By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. (CNA)

The Egyptian military took action against the Libyan government. Last month, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, announced that what had happened in Paris was an attack on Parisian shops. He misspoke. In fact, it was a pogrom on Parisian Jews. This week, instead of the White House accurately describing the massacre in Libya as an attack on Coptic Christians, it diluted the language once again.  Imagine the reverse situation. Had twenty-one Muslims been executed by Christians, would the White House have called the victims citizens?

Reluctance to Define Words
Is there reluctance at the White House for saying the word Christian? The White House has a handpicked, educated staff, presumably canny, articulate, and capable of parsing words. Every word is carefully weighed before it is announced publicly.

What was so difficult about using the well-defined words, Coptic and Christian, words that needed no parsing? There has been a concerted outcry by social media faulting the White House for omitting the words Coptic Christians in the news brief announced to the world. And of course, Pope Francis heard it and corrected the misstatement.

Who Are Coptic Christians?

A word about Coptic Christians. Over the years, they have been in the news emerging out of Egypt. Coptic Christians belong to the oldest of the Oriental Christian Churches living in Egypt.  Most Copts belong to Orthodox Christianity with the smaller number, Catholic.

The Copts have inhabited present-day Egypt since at least the fifth century. In the mid-seventh century, their land was invaded by the Arabs, and by the mid tenth century, the Muslim conquest was complete.

The Copts are no strangers to hatred, persecution, and discrimination. Through the course of centuries up until recent times, their beautiful worship services have been interrupted, churches have been attacked, homes, destroyed, and Coptic women, violated. It is only in the past few years and days that the Egyptian government has begun to befriend them.

The Arabic word qibt, that is, Copt, has come to mean the nation of E-gypt/Egypt. Coptic Christians have been immortalized in at least one classic, The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy written by Lawrence Durrell between 1957 and 1960. In 1998, The Alexandria Quartet ranked number 70 of the 100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century. A number of the main characters are Coptic.

Who Is a Martyr?

Pope Francis named the Coptic Christians as martyrs. A martyr is someone who suffers persecution and death for the sake of one’s faith. The word martyr means witness. Men and women give witness to what they believe. In the case of the workers in Libya, they died, persecuted solely because of their Christian faith. Pope Francis acknowledged this fact. The White House should have noted their martyrdom but did not.

Chief of the White House Staff and "Mr. Catholic"

At the White House, the current chief of staff, Denis McDonough, is known as "Mr. Catholic." Of all the White House staffers, he should be the first one to notice a lack of sensibility toward Christians. Why so?

Mr. McDonough is a devout Irish Catholic. He is an alumnus (summa cum laude) of the prestigious St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN conducted by the Benedictine Order. He holds an advanced degree from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Two of his brothers are Catholic priests, one of whom is a theologian. A Redemptorist priest living in the Washington area counts as one of his closest friends and advisers. 

Mr. McDonough is the one on whom Mr. Obama relies for faith-related issues: inner workings of the Catholic Church, the "just war" theory, even his dealings with Muslims. He helped prepare the theologian Miguel Diaz to become ambassador to the Vatican. Mr. McDonough deserves the title the White House has conferred on him, "Mr. Catholic."

Not the death of Egyptian citizens but the martyrdom of twenty-one Coptic Christians-this is the crux of the matter that has offended so many Christians, non-Christians, and those of no faith. The White House should apologize for its recent misstatement.