed as well as programs teaching youth the ways of Islam. There also are Christian based networks, the majority of which broadcast from outside Egypt.
“We are witnessing and living in a television culture,” explains Ibrahim Saleh, a media expert and journalism professor at the American University in Cairo. “Morality is the name of the game -- identifying this greater aura about the religion and trying to reach out to followers of this religion.”
“We have a motto that if we are not on air, we are not on earth,” adds Bishop Moussa, who presides over the church’s youth affairs. “This is the language of this age.”
Coptic officials say that for some 15 years now, church patriarch Pope Shenouda III, Pope of Alexandria, Egypt, and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, has tried to contact the Egyptian Ministry of Information in hopes of establishing a network for his followers. The attempts were ignored.
Currently, NileSat, the primary satellite provider in Egypt and across the Arab world, broadcasts one Coptic mass a week on its government-run cultural events channel, but Coptic leaders say it is not enough. They need their own channel.
“We take a stand on a number of issues but they are not declared around the world in the best way,” says Moussa. “This channel is a way to declare our stand on certain issues and educate our people everywhere in the world. You can reach them in their homes all over the world.”
Pope Shenouda decided the time was right to establish such a channel as a private network and in early 2005, the groundwork was laid for not one, but two Coptic networks, each through completely different sources.
“I’m not surprised it has taken so long,” admits Saleh. “Part of it is a matter of financing and arrangement, starting something that could work. This is a liberal modernized approach to religion.”
The first, CoptSat, directed by Bishop Marcos, developed through efforts by the Coptic Council of Bishops to establish programming for its followers around the world. Financed exclusively through private donations and church contributions, CoptSat has begun developing programs addressing the core issues facing the Coptic community, both in their spiritual and private lives. “Programming needs money and time,” says Marcos. “I cannot have something baring the name of the Coptic Church that turns out weak.” The only way to raise money, the Bishops concurred, was to begin their broadcasting--not in Egypt--but via cable providers in the United States. Marcos estimates that with a target audience of at least 100 thousand families in the United States, CoptSat would charge a monthly service fee of USD$10. This adds up to some $1 million per month. The monthly fees to the cable provider will cost approximately $50,000. The rest goes to programming--four hours worth, to be exact--employee salaries, equipment, maintenance, and eventually, to international broadcasting. In Egypt, broadcasts would air on Sat7, a channel already airing a number of Lebanese Christian programs, such as Al-Hayat (Life), and Moagiza (Miracle).
“To move on from America to Egypt and all the other countries in the world, I will pay $30,000 more,” says Marcos, who offered no approximate timeline for when CoptSat would officially take to the airwaves. “I want to encourage the people and tell them, anyone who wishes to watch the network should pay EGP 1 per month. And we will ask churches to pitch in and pay EGP 10, monthly. It is for the channel, the people should have a wish to make it better.”
Meanwhile, a separate, completely private effort was underway to establish another Coptic network. Under the auspices and private funding of Bishop Botrous, and with the help of Father Bishoy El-Antony, the Aghapy network, which derives its name from the Coptic word for “love,” began transmitting promotions for their up-and-coming network. With sophisticated, graphics-heavy promos depicting images of Coptic life in Egypt already on the airwaves, editors rushed to complete some 80 hours of programming in anticipation of Aghapy’s kickoff on November 14.
For decades, the Copts in Egypt have established themselves through print media. Kerazzamagazine, which is distributed to Copts worldwide, serves as a newsletter on spiritual life and church affairs.Watany newspaper, which circulates in Egypt, focuses on more political issues, but does touch heavily upon Coptic affairs. As for the Coptic networks, church officials say their focus will be on reinforcing the faith of the church’s followers, and not converting or criticizing those of other religions.
“We’re not going to be involved in Anti-Islamic subjects or in political items,” explains Moussa. “This is a religious, pastoral, educational, expression of our views, of Coptic life. It’s not the goal to convert others to our religion. We want to maintain good relations with everyone.”
Like CoptSat, Aghapy also will begin its run by broadcasting exclusively to American audiences in English and Arabic, with the hope of going international within a few months. According to Father Bishoy, the channel will use low-budget production methods: Talk shows, on topics like women and the family will be taped from the living rooms of church members and staff members will then edit the programs, adding graphics and music. Then, according to Bishoy, the tapes will either be mailed or hand delivered to the TeleStar broadcasting center in the United States. TeleStar, an American satellite company, will then air previously taped programs shot and edited by Aghapy’s mostly volunteer staff.
Aghapy programming includes liturgies from Coptic churches around the world, Bible studies, Coptic language classes, biblical cartoons and programs for children and discussion groups. Father Bishoy does not concern himself too much with costs, saying private donations--both monetary and equipment--have covered the channel’s minimal expenses.
“We didn’t change anything; we didn’t change our prayers, our liturgy,” explains Father Bishoy. “So like any other faith, our followers need to be cared for, and we want to give them this care through our channel. If we wait any longer than we have, all the other channels will take over what should be our viewers.”